All I knew of Fun Home before seeing it was that it involved a funeral home, took place in the ’70s, and had lesbians in it. I knew that it had played off-Broadway in 2014 and was reportedly quite good. After Finding Neverland I was ready for anything better than awful. I didn’t prepare myself for how miraculous and sublime Fun Home would be.
Based on the graphic novel Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel, Fun Home is a story played out in flashback as an adult Alison is going through boxes of her father’s things. Alison is a forty-something lesbian cartoonist, recalling her life as a child of the ’70s growing up with her two brothers and parents in a sprawling old house in suburban Pennsylvania from which the family runs their funeral home. We know nearly from the beginning that Alison’s father died by suicide and that he was a closeted gay man, and yet that doesn’t stop the show from being full of surprises.
We see a little girl Alison, played by the astounding Sydney Lucas, playing with her brothers in and out of coffins and dancing and singing a catchy “commercial” they perform for the funeral home. It reminded me of the kind of weird games we all played as kids. I remember a friend of mine and I playing fast food drive-thru using the sliding windows of a car port, and one of my ex’s regaled me with stories of making music videos of he and his sister and neighbors lip synching and dancing to Madonna using a Betamax camera. It’s the kind of silly stuff we do as kids to find a way to have fun with whatever happens to be around us. The disco lighting we see when the kids sing and dance their commercial is highly stylized and unrealistic, but I bet it’s just the way they remember it in their minds, just like how we all remember things through a slight filter and angle of subjectivity.
Bruce, Alison’s father, played arrestingly by Michael Cerveris, is engaging and supportive one minute and then distant and mean the next, but then who wouldn’t be rather testy trying to live two lives at the same time and never being able to fully immerse and relax in either? Helen, Alison’s mother, played heartbreakingly by Judy Kuhn (who was the singing voice of Disney’s Pocahontas along with being in the original Broadway company of Les Miserables), knows of her husband’s dalliances with men – sometimes underage boys we later find out – but she tries to look the other way and block it out. One scene finds her playing Chopin over and over while her husband is alone in another room with an attractive young man he has hired to do odd jobs around the house. She knows what is going on but is always looking to distract herself.
As Alison goes off to college and struggles to come to terms with being a lesbian, her father is just as resolute to pretend that he isn’t gay. The older Alison speaks of how she and her father are exactly alike and nothing alike at the same time, and who hasn’t been able to look back at their life and, knowing their parents and themselves, be able to see the qualities they inherited from either parent? And that is the biggest takeaway I have from Fun Home, the idea of seeing our parents as people with feelings and a past and emotions separate from their role as our parents. We all see things differently looking back at events that happened when we were children with the knowledge we now have as adults and gain insight unbeknownst to us at the time. Young Alison remembers a time when her father was sneaking out of the house, and she guilts him into staying a while and singing her back to sleep. As an adult looking back, she knows he was on his way out to cruise guys, but at the time she just knew he was on his way out probably to do something he shouldn’t.
The music is by Jeanine Tesori with lyrics and book by Lisa Kron, and it is quite an achievement. The songs are all specific to the scene and characters and are fully integrated, unlike the bland mess of Finding Neverland, where the songs lack the specificity of time, place, or context. The play is performed without an intermission at the Circle in the Square Theatre in the round, a pretty tricky place to stage any show – yet director Sam Gold guides set pieces around so that nothing is blocked to the audience and everyone has a valid vantage point from which to watch the action unfold.
Fun Home is daring, poignant, honest, and touching, and it is the kind of musical drama that reinvigorates the art form. Regardless of any awards that may come its way – and many are deserved – it warms my heart to think of theatre companies across the country performing this intense and original work. It needs to be seen and appreciated, though I’m concerned that perhaps it is too special for Broadway.
This is one that should not be missed!