For those of us who cut our teeth on R&H classics and the mega-musicals of the 1980s—your Phantoms, Les Mizes, Miss Saigons—musical theatre’s relatively recent shift to smaller, more personal stories was both a shock to the system and a welcome reprieve. Fun Home, now playing at the 5th Avenue Theatre on its national tour, is a piercing, intimate story that manages to be funny, bold and sprawlingly emotional, every bit as memorable as those mammoth “important” epics.
Fun Home, which premiered at the Public Theatre in 2013, opened on Broadway in 2015 and won five Tony Awards later that year. Playwright Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori, who adapted the musical from Alison Bechdel’s blockbuster 2006 graphic memoir with director Sam Gold, pulled off something of a theatrical magic trick: They created a clear-eyed, complex, ego-free picture of a life. This Alison isn’t a victim or a saint, she’s a human with an odd, complicated history and family, delivered succinctly and sympathetically. No easy feat.
Of course, Bechdel’s phenomenal source material did plenty of heavy lifting, pre-sifting and artfully arranging Alison’s memories, with Bechdel’s inimitable aesthetic. The musical retains that book’s idiosyncratic sense of humor and style, somehow spare and lush at the same time, to explore Bechdel’s early life, through her own adult eyes.
Adult Alison (Kate Shindle) is our show’s narrator, navigating through the swirls in her story’s “ocean of time” with us as we look back on scenes in her life. There’s young Alison (Carly Gold), a kid in small-town Pennsylvania, living with her family in a museum-like home maintained by her perfectionist father, an English teacher who also ran the local funeral home, a family business. There’s medium Alison (Abby Corrigan) a quiet student at Oberlin, until she realizes she’s gay and comes out to her parents Bruce and Helen (Robert Petkoff and Susan Moniz) as her world suddenly colorizes.
Then there’s her adult life, looking back over moments small and large, re-evaluating with an adult’s eye. “Sometimes my father appeared to enjoy having children, but the real object of his affection was his house.” Her father searches for silver and linen in a heap of antique junk, while Alison wants to play airplane and has dibs on any dead mice.
Her father introduces her to great literature. He doesn’t like cartooning, he doesn’t like Alison cramming too many ideas into one frame, he wants her to pick one thing and make it truly beautiful. Focus. Perfect. Then there’s her mother, who gave up herself for her family, and spends her days raising her kids and maintaining their museum of a house.
What was her father doing with those young men he hired to help around the house? What happened when he left the kids alone at night on a trip to New York? Why did he kill himself, shortly after medium Alison told her parents she’s gay?
Are Alison and her dad nothing alike? Are they exactly alike?
These big questions are the macro, folded into a hilarious micro: “Dad showed me a dead body today. Went swimming. Had egg salad for lunch,” Alison reads from her childhood journal. Corrigan’s impeccably earnest delivery of “I’m Changing My Major to Joan,” medium Alison’s paean to her newfound sexuality, is worth the price of admission. It’s one of the show’s few hummable, stand alone numbers; instead, Tesori and Kron prefer to interweave music and dialogue into a seamless fabric of repeating themes and interlocking lyrics. Some of the recitative moments land with a thud; quick flashes and emotional asides that would work in a paneled comic, but feel artificial when presented live, because we’ve already felt these emotions coming from living, breathing people.
The cavernous 5th Avenue, with its eternally infuriating acoustic problems, isn’t an ideal space for this beautifully designed show. The simple scenic design is made mostly of set pieces—ornate couches and a piano, coffins, milk-crate shelving and a dorm bed, burnished coffins—that glide on and off in front of the small on-stage orchestra. Adult Alison’s drawing table, where she sometimes stands to write this story. All the pieces are navigated cleverly, but ultimately this is a hard show to view from below—an aerial view, showing these people and places in relation to one another, like a living map, rather than layered like a collage.
While adult Alison wanders through the stage and the story, commenting on her former selves, Shindle feels almost like she’s commenting slightly on Alison, a lovely sympathetic portrayal that just doesn’t go all the way down to her toes. She’s telling us her story, rather than letting us see her process her own story on stage.
Because what a process. Can you imagine dramatizing the last conversation you had (or tried to have) with your father, before he killed himself? The bravery of that, of Bechdel writing it, of allowing it to live on stages around the world—that’s huge. The beautiful veneer her father hid behind, to control any of his human messiness, she’s at least trying to scrub that away. “Welcome to our home on Maple Avenue. Everything is balanced and serene, like chaos never happens if it’s never seen,” sings the Bechdel family. (If your response is, “Gee, I’m sure glad we don’t live like that anymore,” get thee to Instagram, immediately.)
“I need real things to draw from, because I don’t trust memory,” adult Alison says early in the show. But memory is all we have, no matter how many pictures we take or mementos we save. And those memories are often fragments, moments, bits and pieces of days and days, the slow drip of existence that shapes all of us. Fun Home is a huge story made of the small moments that make a life—a life we’ve decided is worthy of storytelling, because we all are.