On Thursday night I saw “Fun Home.” this year’s Tony Award winner for Best Musical. I think it’ll be a while before the mulling over stops.
Based on Cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, “Fun Home” plays on a specific as well as a universal level. While it’s her story—her childhood and her coming out—it also appeals to a fairly widespread desire: to know what our parents are really like, to solve a mystery that no child really can. We want to know them not as parents, but as people, particularly people our age. Is it any wonder films like “Back to the Future,” in which this wish plays out, are so popular? But “Fun Home” is about an even greater enigma: Alison’s father, Bruce, married, father of three—and gay. And who evidently committed suicide by stepping into the path of a truck not long after his daughter came out.
“Fun Home,” the musical, features 43-year-old Alison looking back on her childhood and adolescence, and trying to understand her father’s life and death (It’s no accident she’s doing this at almost the same age he was when he died. Take it from one who’s been there—realizing you’ve surpassed your parents’ ages certainly makes you reassess your life). Alison is aided and abetted by two younger selves: Small Alison, who’s about 9 or 10, and Middle Alison, in her freshman year at Oberlin. Her father Bruce is a high school English teacher who also runs the Bechdel Funeral Home, the family business he inherited which his kids call “Fun Home.” But Bruce’s real passion is historic restoration, an avocation he takes to an extreme. As the adult Alison notes, “The real object of his affection was his house.” The family residence closely resembles a museum in which Bruce insists everything must be in its place. With his private life in chaos it’s not surprising he’s something of a control freak capable of raging over minutiae.
Even discounting the subject matter, this is definitely not your daddy’s musical theater. The show is played in the round, so that fourth wall feels practically non-existent. There’s no intermission so there’s never a loss of momentum in the story. It’s non-linear—what we experience is the adult Alison’s looking back and trying to make sense of a jumble of memories and impressions. But what ultimately makes “Fun Home” so refreshing is that this is a quiet show, both literally and figuratively. Seven musicians accompany the characters as they express themselves in language, both musical and lyrical, that seems made to measure. Composer Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, book author and lyricist, have produced a wonderfully honest work—there’s no grandiosity of expression or hyper-intellectualism. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Small Alison’s number, “Ring of Keys,” which Sydney Lucas performed so memorably at the Tony Awards. The character expresses herself as a child would, albeit one with a growing realization of who she is. Similarly she and her two brothers hilariously stay within their own frame of reference when they belt out their commercial for the family business (“Come to the Fun Home”), Jackson 5-style. Both songs bring the house down in performance.
All five principals of “Fun Home” were nominated for Tony Awards, and rightly so (Michael Cerveris won for Best Actor in a Musical). Emily Skeggs gives a lovely performance as Middle Alison; she’s adorable singing “Changing My Major” in her tighty-whities and soccer socks after that first night with Joan (Speaking of whom, Roberta Colindrez lends a welcome tang to her portrayal of Alison’s first). And the audience is brought to its virtual knees by Judy Kuhn’s rendition of “Days and Days,” as Alison’s mother Helen describes what it’s cost her to be married to the closeted Bruce. “Heart-wrenching” doesn’t begin to do actor or song justice. When Ms. Kuhn ended by singing to Middle Alison, “Don’t come back here\I didn’t raise you\To give away your days\Like me” at the performance I saw, I could feel the audience collectively draw a startled breath at the rawness of that emotion.
Michael Cerveris as Bruce and Beth Malone as Alison give stellar performances in the two most complex roles in “Fun Home.” By turns avuncular, rigid, gentle and angry, Mr. Cerveris shows us a man incapable of listening to others because of the noise in his own head. One moment he can sing a gentle lullaby to his daughter; the next he can leave his kids asleep in a borrowed apartment in New York to go out cruising. Yet the torment of living a double life is never gone for him. There are few scenes in musicals that show a character’s desperation as plainly as the conclusion of “Raincoat of Love,” a Partridge Family-like number, in which Bruce stands alone, singing the refrain “Everything’s all right,” over and over, a capella. The man is just falling apart.
Beth Malone may have the smallest role of the three Alisons, but it’s the most crucial. As the narrator of “Fun Home,” she’s the prism through which we see the story (Her embarrassment at Middle Alison’s gaucherie is predictable but hilarious). At first she’s ambivalent about her father (“My dad and I were exactly alike. My dad and I were nothing alike”). But as memories return and are reexamined from her now-adult viewpoint, her sympathies begin to shift. Perhaps for the first time she appreciates how closed his life was; as she sings in “Maps,” “I can draw a circle—you live your life inside.” Longing to understand him, she recreates their final conversation (“Telephone Wire”), in which she promises herself over and over that she’ll broach the subject of their gayness at the next traffic light as they go for a drive. But the adolescent Alison can’t make contact, to the adult’s frustration (“I had no way of knowing my beginning would be your end”). Like Jay Gatsby, she wants to change the past to ensure a different present. However, there is reconciliation. As the adult Alison, looking back at how she and her father played “airplane,” concludes: “Every so often there was a moment of perfect balance when I soared above him.”
If you can’t make it to the Public Theater to see “Fun Home,” by all means buy the original cast recording. It has a great deal of the dialogue along with the music, and the performances are full tilt—the four ladies and Michael Cerveris have some serious chops. Skip the MP3 version and spring for the CD—it’s accompanied by a terrific booklet with all the lyrics and an insightful essay by Jesse Green, theater critic of “New York” magazine.