If you’ve been paying attention to Broadway this year, there’s an obvious frontrunner for the Tony Awards (and no, despite how much I’ve been talking about it here and in real life, it’s not Hamilton, which doesn’t start its Broadway run till later this summer). It’s another show that started at the Public Theater, a musical based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel memoir Fun Home. Before seeing the show, I knew this: Alison Bechdel created the Bechdel test*, she’s a lesbian, her father committed suicide, and she grew up in a funeral home (hence, Fun Home).
*To pass the Bechdel test, a film must have two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man. Sadly not that many movies pass the test!
Fun Home is a one-act musical performed in the round at Circle in the Square Theatre. From its format to its subject matter to its cast, which includes Alison at three different ages, it’s a unique production.
I love telling you all about the shows I see, but this time to discuss Fun Home on Broadway I wanted to bring in some of my fellow theater fanatics. This was done over email and has been streamlined/edited slightly, but I would say it’s a fair representation of the kind of conversations I’ve had with all of these friends about theater! We start with a fairly general conversation — there’s a spoiler warning before we start breaking things down, so keep an eye out for that!
Meet Maya (M), Kate (K), Alix (X), and Allie (A)! Maya has listened to the cast album, and the other three have all seen the show. Allie was kind enough to offer me one of her TodayTix tickets, so we saw it together!
S(arah): Hi guys! Let’s get started. First of all, what did you know about Fun Home before you saw it? Did you wish you knew more, or less?
X: I knew basically what Sarah knew, plus that Alison’s father, Bruce, was gay. I was tempted to listen to the music beforehand, but am glad I didn’t. I read the graphic novel the week after I saw the show. One major draw for me (aside from the show’s fantastic reviews and word of mouth following its off-Broadway run) was Michael Cerveris. I saw Michael’s incredible Tony-winning performance as John Wilkes Booth in Assassins in 2004, and it has stuck with me ever since. Michael was also the second-ever Hedwig, and as a massive Hedhead, he’s been on my radar for years for that reason.
Anyway, back to Sarah’s question . . . I don’t think I would change what I knew when I knew it. All the plot info I (we) knew is revealed in the first five minutes of the show anyway, so no spoiler concerns.
I do have to disagree with Sarah (sadly) on one point, though: I don’t think Fun Home is the clear frontrunner for the Best Musical Tony at all. I think the award will go to An American in Paris (which I have not seen) for political reasons that I won’t get into right now. :) But I will bethrilled if I’m wrong.
A: Before seeing the show, all I knew is that it was based on a graphic novel, had a majorly successful run Off-Broadway, and included lesbianism and suicide (you know, as all popular musicals do). Ever since going into Hedwig blind, I’ve been making an effort not to read up too much on the musicals I’m seeing. It makes for a much more impactful and surprising experience.
(And, Alix, I did see American in Paris. You’re right, it’s a major contender for political reasons, but it was also a beautiful show. I think it’s going to deserve the awards it gets, but I also think Fun Home is coming away with the biggies.)
S: Re: Tony Awards, I was more thinking of it as being a frontrunner to win a lot rather than Best Musical, but I can’t wait to see what happens! I haven’t seen An American in Paris but I’ve been hearing a lot about it!
K: I knew about as much as Sarah did, mostly through pre-show research after hearing it was a must-see musical. I have plans now to read the graphic novel, though I very much wish I had read it before seeing the show for some narrative and structural context.
M: Well, I had read the graphic novel before I listened to the show. I’ve become increasingly obsessed with comic books and graphic novels, and Fun Home is one of the cornerstones of the genre. So I knew plenty about the story itself, but had no clue about how much would be comprehensible through just the music available to me through the soundtrack.
S: Maya, that’s super interesting! Do you feel like you could follow it well? I haven’t listened to the album yet, but I do feel like there was a decent amount of dialogue in the show—a lot of the story’s forward motion seemed to happen between songs, while the songs were more meditations on a single moment or feeling. Does that make sense?
M: Well, there is quite a bit of dialogue incorporated into the album—I doubt that anyone could make heads or tails of it otherwise. There are smaller moments that would probably make little to no sense to someone who hasn’t read the book; for example, during Alison’s parent’s argument before “Raincoat of Love”, there’s a reference to her father having been arrested for serving beer (and seducing) a minor. I don’t think anyone who hadn’t read the book would get that, and I have no clue how much they go into it in the show.
But overall, it’s actually pretty simple to get a sense of the show’s plot from the soundtrack. There’s always things that are left out and are hard or impossible to visualize by just listening, but I don’t think this one was any harder than most of the other shows I’ve listened to (and I listen to a lot of shows I haven’t seen).
K: Like Sarah, I also felt the book served the story and its momentum more directly than the score, so I am fascinated that Maya found the plot simple to follow from the album alone (I wonder if that would have been the case without exposure to the graphic novel?). For me, the music consistently distracted from the narrative with only a few key exceptions… Perhaps it was my particular state of mind the evening I attended, but I actually came away from wondering if a straight play would have been a more cohesive format for Bechdel’s story.
A: Kate, I had that exact same thought. A play would have made much more sense to me. Still, I’m glad they took the risk with the musical. Even if some of the songs felt a bit forced into place, it created a piece of theater that was truly different and is getting the attention it deserves. A play on the same themes could have easily been overlooked by the public. Not that I think theater should cater/pander to public opinion. It shouldn’t. But a musical was the unexpected choice here, and I’m glad they made it.
X: Kate and Allie, your reactions remind me of something I saw someone say somewhere (I think it was a critic, but of course I can’t find it now). But someone commented that the book of Fun Home is the best play on Broadway, which I found really interesting. I can totally see where you guys are coming from on the idea of it possibly working better as a straight play. For me, I was so over-the-top moved by the whole thing that I don’t think there’s anything I’d want to change about it. But logically, I definitely see what you mean.
(And, Allie, I wasn’t trying to imply politics would be the only reason American could win. I’ve heard wonderful things about it!)
S: Since it seems like we were all pretty glad we went into it blind (though if you’re just going to listen to the album, it sounds like reading the novel is helpful!) maybe this is the point to tell any readers who don’t want to be spoiled to stop reading. This way we can get into specifics about what happened, how it’s handled, and how it’s staged.
SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT!!!!
NO, REALLY! If you’ve seen the show, you should be able to follow the conversation. If you haven’t, but you don’t mind being spoiled, consider reading the plot summary on Wikipedia – it will help you follow our sometimes rambling conversation!