An Author's Life Comes to Life: Alison Bechdel on Fun Home

By Adam Hetrick
09 Nov 2013

Sydney Lucas as Small Alison, with Michael Cerveris
Photo by Joan Marcus

Those familiar with the book will find the on-stage characters instantly recognizable.  One of them is Bechdel's mother, Helen, who died earlier this year. Tony nominee Judy Kuhn portrays her on stage. "That was extremely moving to see her," Bechdel said. "I feel both really sad that my mother didn't get to see the show and also really relieved. I think it would have been too painful for her. Not just because it's a sad story. I think the whole thing was hard for her, seeing her life turned into someone else's story."

Bechdel is still processing the experience of witnessing her work and her family on stage. "I don't really even know how to describe it yet. In this case, it's not just my work, it's my life, and it's very freaky. Even freakier because it's so accurate. They really capture something." Bechdel isn't alone in the experience. She has returned with her siblings and her elderly aunt. "They couldn't believe how accurate it was. How they looked like our family. How they felt like our family."

It's a remarkable occasion for a family reunion when considering that the story centers on Bechdel's distant relationship with her father, paralleling her own sexual awakening with his unraveling, while her mother bears witness to both narratives.

"The story of the book is a story that I had wanted to tell from almost as soon as it happened, which was when I was quite young, just getting out of college," Bechdel said. "But it was a story I couldn't tell at that point in my life. It involved revealing these big family secrets that I didn't feel up to doing."

Alexandra Socha as Medium Alison
photo by Joan Marcus

It would take two decades before Bechdel, by then an established cartoonist with a syndicated strip, would put her story on paper as a graphic memoir. "Cartooning was my native language at that point."

This act of creation and re-creation is where writers Tesori and Kron pick up Bechdel's story. Played by Malone, the adult Alison attempts to fit her family's story into the tidy, contained cells of what is essentially a comic book for grown-ups.

Bechdel was remarkably hands-off during the process, but made herself available to the writers throughout the process, at one point even turning over the original work log she kept through the writing of "Fun Home." Parts of the log, in which Bechdel grapples with ways into her own story, have been mined by Tesori and Kron as a framing device for the musical. "They got a sort of behind-the-scenes look at how I was feeling and thinking as I put the book together," she said.

Bechdel, who was skeptical as to how the writers would turn a graphic memoir into a musical, put it bluntly: "It's just a weird story, but they were incredibly respectful of the fact that this was a story about real people. I really trusted them, and they were very trustworthy with that material."