An Author's Life Comes to Life: Alison Bechdel on Fun Home
By Adam Hetrick
Alison Bechdel, the cartoonist of the long-running syndicated strip "Dykes to Watch Out For," never imagined that when she set out to write "Fun Home," her 2006 graphic memoir that literally traces her coming-of-age as a lesbian and the suicide of her closeted gay father, that a full-circle moment would occur when the musical based on her book would premiere to critical acclaim Off-Broadway at the Public Theater.
Bechdel, who laughed when characterizing herself as a "casual consumer of musical theatre," admitted, "I don't really know much about the medium. In a way, that's why I felt so comfortable turning it over to other people, because it was a very alien art form to me."
However, even before Tony nominees Jeanine Tesori (composer) and Lisa Kron (librettist) began adapting "Fun Home," Bechdel had unknowingly set the stage for the musical within the illustrated pages of her memoir.
Late in the book, Bechdel documents her experience seeing one of the Public Theater's most-famous hits, the original Broadway production of A Chorus Line, with her father and brothers during a trip to New York City. Only pages later, Bechdel – imagining the life her father may have faced in New York City in the early 1980s – draws a poster for Larry Kramer's AIDS drama The Normal Heart playing at the Public.
"I love that. It's one of many synchronicities," Bechdel noted. "The book is all about the way that my parents seemed to me like fictional characters, and with Fun Home, they actually have become fictional characters in a stage play."
Bechdel has seen the musical several times during its current, extended run at the Public, as well as at various stages of its development. She explained that the surreal experience transcends the act of an author handing over her book for adaptation; in this case, the lights go up on her own life. The "characters" presented in Fun Home are not only her family, they are her own interpretations of them as depicted in her drawings, brought to life.
Layering the experience is that Bechdel herself is portrayed at three various points in her life by actresses Sydney Lucas, Alexandra Socha and Beth Malone as Small Alison, Medium Alison and the adult Alison, respectively, a dramatic choice that Bechdel identifies with: "We do live simultaneously like that, with our childhood self intact and our young selves intact and our old selves holding it all."
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."
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."
Tesori and Kron, Tony nominees for Caroline, or Change and Well, respectively, turned that "weird" story into the most well-reviewed new musical of the New York season, adding a few surprises of their own.
A musical number that features the Bechdel kids filming a commercial for the family business – the Bechdel Funeral Home (which the family dubs the Fun Home) – Bechdel describes as "a stroke of genius. It's this little lightning bolt of macabre humor that was shot into it that's really wonderful.
"To see it, I am actually sort of envious in the way that they've found these emotional key points in the story and they highlight them," she reflected. "Everything feels much more emotionally resonant."
Dramatic lightning strikes twice when Tesori and Kron bring the author's narrative full-circle late in the musical during a final car ride between Alison and her father, Bruce, played by Tony winner Michael Cerveris. Bechdel recalled breaking into spontaneous sobs when she saw the scene for the first time during readings.
"It's incredibly cathartic," she said of the scene, which we won't spoil here. "It's hard for me to see the play with other people, because I feel sort of self-conscious. I certainly know that the creative team has been eager to see how I respond. It makes me anxious knowing that people are looking at my response. I don't know what it's like for someone who that's not their personal life. In a way, I'm not at all an objective observer."
Bechdel, who came out when she was 19, says she is encouraged to see that Tesori, Kron and Fun Home are charting new territory in a medium that has been strongly shaped by gay male culture on stage and off. Lesbian musicals are nearly unheard of. "Even musicals about women, where women are the central characters and not just a romantic lead and really have a story of their own [are rare]," Bechdel said. "The moment with Small Alison singing about the butch delivery woman feels huge. To have a child sing about desire and identification; it's brilliant."
Upon its 2006 publication, Time Magazine not only described "Fun Home" as a "masterpiece," they named it the #1 Book of the Year. Seven years later, opening-night critics lavished similar unanimous praise on the musical. "I've been in this stunned and grateful state," Bechdel said. "I've been given the biggest gift in the world."
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