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

By Steven Suskin
February 23, 2014

This week's column discusses the original cast album of Fun Home, the new musical by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron.

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Fun Home [PS Classics]

Every once in a great while you come across a musical so moving that you just want to laugh and cry. Welcome to Fun Home, with music by Jeanine Tesori and words by Lisa Kron.

Dashing from one of the final previews, I ran headlong into the composer in the invitingly renovated grand lobby of the Public Theater. (Usually it is best to avoid the author — or director or producer — on the way out.) All I could think of to say, with the moving final sequence still cemented on my emotions, was that I was astonished. It was apparent that they had worked long and hard to develop the piece, I told her, but all I could say — in that moment — was that every choice they'd made came across perfectly.

Fun Home played at the Newman Theater within the Public complex, which is the same space where A Chorus Line first appeared. That musical, back in 1975 — before all the publicity, before the cast recording — left audiences stunned for its immediacy, its emotional impact and its originality. There I was at the Newman almost 40 years later, feeling precisely the same. Fun Home, for a variety of reasons, will perhaps not have the same afterlife as Michael Bennett's gypsy musical, but it is every bit as moving as A Chorus Line, with what seems to me a considerably more accomplished score.

The original cast recording, from PS Classics, presents Fun Home in all its brilliance and allows me — and you, dear reader — to examine why it is so good. But dissecting the score is only moderately helpful. Far better for me to simply suggest that you treat yourself to the CD, now.

Fun Home is adapted from the graphic novel of the same title by cartoonist Alison Bechdal. ("A Family Tragicomic" was the subtitle.) Alison, the protagonist, is a cartoonist. Kron — author of the well-remembered Well — draws her in a refreshingly direct style, telling us up front that "my dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town, and he was gay, and I was gay, and he killed himself, and I became a lesbian cartoonist." That gets our attention, I'll say, and it never lapses thereafter.

We watch the present-day Alison (at 43) watching the eight-year-old Alison trying to bond with her decidedly unusual father, Bruce. Simultaneously, the 17-year-old Alison goes off to college, where she comes out; Bruce commits suicide almost immediately thereafter. Kron and Tesori have written the piece — ingeniously staged at the Public by Sam Gold — so that scenes interlock while time and space shifts; we often have three Alisons simultaneously in view. This can be confusing and unconvincing on stage, as other playwrights and directors have discovered. In the case of Fun Home, though, the several strands form together into a powerful cord with an air of inevitability.

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.

Kuhn in Fun Home.
Photo by Joan Marcus

This is not to say that Fun Home doesn't have its share of serious songs, and they are stunning. "Maps" has the older Alison trying to define her father and "Telephone Wire" has her reliving that final afternoon before his suicide. "Edges of the World" is harrowing, as Bruce — who here, finally, addresses his daughter as "Al" — unravels and steps in front of a truck on Route 150. Most riveting, for me, is "Days and Days." Helen, who has been present but absent throughout the play (and throughout the kids' lives), is forced to admit the truth about her acceptance of her husband's secrets. "We polish and we shine/We rearrange and realign/Everything is balanced and serene/Like chaos never happens if it's never seen." It is a staggering piece of musical theatre writing.

Helen was played by Judy Kuhn, who as an actor seemed to fade into the background of the Fun Home until that moment when she sat down at the kitchen chair to sing her solo. In this, Kuhn was altogether as stunning as when she did something similar in the first- act finale of Rags in 1986. All the players, onstage at the Public and on the CD, are exceptional. Michael Cerveris was Bruce, giving one of his finest performances ever. (In his wig and glasses, he looked so much like a suburban English teacher — circa 1970 — that it took a while for me to realize it was Cerveris.) The three Alisons were equally powerful. Beth Malone, as the adult Alison, is the glue that holds the show together. Sydney Lucas, as Small Alison, is one of the most assured child actors we've seen; her delivery of "Al for Short" and "Ring of Keys" are pure delight, as is Alexandra Socha's exuberant "Changing My Major." (Roberta Colindrez as Alison's girlfriend, and Noah Hinsdale and Griffin Birney as the brothers, have limited opportunities on the CD but were equally delightful in performance.)

The perfection was enhanced by Gold's staging, the perfect sets and costumes by David Zinn, and the work of their colleagues. Fun Home, which opened Oct. 22, 2013, was the best musical on the New York stage of 2013 — far outclassing the competition — and is thus far the best musical of the 2013-14 season. Let us hope that this production transfers intact, as there is a widespread audience that will embrace it. In the meanwhile, do listen to the CD and welcome to the Fun Home.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," “Second Act Trouble,” the “Opening Night on Broadway” books, and "The Book of Mormon: The Testament of a Broadway Musical." He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)