Well, Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori have shattered the walls of that Venn diagram with a delightful and painful new musical, based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir of the same title, Fun Home, now running at New York’s Public Theater.
By “graphic memoir” I don’t mean that the material is graphic – though it certainly is at times. I mean that the narrative is conveyed graphically. Ms. Bechdel has been writing and drawing the comic strip, “Dykes To Watch Out For,” a Doonesbury-esque soap opera with social commentary, for decades; when she set out to write the story of her father’s life and (most likely) self-inflicted death, she turned to the same form, and produced an absolutely searing portrait that both could serve as a definition of “dysfunctional” and that breaks radically with the tradition of such works by the utter absence of self-pity, the painful empathy for the tyrannical father whom she knows she resembles.
When I first heard someone had adapted Fun Home into a musical, I said: that’s impossible. First of all, the book is incredibly close to the consciousness of the Bechdel character – we spend a huge amount of time alone with her thoughts and behaviors. Second, it’s wildly non-linear, jumping around between childhood, her college years (the era of her father’s death), and a present-tense that provides the narrative voice. Third, as a comic it’s naturally cinematic, directing the eye, framing what it wants us to see. That’s not how the stage works. And finally, a musical?!? This painful, beautiful but impacted work is going to launch into song?
But Kron and Tesori have accomplished the impossible. They’ve created a work that is true to the original story and material without being beholden to a vision crafted for another medium. And they’ve made it sing.
How did they do it?
They kept the non-linearity of the book, but structured it more clearly as a classic memory play. The mature Alison (Beth Malone), now roughly the age her father was when he died, is struggling to write the book that serves as the basis for the play, and in that capacity she guides us back to her childhood, and then her college days, and then mixes periods as she needs to. She talks to us, but she also talks at the characters in her past – those memories are still alive to her, and so she is a dramatic character, not just an observer.
They – and director Sam Gold, and his design team, David Zinn (set and costumes), Ben Stanton (lighting) and Jim Findlay and Jeff Sugg (video) – managed to reference the graphic origins without trying to recreate them, instead taking full advantage of the possibilities of the stage. We start in the mature Alison’s loft, but pieces of furniture from her childhood home (her father obsessively restored their Victorian pile to museum-level perfection) litter the stage – the memories she lives with, or has conjured up for us. Other scenes intrude on the same space – her Oberlin College dorm room, for example, where Alison (played at this age by the winningly nerdy Alexandra Socha) has her first proper sexual experience with her first girlfriend (the way-too-perfect Roberta Colindrez). But we never forget that this is being staged for us by the mature Alison. Then, for a while, a black curtain isolates a narrow downstage playing area, hiding everything behind; this is when the young Alison visits New York with dad, a trip whose harrowing emotional quality fully justifies the emersion in blackness. And then, on a visit home with the girlfriend, right after Alison’s come out of the closet, the curtain rises to reveal her childhood home in all its glory, and we are finally and fully there. It’s a breathtaking moment – and entirely theatrical; you couldn’t ever get the same effect in a comic strip.
They changed the young Alison (Sydney Lucas, who will be, as they say, going places) in key ways, making her far more winning and outgoing than the Alison of the book, and dropping the obsessive-compulsive behaviors that occupy a great deal of the book’s narrative; in general, this Alison seems to have emerged far healthier than the Alison of the book. She’s angry and sad about her father, yearning for him and wishing she could put him behind her, but she doesn’t come off as deeply damaged. And they’ve played some creepy scenes for comedy, to magnificent effect. For example: the book and play are called Fun Home because that’s the ironic name the kids gave to the family business, a funeral home, which adjoined the house. And the first real number of the musical is a Jackson Five-style advertisement the kids (Alison has two brothers, played by Griffin Birney and Noah Hinsdale, both of whom do a fine job but neither of whom has been given a proper character – but that’s true of the book as well) have put together which they start singing from inside the coffins, and which contains rhymes like “condolence book” and “aneurism hook” (yes, I know that’s just rhyming “book” and “hook” – that’s not the point). Everyone in the audience fell in love with little Alison during that number – and it’s nothing the Alison of the book would have done.
And they let us see her father’s neediness. In the book, we necessarily see him entirely through Alison’s eyes. But on stage, the father (Michael Cerveris, giving an almost too-painfully real performance) is an independent presence. He doesn’t speak to us – only the mature Alison is allowed to do that – but he sings his own songs, and we see into his inner life. The inner life of a closeted gay man, whose life was shattered by the possibilities of liberation.
That’s what both the book and the play are ultimately about. Alison’s father grew up in an era when homosexuality was first stigmatized but culturally ignored, then medicalized, then finally ceased to be defined by the larger culture, as gay people decided for themselves who they were and what recognition they deserved. Bechdel does not flinch from showing the ugliness and danger of the closeted life her father led – he has repeated affairs with much younger men, including some who are underage; he turns to hustlers; he brings home disease – and Malone is scathing in her commentary on those choices. But it was a life whose order he understood, and meticulously, even ruthlessly, maintained.
After his daughter comes out, though, and his wife (played with tightly reined-in hatred by Judy Kuhn) decides enough is enough and leaves him, that order is shattered. And the suggestion of the play is that he just wasn’t psychically capable of picking up the pieces and building something new, and more open. So he stepped in front of a truck.
If you have a heart, it’ll break it. But you’ll be laughing as you cry, because for all its darkness and pain, this play is actually a lot of fun.
Fun Home plays at New York’s Public Theater through December 1st.