S: So I was really interested in how Alison’s character was handled and how she was shown at these three very different points in her life. One of my favorite musicals, Convenience, has a similar conceit of a present day mother and son and their much younger selves, but handled it differently. The present day characters started to see and interact with their younger selves, not exactly in a fantastical way but almost, so they could confront their past and learn from it.
But in Fun Home, it was clear (at least to me!) that adult Alison was writing her graphic novel and was reviewing her past as she did it, not interacting with it—but she’s clearly emotionally involved in what she’s remembering. What did you guys think? In that last conversation with her dad, [“Telephone Wire”, after she comes out to her family and learns he’s gay, right before he dies] didn’t adult Alison participate instead of middle Alison, or am I remembering wrong?
A: You’re remembering right. Bruce asks adult Alison to go for a drive, and it takes her a few seconds to realize he’s talking directly to her, and not to Middle Alison. I found that moment very akin to lucid dreaming—she steps in and becomes part of the action.
My question, though, is whether at that moment adult Alison either 1. stepped into the memory as herself, bringing with her all the insight and experience of 20-or-so years beyond the memory, but was unable to change the events, or 2. stepped in to Middle Alison’s role, taking part in the memory as if she hadn’t already lived it (and, logistically, giving Beth Malone another big song to sing). Does that make sense? It’s something I’ve been thinking about.
X: I’m really interested in that moment, too. My take on it is that Big Alison has avoided thinking about that last conversation with her dad for years, and her stepping into the memory is basically her finally being ready to examine what happened. And the fact that she’s desperately trying throughout the song to change what happened in that car is just heartbreaking–because she’ll never succeed. It’s the only moment in the play I can think of where she’s trying to rewrite the past, which is perhaps why Big Alison (now a writer) is the one who performs it. Although, yes, it certainly crossed my mind that it could just be to give Beth Malone another song. :)
I read somewhere that Emily Skeggs (Medium Alison) once performed “Telephone Wire” with Michael Cerveris in rehearsals just so everyone could see what it would be like if she, the age-appropriate Alison, were the one performing the song. I’ve been trying to imagine what that would be like, and I don’t think it would work. Big Alison performs the song with the knowledge that this is their last chance to connect and a desperate desire to make that happen. Medium Alison doesn’t know at the time of the car ride that this will be her last conversation with her dad, so I don’t think there could be the same level of urgency if she were the one performing it.
A:This is excellent. I’m convinced. (And you called it a play! Ha.)
X: Ha! Yeah, I don’t know, I tend to call dramatic musicals plays for some reason?
Listen to Beth Malone perform “Telephone Wire” with Michael Cerveris
M: Here’s something I was wondering as someone who hasn’t seen the show, but read the book: how intense are the literary allusions/discussions in the show? The book is more or less structured around classic works of literature that Alison shared and discussed with her father (Albert Camus, James Joyce, Fitzgerald, Colette, Proust).
I’m wondering if the music takes the place of that shared literature—I can imagine that going into the depths of her understanding of her relationship to her father in the relationship between Bloom and Dedalus in Ulysses wouldn’t translate well to stage, but framing that similar idea in a song would have some kind of a similar effect.
X: Way fewer literary references in the show. There are a lot of references to literature, so the audience is well aware that Bruce and Alison are both avid readers, but I don’t remember any direct comparison of Alison and Bruce’s relationship to literary relationships. I don’t think Ulyssesis mentioned at all. The Colette stuff is the closest in the show to how it is in the book. Bruce sends Alison the book, and Alison wonders if he knew what he was doing.
A: Yup. What she said. And I wonder if he knew what he was doing, too. He must have on some level, even subconsciously, don’t you think?
K: I attended with a friend who has read the novel (and is a high school English teacher), and her biggest critique of the show was the absence of those literary references. She thought adult Alison’s true voice was lost with their omission; Maya’s insight that the creative team may have substituted music for literature (giving her LITERAL voice) is an interesting one. I have not listened to the score since seeing the show in April, but I don’t remember any songs specifically alluding to literary figures/plots, at least not notably so.
M: Yeah, none of the songs are particularly literary in nature. I think they may just take the place of what the allusions did in the book: explaining Alison’s headspace and recollections to the audience in an emotive way. I don’t think keeping most of them in would be a great idea—I think you’d be likely to alienate the audience with a long discussion of the various English translations of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu.
K: “Telephone Wire” (the car song) is among the three I distinctly remember from the performance (in addition to Mom’s and Dad’s major respective numbers), and I think the spirited discussion here surrounding it is precisely why. The song engages, communicates, and drives the story forward in a way most of the preceding music personally did not for all the reasons you ladies have already hit on–adult Alison’s sudden shift from spectator to participant, the urgency of conversation, the desperate attempts on behalf of Alison to rewrite narrative. The piece develops important themes and builds momentum rather than halting it. Something like “Changing My Major”, on the other hand, is a cute glimpse into middle Alison’s lovestruck inner monologue, but I was over it after verse one, ready for the actual story to continue. =)
A: Same with “Ring of Keys.” It’s a great song, catchy, and I could watch Sydney Lucas’s well-crafted performance of it forever. But I didn’t think it did anything to drive the plot forward. I felt the same about Season 5 of Game of Thrones until last week’s episode.
Oops. Sorry, Sarah. Off topic!
M: I have to disagree with “Ring of Keys” . I think it’s one of the most central parts of the show—it’s pretty much the first time Alison sees anyone who looks like who she is herself, and it’s really a critical moment in the book. Maybe it’s played down in the show?
X: I kind of agree with you on “Changing My Major,” Kate. It’s a fun song, but a little too “cute” for Alison, I think, especially in retrospect after reading the book. I’m okay with it not driving the plot forward, though. I adore “Come to the Fun Home,” for instance, but it definitely isn’t essential to the story.
Oh, but I disagree about “Ring of Keys.” Oh my. I’m obsessed. (Sydney Lucas is performing this on the Tonys, by the way, which I’m psyched about.) I would keep Fun Home a musical rather than a straight play just so “Ring of Keys” can be in it. To me, it does something that I don’t think words could ever do in a play. Small Alison is singing about a feeling she can’t articulate because she doesn’t have the language to describe what it is she’s experiencing, but her soul is soaring in that moment. I think music is the perfect way to express these feelings that she’s totally unable to put intowords. All those unfinished phrases . . . And the line “do you feel my heart saying ‘hi’?” just about gutted me. I sobbed through the whole show, but that line brought on a whole new level of tears.
A: Oh my goodness, I have to clarify immediately. I love “Ring of Keys.” I’ve watched it on YouTube, according to my viewing history, more than 50 times. And I am so looking forward to seeing it performed on the Tonys; Sydney Lucas’s performance at last year’s Drama Desk was outstanding. It’s masterful, really—the way she’s shy, then exuberant, then confused, repeatedly. And yes, it’s definitely a turning point for Little Alison. My issue is that it comes so late in the show, at a point when we’ve already seen Middle Alison come to terms with her sexuality in college. Maybe I’m being too literal—I know the show isn’t chronological, much like memory—but as an audience member, I feel like it would have been more impactful if it came earlier. That’s just me!
S: Like Allie I wonder if the problem with “Ring of Keys” is that it ends up feeling isolated. Besides the clothing conversations about whether Alison should wear a dress or “boys’ clothes”, there’s not a lot about young Alison’s discovery—it’s all about middle Alison—and this comes so late in the show. It’s such a powerful song, and captures something special, just like Alix has outlined—maybe it would’ve worked better at a different moment in the show?
Not sure if it should’ve been early, or at the very end. I guess that’s one of my questions with the whole show—with the two (almost three, but not quite, with adult Alison) timelines, it’s always clear WHICH timeline we’re in because of the different actresses, but there’s something about the forward motion that sometimes works REALLY well and sometimes doesn’t, for me.
X: Hm, interesting points about the placement of “Ring of Keys.” Perhaps it would have been even more effective at a different point in the show.
Watch Sydney Lucas perform “Ring of Keys” at the 2014 Drama Desk Awards
A: There’s a thoughtful piece in the New York Times about “Days and Days,” which I think may have been my favorite song from the show, if not the most tear-worthy. This may be the NYT’s way of endorsing Judy Kuhn for the Featured Actress Tony. Speaking of, what did you guys think of the mother character? For you book readers, was her portrayal true to the graphic novel?
S: I remember being both hugely sympathetic to her mother’s need to tell Alison the truth about her father, to unburden herself about her history to her daughter, but I also was so angry at her for dumping that on Alison. How could she DO that to her daughter, who was struggling so much? Parent/child relationships are tough, and as we grow up can become closer to friendships, but that wasn’t the moment for it.
But of course it WAS the moment for it, even though it was painful! It worked narratively, and it was presumably what happened. Or at least how Alison remembers it happening…
M: Her mother seems in the soundtrack to be underdeveloped. There’s a lot in the book about how incredibly talented of an actress her mother was, and how much that got pushed away to conform to what was expected of her in the 50’s and 60’s. “Days and Days” is incredible, but I’m assuming any more development of her as a character happens outside the music.
S: I didn’t remember that her mom was an actress AT ALL, so I don’t think that was emphasized. It was clear that she’d given up a lot to be with him, but she wasn’t all that present. Which is too bad.
I’m listening to the show now for the first time since I saw it and I’m struck by the tension between what young Alison would have noticed about certain situations and what adult Alison would have. Kate’s totally right, there aren’t that many moments where adult Alison is a participant, but we’re still seeing it from her perspective. We know more about what her dad’s relationship with Roy was, what the scene set in NYC means, than young Alison would have.
Young Alison knows something is off, sees the fighting (the “Raincoat of Love” song, which felt like a fantasy sequence, even with the technical malfunction that happened when we saw it, makes it clear she’s trying to shut out what she’s not ready to hear), but doesn’t understand what it all adds up to.
The memoir part of this complicates all of it—in a novel or regular musical, we could quibble with how the writer has set this stuff down, with what it would’ve made sense for the character to remember. But this IS Alison’s story so we have to take her word that this is what she remembers—and we know how faulty our own memories are.
X: Bringing in a new topic, because it’s one I haven’t been able to stop thinking about: I am fascinated by the time period the show is set in, as it feels to me like the exact tipping point where it became possible to live your life as a gay person. Bruce didn’t feel that that was an option for him. For Alison, one generation away, it is.
There is more on this in the book; Alison explores there what could have happened if Bruce had been able to live his life as a gay man–noting that she herself wouldn’t exist if he had. She also considers what her life would have been like if, like Bruce, she’d felt the need to stay closeted and marry someone of the opposite sex.
I also love the line in the show about their house being just four miles from the highway that leads from the Castro to Christopher Street—two of the only places in the country at that time where Bruce could have possibly lived his life out of the closet. There’s something about the whole family living along the line connecting these two places that’s both poetic and tragic.
Another point Alison makes in the book is that had Bruce not killed himself, he likely could have succumbed to the early days of the AIDS crisis, and potentially could have infected Alison’s mother as well. (He died in 1980.) If I recall, she feels that in some ways his death might have been easier for her to deal with if it had been part of a larger story within the gay community than just a random tragedy.
A: Not to change the subject, Alix, but separately, I wanted to ask a question of you book readers. I heard that, in the book, Alison struggles with not knowing whether her father’s death was a suicide or an accident. Is that true? In the show, it’s pretty clearly a suicide.
M: Yes, that’s true. The death was ruled as an accident, and there’s evidence in favor of both of those conclusions. She mentions that no one but her seemed to think it was a suicide, and that her main suspicion was because of the fact that her mother had asked for a divorce two weeks earlier, that she found a copy of Albert Camus’ “The Happy Death” displayed prominently, and the timing coupled with her coming out. So it leaves you with the strong impression that he committed suicide, but there is doubt.
S: Was it that clear that it was suicide in the show, though? I know I said that was something I “knew” before I saw the show, but the line that strikes me as it comes back again and again in “Edges of the World” is “Why am I standing here?”
He’s definitely struggling with depression, and he definitely steps out into the road, but I can’t remember how deliberate it felt in the show. Listening to the song he sounds delusional, like he really doesn’t know why he’s standing there, how he got there.
A: It was definitely a suicide in the show. She makes that clear from one of the opening lines: “My Dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town, and he was gay, and I was gay, and he killed himself, and I became a lesbian cartoonist.”
Actually, that is to say, Big Alison definitely thinks it was a suicide in a show. Whether or not it was truly a suicide, who knows.
X: From both the show and book I felt that the door was kept open to the possibility that it could have been an accident. (I know that was my impression leaving the show, before I’d read the book, though now I can’t recall exactly what in the show made me feel it wasn’t 100% certain it was a suicide.) The actual circumstances of Bruce’s death are described in more detail in the book. The truck driver who hit him said he jumped backward into the road as if he’d seen a snake.
Personally, this makes me feel like there’s a better chance it was just an accident, though, of course, the source should be taken into consideration as well, and I suppose the truck driver could have had reason to lie about this. Memory is a tricky thing. . . .
S: Before we wrap up, can we talk some about Tony expectations?
A: The most talked-about category for Fun Home at the Tony’s is the Featured Actress—Sydney Lucas, Emily Skeggs, and Judy Kuhn comprise three out of five of the nominations. Apparently the musical’s promoters are pushing Sydney Lucas, though Judy Kuhn is slightly favored in all of the polls I’ve seen. I’d love to see Lucas win—especially considering she’s bound to age out of the role relatively soon— but I wouldn’t be upset if either of them won. I liked Emily Skeggs’s performance, but I don’t think it was nearly as intricate as the other two; plus, Lucas and Kuhn’s chances are boosted by those who saw them perform at the Public. Skeggs joined the production a bit later than the rest of the cast, so she may not have been as widely seen.
Who do you guys think has the best chance? And do you think the production’s going to take home the Best Musical award? I do, but I know it’s up against pretty strong competition.
S: Allie, I totally agree with you about middle Alison and Emily Skeggs—I wonder if part of it is how the part is written. “Changing My Major” is really her only featured song, and as we’ve said it doesn’t have nearly the power of “Telephone Wire”. Sydney Lucas not only has “Ring of Keys” but also is in a couple other numbers, so she really has the chance to shine. Judy Kuhn really only has the one song, but it’s SO powerful and painful.
What do we think about Michael Cerveris in the Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role? I loved Brian D’Arcy James in Something Rotten, the only other show I’ve seen in this category, but his role didn’t require quite as much nuance or range. Which raises an interesting question that brings us back to the Best Featured Actress bit—if someone gives a superb performance in a role with limited scope, is that enough? They can’t help it that the writers didn’t give them more room to play.
Oh, and while Beth Malone was lovely, in terms of sheer energy and stage presence I think I’d go with Kristin Chenoweth. On the Twentieth Century was a lot of fun, but it was her performance that carried it, I think.
A: Sarah, I definitely do think that’s enough. In fact, sometimes it’s more than enough. I’m thinking of Lena Hall in Hedwig last year, and how well deserved her Lead Actress Tony felt, even though Yitzhak has a total of, what, like, six lines and one-and-a-half songs to lead? There still wasn’t any doubt in my mind that she earned that award.
M: I think it’s probably a two way race between Lucas and Kuhn for featured actress. I’d love to see it go to Lucas, though I know Daisy Egan has said that she would never wish winning the Tony as young as she did on anyone. I think Michael Cerveris has a really good chance at winning Best Actor, but I’m not so sure about Beth Malone’s chances in the Best Actress category—she’s up against Kristen Chenoweth (who has the momentum from the Drama Desks behind her), the always amazing Kelli O’Hara AND Chita Rivera.
As for Best Musical, I see it going one of two ways—either Fun Home pretty much sweeps things, or it takes Best Book/Best Score and loses out on the big one to An American in Paris. Something Rotten would be the dark horse to steal any of the awards from those two, but while it’s very entertaining, The Producers it is not.
(strong musical opinions, I have them!)
A: Beth Malone was great, but I agree, I don’t see her winning this year. Cerveris, on the other hand, I do think will win. I’m really interested in the scenic and lighting categories, where the understated, minimalist Fun Home set is going up against the larger-than-life American in Paris set. They’re so different, it’s really hard to compare. Ultimately, I think Fun Home will be the winner here, too. It’s more innovative.
X: I agree with pretty much everything Allie and Maya said. It seems like Ruthie Ann Miles is gaining some traction for featured actress, but I still think it will go to either Sydney Lucas or Judy Kuhn–Sydney is my pick. Like Allie, I liked Emily Skeggs a lot, but she was the weakest of the three (both the three Alisons and the three Fun Home featured actress nominees) for me. I think Cerveris should and will win for lead actor, though I’m becoming a little less confident in that. I can see it going to Robert Fairchild, or possibly Brian D’Arcy James. I think Beth Malone has almost no chance for lead actress; my guess is that Chenoweth will take it, but I wouldn’t be shocked at all if it went to either Kelli or Chita.
I really can’t imagine Fun Home losing either book or score, but, as I’ve said, I think American in Paris winning for best musical seems most likely at this point. I think American could take best director over Fun Home, too. Very excited for Sunday!
By the way, since we’re discussing it, I’d love some input from the group: I want to give the book to my 14-year-old sister (will be 15 soon). Too young? (The book is more graphic (ha! graphic!) than the show, so especially curious about book-readers’ opinions.) And my 12-year-old sister (will be 13 in September) wants to go see the show with me this summer. Would you take a 12-year-old to see it?
M: I think that it’d be fine to give to your sister if you think she’s old enough to handle it. I know a lot of people who started reading romance novels around that age, and I don’t think Fun Home (the book) is all that much more graphic than those—it just has pictures instead of the words.
A: Alix, I haven’t read the book, so I can’t chime in there—but I will say, how old were you when you saw Cabaret for the first time? It was around 12 or 14, wasn’t it? I don’t think kids who want to see this complicated material should be shielded from it, but prepare yourself for some questions afterward…
X: Thanks for the input, Maya and Allie. I think I agree.
M: I was 14 and my sister was 10 when we saw our first show on Broadway, and that was Gypsy with Bernadette Peters. So, stripping and borderline child abuse (albeit to great music). I tend to think most kids can handle more than we give them credit for, especially these days.
X: I saw this short interview from earlier today and thought I’d share.
And I dare you to watch this video without crying, if you haven’t seen it already. I keep thinking about how incredible it will be for T-RAB (“the real Alison Bechdel,” as the cast calls her) if/when the actors playing her and/or her parents win Tonys.
Watch a short video about Fun Home’s road to Broadway.
S: Guys, this has been amazing! Thanks for such a lovely conversation about a really fascinating musical, and let’s do a follow-up (on Fun Home, or something else!) very soon! Can’t wait to talk about the Tonys with you (online or off)!
TONY UPDATE! Fun Home won for Best Musical! It also won Best Score, Best Book of a Musical, Best Director of a Musical, and Best Actor in a Musical. CONGRATS to an awesome show! More results here!
Interested in Fun Home? Check out the graphic novel that started at all, or listen to the cast album, available for purchase and streaming on Spotify! And if you can, see the musical on Broadway! Allie’s and my tickets were $37 each through the TodayTix lottery app.