Fun Home Makes History

Fun Home made history at the 2015 Tony Awards, when Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori became the first female collaborators to win for Best Musical Score.  Kron also won Best Book for a Musical, and the production won the Tony for Best Musical.  (Lisa Kron’s glorious acceptance speech is a must-watch!)

From my perspective, Fun Home also makes history for its content, as the first musical about a lesbian coming of age (and finding out that her father is a closeted gay man) to appear on Broadway.

After enjoying the production twice in its run downtown at the Public Theatre last year (here’s my post on that production), I had the pleasure of seeing it on Broadway, the day after the SCOTUS decision on gay marriage and in the middle of New York’s Pride weekend.  The house filled with people equally buzzed by the turn of civic events; their moved responses to some of the show’s most poignant scenes were often audible.

Director Sam Gold has restaged the show to fit the in-the-round design of Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre, and the remounting only enhances the show’s emotional effects.  (Gold won a Tony for Best Director of a Musical for his work.)  Fun Home, after all, is about memory.  At the Public, the set revolved on a turntable to evoke various locations, as present-day, adult cartoonist Alison (Beth Malone) ruminates on her past, and Middle Alison (Emily Skeggs) finds herself realizing her sexuality among Oberlin’s lesbian community, and Small Alison (Sydney Lucas) negotiates a complex relationship with her father and begins to discover her own desires.  At Circle in the Square, the oval playing space is cut with lifts that hydraulically move pianos, tables, sofas, doorways, and other set pieces on and off the stage through traps that open and close over them.  David Zinn’s newly repurposed set now works metaphorically to underline how memory lurks beneath the surface of one’s life, appearing and disappearing sometimes by effort of will and sometimes on its own.

Small Alison (Sydney Lucas), Alison (Beth Malone), and Medium Alison (Emily Skeggs)
Small Alison (Sydney Lucas), Alison (Beth Malone), and Medium Alison (Emily Skeggs)

The new design and staging allows adult Alison to shadow her younger selves more precisely, in movement that feels fluidly choreographed.  That she ghosts the story she tells is more palpable and touching here, as we see her fully embodied within her own effort to understand her past.  Sometimes, she reads over a younger self’s shoulder (especially amusing are young Alison’s matter-of-fact journal entries:  “I saw my first dead body today.  I had an egg salad sandwich for lunch” [I’m paraphrasing]).

The compassion with which she considers her self-in-formation extends to her memories of her father, whose suicide four months after she came out prompts adult Alison to try to understand what happened to her father, and to allay her own guilt.  Michael Cerveris, who won a Tony for Best Actor in a Musical for his performance, plays Bruce Bechdel as a mercurial, emotionally bottled up, frustrated man, whose sublimated desires play out in inappropriate relationships with teenage boys and in his tight control over his baby-dyke daughter’s gender performance.  For example, Bruce insists Small Alison wear a frilly dress to a party, shaming her into submission by telling her that other girls will talk behind her back if she wears boys’ clothing.  He roughly pins her barrettes to her hair and, most painfully, tries to make her into the elite and effete artist that he wishes he could be himself.  When Middle Alison comes out to her parents, her confusion and resentment over her father’s behavior turns to confounded dismay when her mother, Helen (Judy Kahn), informs her of Bruce’s long-standing dalliances with too-young men.

Michael Cerveris as Bruce, with the Bechdel family arranged behind him
Michael Cerveris as Bruce, with the musical’s Bechdel family arranged behind him

Kron’s adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel, on which the musical is based, achingly captures the pain of trying to communicate what can’t be said between Bruce and Alison.  The last time they try to talk to one another, Middle Alison has returned from Oberlin for her first visit home with her new girlfriend, Joan (Roberta Colindrez).  In her only interaction with Bruce in the real-time of the show’s story, adult Alison takes Middle Alison’s place to go for a car ride with her father.  As they sit beside one another, neither can name the emotions that hover in the space between them.  Alison sings “Telephone Wire,” a song that begs him and herself to just say something to break the lock of silence around the truth of who they are.  But the ride ends with everything they might have said unspoken and Alison never sees her father again.

At Circle in the Square, with the audience close by
At Circle in the Square, with the audience close by

The theatre’s intimacy lends new colors to the production, and the lead performances have all deepened and seasoned.  Every one of the principals was nominated for a 2015 Tony Award.  Malone is particularly good in this remount, as she seems less peripheral to the action, more central to how Alison’s memories play out.  Emily Skeggs has filled in her performance as Middle Alison and finds all the role’s comedy and pathos.  Her central song, in which she ecstatically declares that she’s changing her major to Joan after the first time she and her girlfriend sleep together, is fabulous.  Judy Kuhn, as the long-suffering mother, has found new levels and knowingness in Helen’s sadness and resentments.  I saw Gabriella Pizzolo as Small Alison, a Saturday matinee understudy for Sydney Lucas, whose glorious performance in the song “Ring of Keys” rocked the Tony Awards audience when she presented it as part of the televised show.  But Pizzolo (who played one of the Mathildas on Broadway) was equally terrific in the can’t-miss role.

“Ring of Keys” brings me to tears every time I hear it, as it perfectly captures the moment when you see yourself in someone else in a way you never thought possible, and realize that there might be a life for you yet.

As a longtime lesbian feminist spectator, I’m so proud of Fun Home and everything it means for women theatre artists and the potential for telling new queer stories on Broadway and across the landscape of American theatre.  A tour is now planned, which will bring this lovely, plangent musical to communities across the country, and will allow generations of high schools and community and regional theatres to perform the sensitive, mournful, yet somehow hopeful story.  What a milestone.

The Feminist Spectator

Fun Home, on Broadway at Circle in the Square Theatre, Saturday, June 27, 2015.


2 thoughts on “Fun Home Makes History

  1. I know it’s late to be commenting on this excellent post, but wanted to note that it would be good to acknowledge Alexandra Socha and her work as Middle Alison in the Public Theatre production of FUN HOME. You did mention her in your earlier post, after seeing that downtown production, but in this one, your line “Emily Skeggs has filled in her performance as Middle Alison” makes it seem as though she is the only actress you’ve seen in the role. I don’t know whether Ms. Skeggs went into the role during the Public Theatre production (and thus you might have seen her on your second visit to that one), or only once the show was revised for Broadway, but either way, you did see Ms. Socha in the role, and she voices that role on the original cast recording from that production (and what a luxury that we get a new recording from the Broadway version, which I look forward to adding to the earlier one I’ve been enjoying since it was first released–thank goodness for ps classics!), so it seems right not to inadvertently ‘erase’ her from this show’s history. Thanks!

    1. Just to say thanks for this, and I completely agree. I thought Alexandra Socha was a terrific Middle Alison, and was very sorry when she left the show. When I mentioned that Skeggs had “filled in” her role, it was an oblique (too oblique) reference to my preference for Socha’s performance. Thanks for encouraging me not to erase her from the show’s history!

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