Playwright Lisa Kron would be the first to tell you that adapting Alison Bechdel’s celebrated graphic memoir Fun Home into a musical directed by Sam Gold, which opens at The Public Theater, has been a long and winding road. The story of Bechdel looking back on her father’s life twenty years after his passing, searching for clues to figure out the connection between her lesbian identity and his secret gay affairs and eventual suicide, set against the backdrop of the family’s elaborately decorated funeral home, took five years to move from page to stage.
One thing, though, was clear from the start: it was always going to be a musical. “I don’t know how it could work as a dramatic play. I think you have to have those non-naturalistic devices of music so you can get to people’s subtext because in the graphic novel, Alison’s narrator voice is able to tell us things about the characters that they don’t know,” Kron told BuzzFeed. Kron, perhaps best known for her critically-acclaimed play Well, likens the interplay of the graphic format’s words and photos to the musical’s ability to convey multiple meanings. “You can sing lyrics that are about one thing while the musical is conveying an emotional life that even the person singing might not be aware of.”
On the one hand, Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori known for her work on Tony Kushner’s musical Caroline, or Change had access to Bechdel for questions, source material such as her journals from working on Fun Home, and videos of Bechdel’s speeches, some of which Kron transcribed, as well as the book itself. Yet, figuring out how to tell the story was a challenge. Kron decided early on to have 3 Alisons: “small Alison” (played by Sydney Lucas), “medium Alison” (Alexandra Socha) and “adult Alison” (Beth Malone), but beyond that, there were many possibilities. “Unwinding the structure of that book was very difficult. I had to read it for a year before I was able to take it apart enough to see how it was made, because it’s just so finely and intricately crafted. In theatrical terms, there’s very little about it that will help you in terms of making a play because it covers the span of ultimately 60 years; there are scenes from his childhood through to her adulthood.”
While both the book and musical cover the same time periods and events, the stage version allows for flourishes like a full cast dancing to The Partridge Family with “Raincoat Made of Love,” complete with sparkly outfits. It also offers a greater breadth in terms of seeing the perspective of Alison’s parents; Judy Kuhn, as Alison’s mother Helen, is able to express her frustration at the state of her marriage in her solo “Days.” In the book, Alison stumbles across a topless photo of the kids’ babysitter Roy, the play offers up imminent seduction as Bruce Bechdel (Michael Cerveris) woos Roy with a glass of sherry in the library, while his wife plays the piano in another room. The book’s narrator is the middle-aged Dykes to Watch Out For cartoonist digging through memories and mementos, but the musical makes stars out of her younger selves.Adult Alison looks on, often with wonder, cringing, for instance, at the scene where her college age self loses her virginity to the cool, hip and out Joan.
“Alison was the greatest person to adapt. She absolutely thought of what we were doing as something she didn’t know anything about and there was not a moment where we felt any, not only no pressure, but no inclination from her to influence or control or guide our process,” said Kron. She was “very available” throughout the process, but understood that the musical was never meant to be a literal take on the book, or Bechdel herself. As Socha put it to Backstage, “You can’t be concerned with doing an exact replica of her…I could copy every single mannerism she has, but if I don’t get our story across, none of that will matter…It’s more important that the three of us are like each other than we are like the real Alison Bechdel.”
While Bitch magazine correctly noted that press materials do not explicitly mention queerness, they do promise that the show addresses Alison’s “growing understanding of her own sexuality and the looming, unanswerable questions about her father’s hidden desires.” It’s made clear from early on that the musical centers around Alison’s realizing that she’s gay, her history of knowing she was different. It never shies away from the impact of her homosexuality, or his, and builds to the climactic question of what adult Alison can learn from his life and death. While the show has proudly hosted marriage equality advocate Edie Windsor in the audience, it isn’t only courting a gay crowd. “People follow different characters; some are really keyed in to Helen Bechdel, some to the neglected child, some to the college-age dyke,” said Kron. “The more diversity you have in the audience, the richer the experience will be. Audiences teach each other how to hear a play.”
That being said, while there’s plenty of light-hearted fun, most notably in the show’s “Come To The Fun Home” number, in which the kids pop in and out of coffins while filming a commercial for the family business. Lucas shines in two humorous yet revealing songs that highlight her character’s burgeoning queer identity, “Al For Short” and “Ring of Keys.” The latter finds her father obliviously reading the paper over a meal at a diner, while her world is rocked by a butch truck driver passing through. Kron was initially reluctant to do the song, afraid that it would only provoke laughs of the kind that are all too familiar. “In popular culture we only know that character as the predatory gym teacher or the semi-repulsive bull dyke. There is this beauty and grace and wholeness to that identity that’s very clear within lesbian culture but is invisible within the larger world. To have that take place on a music theater stage, to let that person be romanticized in that form is, I think for lesbians, a very moving experience.”
As for Bechdel herself? Though she told The Cut that seeing actors performing her life onstage is “really beautiful and really unnerving,” she was all smiles after Saturday’s matinee, signing autographs for eager fans outside the theater. She’s blogged that “Ring of Keys” is “worth the price of admission,” and she recently brought her brothers and her father’s 91-year-old sister to see it.
Their affirmation that the story resonated with them “has meant so much to us,” said Kron. “We couldn’t have fidelity to the truth. We don’t know the truth; we had to make up details. That’s not a reason to do this anyway; we’re not documentarians. But we were interested in finding a universalizing emotional truth, in looking again and again to these characters and the source material to get to the complexity of what had happened in order to tell the deepest story that we could tell.” Judging by the audience’s reactions this past weekend, they seem to have succeeded. My friend told me she teared up, while a gay man said it spoke to his growing up in a religions home and coming out, likening it to seeing his first musical Kiss the Spider Woman at age 9, a life-changing experience. “It needs to be seen,” he said.
Fun Home plays at The Public Theater through November 17.