CONTENT WARNING: Suicide mention.
“He was gay…and I was gay…and he killed himself…and I….became a lesbian cartoonist.”
You know those memories where – even though they might represent just a few hours in the long run, they’re so vivid that you know, in that moment, your life was changed forever?
I have two of those memories about Fun Home.
I honestly didn’t know who Alison Bechdel was before I’d heard of the musical. I grew up in a northern New Jersey town being one of the only lesbians (I knew of, anyway) in my school. Even though outwardly I’ve been told I’m pretty personable, I’ve always had a hard time making friends. This continued through college – even though I met a lot of people very different from me, I was always too nervous to take advantage of the support systems and clubs at school. I only really started to make close LGBT+ friends in online spaces – and for that, I’m super thankful – but that’s another story for another day. So I wasn’t exactly versed in the must-read authors and history. (I’m still learning a lot every single day.)
I did, however, do a lot of community theatre. (I really do mean a lot. I’m talking eight separate productions in a row.) Being interested in theatre and performing arts started early on for me – I had a pretty rigorous schedule of dance classes for about 17 years of my life – so doing musicals for fun in the area was kind of a logical next step for me.
I can count on one hand the number of romantic relationships between two feminine-aligned people in musical theatre. There’s Shug and Celie in The Color Purple, Charlotte and Cordelia in Falsettos, Maureen and Joanne in RENT…and very few others. When I heard about Fun Home, I was over the moon. Fun Home is the first Broadway musical with a lesbian main character.
With book and lyrics by Lisa Kron and music by Jeanine Tesori, Fun Home is based on lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir of the same name. It deals with Bechdel’s adolescence and coming of age, her sexuality and experiences with it, and her family life. That includes her discovery that her father had various same gender relationships in his life, as well as his eventual suicide. It’s framed around an adult Bechdel writing the aforementioned graphic memoirs.
The cast is small, featuring only nine actors – many play multiple roles – and the orchestration is lush and piano-heavy. Musically, it’s pretty challenging – arrangements require tight harmony from all actors involved with little voice part doubling. It’s astounding – listening to all three actresses playing Bechdel at different ages singing together in the finale gave me chills the first time. I listened to it over and over again.
My first Fun Home memory is about the night it won its Tonys.
I was hanging out with my friend Jacob that night. He had hosted a Tony viewing party for some of his friends. (Mostly because of my rigorous summer theatre schedule, it’s still the only Tony party I’ve ever been to – and I had a blast.) I remember watching my favorite show – a show which, as a large group of LGBT+ kids, we were all rooting for – win award after award. The fact that this show (or one like it) could move people so much left a huge impact on me.
That night, Sydney Lucas, who played Small Alison in the show, sang “Ring of Keys” live. The song is a ballad from the back half of the show where Alison sings and remembers the first time she’d ever seen a butch lesbian. It was the first time she found a kindred spirit, the first time she ever realized this was OK – this was something she could be. I know you, she sings, to an invisible subject.
It’s important to note that because of the exclusivity of live theatre, the Tony Award performances are the closest most viewers will ever get to experiencing a version of any show. Because legal, filmed performances are not widely available for most theatrical works, these performances may be the only experience an audience has with a particular show. Fun Home chose to display this song over “Come to the Fun Home”, a mock commercial for the family funeral home by Small Alison and her two brothers, which was performed on multiple daytime TV outings. This was deeply significant.
My second memory of Fun Home is about the only time I’ve seen it live.
I’d gone in August with my girlfriend, Arden. We saw the show as a birthday present to her. Fun Home closed the following month, and I’d saved for quite some time in order to afford the tickets. I’m very fortunate that I live close enough to New York City to see professional live theatre frequently. Being that this show was something close to both of us, it was the perfect present.
In its Broadway incarnation, Fun Home was performed in the round. I can’t stress how effective this staging was. It was a very intimate performance. The theatre was not only small, but the staging in the round allowed actors to play to multiple sides of the audience. Beth Malone’s voice, live, gave me chills. Hearing someone who was like me, who sings like me, was extremely validating. We met her at the stage door and I told her so myself.
As I did the research to write this article as accurately as I can, I found out that a community theatre near me has it on the schedule for next year’s season.
I’m getting my audition song ready now.