In my first ever blog post, well over a year ago, I discussed my recent adventure in reading graphic novels, something I had never done before, and amongst the ones that I had selected was Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: an autobiographical story of the author and her growing up in a funeral home with a distant father. The author recounted her slow realization that she was a lesbian, and just as she was coming to terms with her own sexuality she discovers that her father is gay as well. Completely taken by surprise by this knowledge, she barely has time to wrap her head around it that her father, Bruce, commits suicide by stepping in front of a semi. If you hear this story and think, “Why, this would make for a great musical on Broadway” then good for you, because you’re actually right!
I had never been to a production at the Circle in the Square theater and it is a really interesting experience. The theater is exactly what it sounds like: the stage is a square in the middle, and surrounding it are the seats, arranged in a complete circle, making the show and production a 360 degree experience. Elevator panels throughout the stage rise and drop, so that set pieces and props can appear and disappear in unobtrusive ways, since usual stage movements are unavailable due to the audience literally being in the way. This specific show also does not have an intermission, which allows the story to keep moving forward and avoids certain musical traditions and limitations (such as the big pre-intermission emotion song).
Fun Home won the Tony Award for best musical last year, but it has taken me until now to go see it, in spite of rave reviews, even from my own friends. Luckily, even though it’s been over a year, the original cast is mostly intact (minus some of the children actors), including Michael Cerveris (The Good Wife) playing Bruce.
While the storyline follows the graphic novel very closely, the show is so much better than the book – and I never ever ever say something like that. But my issue with Alison Bechdel’s writing is that it is all about her, how she feels, how facts affect her, what things mean to her own life. She is still a central figure in the musical, to the point that there are three separate incarnations of her in the musical, but the other characters are fleshed out and humanized in a way that they never were in the source material. I finally feel like I understand Bechdel’s mother more, because in the book she was simply a marginal character, the put-upon wife and mother with no motivation other than cleaning and doing laundry. In the musical she becomes a much more interesting and tragic figure. I loved her.
The character of Bechdel is even more interesting. She appears as a young preadolescent child, a freshman in college, and as her adult self. The adult version of Bechdel never leaves the stage once throughout the entire production. She isn’t given much to do, other than interject funny statements here and there, or update the viewer of plot developments, but her presence as the artist and storyteller is felt throughout. A brilliant and effective narration device. Michael Cerveris as Bruce is excellent, portraying a man torn in half by his desires and his duties. A harsh man who hides behind a commanding and authoritarian presence a vulnerability he would never be able or allowed to fully showcase. The casting is perfect and just shows how so much importance should be paid to who is allowed to perform on the Broadway stage and what it means for the audience.
The songs are all very good, but it’s more of a mood that the show goes for, rather than memorable numbers. Sure, there are some fun ones, like when the kids perform a commercial for the funeral home, or a dream sequence, or immediately after Bechdel has her first lesbian experience. But the focus is more on the buildup of emotion and how we get from the protagonist’s childhood to her adulthood, and what her connection to her father means to her. The choice to use lighting to form panels on the stage, in order to sometimes remind the audience that the source material is in fact a graphic novel, was a brilliant and inspired one.
The show culminates in a very deep, dark, and emotional song performed by the now deceased Bruce as holes in the stage represent lost panels of memory and what could have been, constantly threatening to swallow the actors up and take them to oblivion. It is such a dark moment and when the song ends so does the show. Everything cuts to darkness. Which makes for an awkward and startling end, as the lights shoot immediately back on and we find ourselves clapping for the actors. I don’t know how I felt about it. I kinda needed a catharsis, some transition between that raw emotional end, and the celebration of the brilliant show. I guess it’s meant to emulate the fact that life goes on (for some) and that we’re not given the chance to always take a moment before moving on. Nonetheless, I really needed a moment after that powerful end, to wrap my head around what had happened, before going back out onto the busy New York streets. It stuck with me. The show is that good.