That Judy Kuhn, with her silvery rich vibrato, hasn't recorded every major Broadway ballad of the last 20 years is one of the great disappointments in the modern musical theatre. That this multitalented singing actress is back on Broadway in what may be the most moving new musical of the season, however, does help balance this injustice. And, that the star of the original Broadway productions of Chess, Les Miserables and Rags has been Tony-nominated for her superbly touching work is additional good news for the singing actress' many admirers, this writer included. The aforementioned musical is, of course, Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori's Fun Home, which drew raves last season at The Public Theater and subsequently transferred to Broadway's Circle on the Square, where it recently earned 12 Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical. In the musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir, which parallels Bechdel's own coming of age as a lesbian and the suicide of her closeted gay father, Kuhn offers a touching portrait of Bechdel's mother Helen, a performance that builds to a stunning climax with the four-time Tony nominee's beautifully sung and acted delivery of "Days and Days." During previews, I had the pleasure of catching up with Kuhn, who spoke about her return to Broadway in the Sam Gold-directed production, which she feels delivers as much laughter as it does heartbreak, explaining, "The audience laughs through the first hour and a half, and it isn't until the last 20 minutes or so that the tears start to flow." My complete interview with the Broadway favorite follows:
Question: When there was a rumor that Fun Home might transfer to Broadway, did you think that it would? What were your thoughts?
Judy Kuhn: [Laughs.] Well, I thought we have great producers who are completely committed to the show. I thought that we had audiences that were showing up in droves and leaping to their feet at the end of it. And, I thought that it should have another life, but I also thought, showbiz being showbiz, nothing is guaranteed. [Laughs.] I felt fairly confident that it would transfer, knowing that things fall apart all the time and until you show up for that first day of rehearsal, you never know, but once the show opened at the Public and the reviews were so great and there were lines for tickets all the time, I figured we would probably move.
Question: What was the rehearsal process like this time around?
Judy Kuhn: It's been really fabulous. The show has really been re-invented for Circle in the Square because it has to be a whole new production. Sam Gold is such a genius director, and doing it in the round was apparently his idea and a very brave one. I think it's rare for a creative team and for producers to go along with it when a show has been so successful, to say, "Okay, let's do it totally differently now." And for everyone to say, "Yeah, let's do that" is a very risky and very brave thing to do I think. I cannot tell you how fabulous it is in the round. It's almost like it was always meant to be in the round, and we can barely remember doing it in a proscenium theatre now.
Question: Everyone I know who has seen it so far, who had seen it Off-Broadway, says that it's even so much better here.
Judy Kuhn: It's also a very rare thing to take a show from an intimate, Off-Broadway theatre and put it into a Broadway house and have it feel more intimate, but that's what it is like at Circle in the Square. People say that they feel more a part of the story, that it's a much closer-up, intense experience, which is great for this show. We get laughs on things that we didn't before because I think people are hearing it better, and they feel more in the story. To answer your question before about what was the rehearsal process like, the wonderful thing about re-inventing it in this way is it gave the actors the chance to re-explore the material in a very different way, and that was a gift to all of us. We weren't just taking it and doing the same thing, we were really challenged to say, "Well, how is this scene different because it is in the round or how does it feel to have people three feet away from you when you're playing that scene?" And, it really changes things up. I feel that the things that I'm doing are quite different and richer, so it's been great.
Question: What does it feel like having people on all sides of you? How do you adjust to that as an actor?
Judy Kuhn: When we did our invited dress rehearsal, it was very startling to me. I wasn't quite prepared for what it would feel like to have people all around, and it is different. When I did Passion at Classic Stage Company, people were similarly very close, and that was obviously a very intimate experience, but there's something different having people on all sides of you, even different from a three-quarter-thrust [stage]. You feel very vulnerable and very exposed, and at first it kind of scared me, but now I feel like it really feeds us in a way that's quite wonderful. It was a scary thing at first, but now I feel like it feeds us. There's something really wonderful about having people in it with us. They do become part of it in a different way.
Question: In addition to the staging, has much of the show changed? Have there been any rewrites since Off-Broadway?
Judy Kuhn: There was one rewrite. There was one song that they cut and they wrote a new scene — also another brave thing. A lot of writers who have had the success that they've had with a show in its previous incarnation would not be willing to make changes, but Lisa and Jeanine are extraordinary that way. So they did do one rewrite. They sort of have been playing with it for a couple of months, and now I think it's where they want it. It was a scene between Small Alison and Bruce. At the Public it was where Small Alison sings a song called "Al for Short," which was sort of her fantasy. It was a fantasy song, and they felt like it didn't quite do what was needed in that moment in the play, so they rewrote that scene. Otherwise, as far as the writing goes, there have been tiny little tweaks in lines and things, but nothing major...It's really been more about the technical aspects of it, and the design and the staging and all of that and re-directing the scenes in terms of maybe changing takes on scenes.
Question: What's been the big challenge of the role for you?
Judy Kuhn: Well, I guess I would say that for Helen, [she] has a somewhat quiet presence in the show until the latter part of it. So I think trying to understand how to really be specific in the scenes and tell the story that needs to be told early in the show, so that when things unravel at the end it feels earned and very clear so that people are really with me and with her story. That's, to me, one of the biggest challenges.
Question: Have you met Alison's family? Have they come to the show?
Judy Kuhn: We met her brothers. We met Bruce's sister and her husband and some cousins. Bruce, of course, as the story says, has not been around for a while. Her mother passed away about six months before we opened at the Public, so I never got a chance to meet her. Alison has said publicly that she was very ambivalent about the idea of her mother seeing the show. I don't know how I would have felt about doing it in front of her, but sadly we never had that opportunity, and I would have loved to have met her but didn't get a chance.
Question: The family members that did come, how did they seem to react?
Judy Kuhn: They were kind of overwhelmed by it I have to say. They were all really generous, and I think they really loved it. I think they felt sort of how Alison has felt about it, about what an intense experience it is to see their family portrayed on the stage. I think they felt how accurate it — we're not trying to do impersonations obviously — but the general response from all of them is that we really got to some truth about their family, which [was] a very moving thing to hear from them.
Question: Do you think Fun Home has a message? What does it say to you or what do you take away from it?
Judy Kuhn: I think really what it's about is a very universal thing. It's about how the cost of not leading a truthful life for yourself [affects] those around you. That secrets are very damaging to people. We were talking to a group of Lisa Kron's students, and I guess it was Lisa [who] talked about how they found that really, in its essence, what the show was about. Adult Alison asks this question at the beginning of the show, and it really [is] about her and her father being so much alike and so different at the same time and her search to try and understand how they were the same and how they were different, so that she doesn't become the person who steps in front of a truck. I think the difference is that Alison was able to live out her life in a truthful way, and he was not. And Helen and Alison and her brothers paid a price for all of that. As, of course, Bruce paid the ultimate price.
Question: I believe this season there are four musicals that are completely written by women or partially written by women, and I was wondering what your thoughts are on that and women's voices being heard on Broadway.
Judy Kuhn: [Laughs.] I think it's about time that women were represented like that on Broadway. I also think it's about time that somebody told a story about a lesbian character, which has also never been done on Broadway or in the commercial theatre. I hunger for the day when we don't have to answer that question any more. It shouldn't be something that feels unusual or even interesting — it should just be part of what we see in the theatre.
Question: You also have a new recording coming out.
Judy Kuhn: I do. Very excited about it. [Laughs.]
Question: Tell me a little bit about that.
Judy Kuhn: It's a recording of a concert that I did at Lincoln Center with the American Songbook series in February, celebrating the music of Richard Rodgers, his daughter Mary Rodgers and her son, Richard Rodgers' grandson, Adam Guettel. It is a family connection that I have long been fascinated with and kind of in awe of because I think all three of them are extraordinary artists, and each of them in their own way reinvented the form of music theatre. I've just always been interested in the connections musically and familial-ly — if that's a word — between them. I pitched this idea to American Songbook a little while back, and this year they said they wanted to do it, and so together with the wonderful Todd Almond, we put this evening together. Man, we just had so much fun putting it together and exploring all this music and finding a way to kind of tell their stories just through their songs and let the three of them have a kind of musical conversation. And then Tommy Krasker at PS Classics said, "I want to record this." So we did. We went into the studio in March, and I believe it's coming out May 19. So we're doing the finishing touches of putting the booklet together, and Tommy's editing and mixing and all that. I'm really, really excited about it.
Question: You're pretty busy these days, between the show and the record...
Judy Kuhn: Oh my God, I'm so busy. [Laughs.] But happily so. I feel so lucky at this moment in my life and career to be working on things that I am completely passionate about. I couldn't ask for better material to be working on and better people to be working with. It's really a gift, I think.
Question: It seems like the last few years have been so great for you. You've gone from one great project to the next.
Judy Kuhn: I have. I'm so lucky. I've been in a room with John Doyle and Stephen Sondheim and John Kander and Terrence McNally and Chita Rivera. [Laughs.] And Sam Gold and Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron and Todd Almond and then Richard Rodgers and Mary Rodgers and Adam Guettel, or not actually in a room with them, but in a room with their spirits. [Laughs.] What more could a girl ask for?
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Diva Talk runs every other week on Playbill.com. Senior editor Andrew Gans also pens the weekly columns Their Favorite Things and Stage Views.