ON THE RECORD: Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron's Fun Home

By Steven Suskin
23 Feb 2014

Beth Malone, Sydney Lucas and Alexandra Socha
Photo by Joan Marcus

The on-stage Bechdels own the Beech Creek Funeral Home; thus "Fun Home," as young Alison and her two brothers call it. When the kids pop out of coffins on the showroom floor and sing their own, home-made commercial ("Come to the Fun Home"), touting the satin-lined coffins and formaldehyde in a cockeyed 1970s mix of the Jackson Five and Laugh-In, the musical — which has been increasingly intriguing through the first couple of scenes — takes off and establishes itself as a surefire winner. A quirky and unusual setup for a musical turns delectable and unstoppable — no matter if Bruce is cripplingly dysfunctional and they're up there singing about embalming fluid and aneurysm hooks.

Even more startling — in that it is an unlikely rollercoaster of high-spirited emotion — is the teenaged Alison's "Changing My Major." She has just experienced the explosion of her first love affair, she cannot contain herself, and it is impossible not to succumb to her enthusiasm. (Musical theatre connoisseurs might recall Billy Finn's "Whizzer Going Down" from In Trousers; amp up the giddy joy, and you'll get an idea of just how exhilarating things are when she sings "I'm changing my major to Joan.") This is followed somewhat later by a not-unrelated song for the eight-year-old Alison, who feels an unexplained thrill when she recognizes something of herself in a delivery woman with a "Ring of Keys" on her belt.

The small Alison has another wonderful number, the endearingly naive "Al for Short." She imagines herself in a Mustang convertible that she found at the local dump and drives to Paris, where she rescues a mademoiselle in distress by beating up the monsieur who is shove-ez-vous-ing her. All the while, though, she can't quite call herself "Al" for short; the "-ison" always tumbles out. In the earlier song, too, she starts sentences that she doesn't have the words to finish. Kron's characters repeatedly tell us things that they have not yet figured out or admitted to themselves. I don't know if she has written lyrics before, but she provides a marvelous set for Fun Home.

This can be seen in the very first major number, "Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue." Bruce has commanded that the historically-restored house be put in order; his wife Helen so instructs the children, singing some 20 times, "he wants, he wants." What he actually wants becomes clear enough: Bruce wants — and needs — the young man who helps with the yard work, and any other young men who come along (including underage ones). Kron encapsulates the entire musical in one of Helen's lines from this song, which reappears later as a connecting theme: "chaos never happens if it's never seen."

Kron is equally matched by Tesori, who turns out to be a master of musical styles — and one who expresses her musical personality, in said styles, with a flourish. What's more, she matches Kron's tone with a mix of sensitivity and humor. Caroline, or Change, Tesori's 2004 musical which also originated at the Newman, had what I consider an intelligent and pioneering score. Not an inviting one, though; a certain segment of the audience found the show somewhat dour and forbidding, perhaps understandably so. There was one exception within the score, a marvelously rambunctious song called "Roosevelt Petronius Coleslaw" which rocked the rafters every time I saw the show. I found Caroline rich, intricate and moody, although it is not something that I've been drawn back to. I have now, in four days, listened to Fun Home more than Caroline, or Change and Tesori's other three produced musicals combined.