Fun Home, last year's much-applauded Off-Broadway musical which opened for business April 19 on Broadway at the Circle in the Square, is a grimly glib contraction of Funeral Home, where our budding lesbian heroine spent an emotionally chaotic childhood that she later faithfully recorded in a graphic novel.
Fun, it isn't. Daddy was an undertaker, and his undertakings outside home, hearth and the workplace rained pain on his wife and children, eventually leading to time in court, enforced psychiatric sessions, personal and public degradation and suicide. He was a closeted gay man imprisoned by his time, covering his trail with self-denial.
Fun Home, Based on Acclaimed Graphic Memoir, Opens on Broadway; Red Carpet Arrivals, Curtain Call and Party
A suitable case for musicalization, you're probably thinking. NOT! Well, you'd be underestimating the skill and tenacity of composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist-adapter Lisa Kron, who manage to turn Alison Bechdel's coming-of-age-and-sexual-awareness memoir into a musical memory play that's accessible and universal. "It's a very particular, idiosyncratic story, but a lot of people seem to relate to it," Bechdel herself admitted at the Urbo after-party. She really wasn't sure how she felt having seen most of her childhood parade in front of her eyes moments before.
"I keep hoping that when someone asks me that question, I will have something to say," she replied when asked about the experience right after the curtain fell. "I don't have language for it. It's the strangest experience. Because it's so accurate and the picture is so perfect, it feels bizarre. It could be off. It could be different. It could be not like the real story. It could be any number of variations on my story, but somehow it captures the essence of the real experience. I don't have words for it."
There are three Alison Bechdels running around loose on the stage. The grown 43-year-old Bechdel (Beth Malone) stands off to the side with a melancholy countenance, narrating, commenting on the action, moving the story along. There is a 9-year-old version (Sydney Lucas), feeling the first stirrings that she's different, as in a scene where she senses a curious kinship with a butch-looking delivery woman. In time, as a 19-year-old college girl (Emily Skeggs), she learns to connect all the dots into a love relationship and "changes her major" to Joan (Roberta Colindrez).
By any other name, Fun Home is Through a Glass Menagerie Darkly, catching and reflecting remembered moments of truth, and Bechdel was beaming at the result.
"It feels like a great gift to me personally. I know it's not. That's not the point of it. I think it's a gift to everyone who sees it, but I personally feel like I've been given the most amazing present ever. It feels like a blessing, a benediction. It's cathartic, healing. I know it's crazy and impossible, but I wish my parents could see it."
Her mother passed away in 2011, two years before the musical world-premiered at The Public Theater. "It's impossible to imagine what she would have thought of it," Bechdel said. "She couldn't have seen it. It would have been unbearable for her."
Judy Kuhn plays the mother as a quiet, crumbling pillar of strength, struggling to keep the family together, bottling up with her anguish and frustration until it finally erupts and breaks into an emotional outpouring of a song called "Days and Days." "It's a challenging role," the actress conceded. "I have very few moments to really tell her story so I have find specificity in everything that I do, but the fact that the part is so beautifully written makes it quite easy to play. She is a person who is much more held back than I am — that was something that I had to work on. I'm much more like, ‘This is what I think, and this is what I feel.' She wouldn't — and couldn't — do that."
As the hollow, haunted husband, Michael Cerveris also has to play the feelings hiding behind the words. "It's not the most demanding thing I've ever had to sing. It's not the most demanding thing I've had to do physically, but it is, without question, the most demanding thing I've had to do emotionally. And that's entirely because my character never really had any release in this world. I would say it feels like I've been hit by a truck at the end of the show every night." [Not an inappropriate feeling, considering the character's demise.]
"I've had to try to develop and learn coping mechanisms, so I will leave that at the theatre and feel free enough to be able to do it. I'm helped in that by being part of such a loving company of people. Having the kids around is a real blessing. They treat me like Dad. They hang on me and tell me all the things they've learned at school today. I love it."