Is America ready for a musical about a middle-aged, butch lesbian? That’s the question on the minds of Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori as they prepare their version of Fun Home for its Oct. 22 premiere at New York’s Public Theater. Based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, Fun Home tells the story of Alison’s coming out to her parents, and of her father Bruce’s suicide a few months later.
“Nothing takes you inside the soul of a human being like a musical does,” Kron, who wrote the show’s book and lyrics, told me a few days before previews began on Sept. 30. “Are people willing to go there with people who are always on the outskirts, particularly of this form?” After five years’ work on their adaptation, she and composer Tesori certainly hope so.
Shows like Billy Elliot have portrayed the inner lives of gay boys, but Fun Home is the first mainstream musical about a young lesbian. “Musicals are traditionally the straightest of the straight, even though they were largely made by gay men. They're about a leading man and an ingénue,” says Kron. Fun Home, on the other hand, examines a father-daughter relationship, with Alison as the main protagonist.
Adapting Bechdel’s much-loved 2006 memoir for the theater was a complicated process. “You can't translate one form into another,” says Kron. “You have to make a parallel work that has its own originating impulse.”
The specific challenges range from the practical—in her cartoons, Bechdel can depict her parents and brothers at many different points in their lives, while the musical has less flexibility with its flesh-and-blood actors—to the literary: The book’s storytelling is very recursive. “It goes around and around and around,” says Kron. “You feel like you're entering a traditional story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, but once you start to analyze it, you realize that there's no straightforward story.”
I asked Bechdel, who is obsessive about presenting a truthful version events in her autobiographical comics, how it felt to hand over her life story to someone else, knowing that the adaptation would inevitably involve inventions and conflations. “It almost felt like a relief, the burden of accuracy being lifted,” she told me. “I feel like they get at something more essentially accurate than I was able to do. They understood the emotional backbone of the story better than I did, which was disturbing.”
What’s more, she says her lack of intimate connection to the new format made it easier to let go: “I have so little relationship to theater, especially musical theater. As a form it's very alien to me, so I didn't feel very proprietary about it. I just let go.”
From a dramatic point of view, the book’s biggest challenge is that it is narrated by a middle-aged woman who is explaining what she has come to understand about her family and her childhood. Alison’s mature narrative voice, so effective in the book, can’t operate in the same way onstage “because it knows what it knows from the first page of the book,” says Kron. “Theatrical characters have to change throughout the course of a play. On stage, you have to watch people moving through the passage of time, not looking back and talking about it, but actually experiencing something.”
Kron and Tesori’s solution was to cast three Alisons—in the Public Theater production, 8-year-old Alison will be played by Sydney Lucas, 19-year-old Alison by Alexandra Socha, and 45-year-old Alison by Beth Malone. This allows the show to depict the father-daughter relationship at three key stages in Alison’s life: when Bruce was clearly in control; when she came out and the balance of power started to shift; and when she’s at the approximate age as her father was when he died, and she has made peace with him.
While mature Alison’s might be the trickiest point of view to integrate into the musical, Kron and composer Tesori were both adamant about keeping the character. Tesori was keen to express the liberation that comes at middle age, when you can look back on the way you were parented and learn from the experience. But even more important, says Tesori, who like Kron and Bechdel is in her early 50s, “I wanted to see a woman who was close to my age on stage. And I wanted to see a gay character at 8 years old—I wanted to reveal the things in musical theater that I haven’t seen yet.” (Tesori has a record of putting characters who are typically invisible in mainstream culture at the center of her work: Caroline, or Change, on which she collaborated with Tony Kushner, is about a black domestic worker.)
Several of the show’s songs deal directly with Alison’s nascent sexuality, including “Al for Short,” in which young Alison imagines herself as a suave rescuer of damsels in distress; “Changing My Major,” when college-aged Alison discovers the joy of sex; and “Ring of Keys,” in which 8-year-old Alison admires a butch woman in a diner.*
Kron was worried that audiences would laugh at that last song—“I really struggled with finding language to describe [the butch stranger] that I didn’t feel was a trigger for a straight audience,” she told me. As a Tony voter, Kron sees every Broadway show, and she has grown weary of a tiresome trope: In several recent musicals, “there was a moment where someone would say the word lesbian as a non sequitur because it was funny. I’d be so on board, and then I’d be slapped in the face by it. It was just like, This character’s a joke. This is not a person."
Can one new musical overcome years of lazy stereotyping? In the Fun Home preview that I recently attended, no one giggled when young Alison sang “Ring of Keys.” Instead, the song elicited gasps of recognition.
*Update, Oct. 9, 2013: Slate learned the official song titles after publication, and two of these titles have been adjusted accordingly.
Come back on Oct. 23 for a review of Fun Home.