It’s difficult not to speak in hyperbole when talking about Fun Home, the new musical based on Alison Bechdel’s extraordinary graphic memoir. But it’s completely warranted. Fun Home is the most important piece of musical theater since Next to Normal. In essence, Fun Home is to the LGBT experience what Next to Normal was to mental health in this country. And the fact that this musical has arrived on Broadway just as the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments about gay marriage is not lost on me, either. In Fun Home, we have a story that needs to be told because lives depend on it.
It teaches hard truths, which is why I believe it will go on the shelf among other important pieces of theater, such as Next to Normal, Rent, The Normal Heart, Clybourne Park and Rabbit Hole. Here’s why:
1. It has a tremendous amount of heart. Fun Home’s story premise is quite simple and is summed up fairly succinctly by Beth Malone, who portrays adult Alison, in the opening: “My dad and I both grew up in the same Pennsylvania town. He was gay and I was gay, and he killed himself.” But lest you think you now know the story, Malone’s character walks like a ghost through her memories—often mining journals and boxes of old junk—to uncover what led to her father’s death. The connection of her own coming out to his suicide (he steps in front of a truck shortly after her revelation) is a shattering reminder of the inter-linked and dependent nature of families. We’re watching an emotional mystery. And it’s hard not to see ourselves in Alison’s place, attempting to make sense of the pieces of our childhood.
2. Self-discovery is often a joyous process. Fun Home skips back and forth in time as adult Alison unearth’s memories. One such memory is encapsulated by the gorgeous tear-jerker of a song “Ring of Keys,” sung by Sydney Lucas, young Alison. In this soliloquy, Alison sees an “old school butch” for the first time, a delivery woman in a diner, and sings out in joy for seeing an adult version of herself. It’s a moment I’m sure many gays and lesbians will identify with, the joy of knowing you are not alone in this world, the relief of discovering you’re not so different afterall.
3. “My Dad and I Were Exactly Alike.” Alison’s character, at many moments in the show, uses similar phrases and references as her father. She never quite comes out and says it, but I’d posit we’re watching a woman who’s afraid of repeating the sins of her parents. Our parents have a deep influence on the way we show up in the world and interact with the people it. Anyone can relate to the emotional quandary of “becoming” our parents. And here Alison is asking all the right questions to prevent the past from dictating her future.
4. Hide at your own peril. We know how it all ends with Alison’s father, played here by the exceptional Michael Cerveris. But how does he get to that point? In a word: hiding. When we hide who we are, we create a barrier to meaningful connections. Cerveris’ character has a less-than-intimate relationship with his children, a broken one with his wife (after his many sordid affairs with young men), and a strong relationship to keeping secrets. “See how we polish and we shine,” the family sings of Cerveris’ attempt to keep his home and his family appearing perfect on the outside. On the inside, though, we see the turmoil caused by hiding one’s authentic self.
5. People around us suffer the consequences of our decisions. Believe that your decisions affect only you alone? Fun Home will show you just how much the lives of others depend on how you decide to live your life. Imagine had Alison’s father not killed himself. That’s an easy one. Now imagine had he been able to live his life as a gay man, instead of pretending to lead a straight life. Where would Alison be today? What about the young men he manipulated into having secret relationships with him? What about his tortured wife? Bruce Bechdel didn’t live in a vacuum. Neither did his decisions. But sadly without them, we wouldn’t have this extraordinary piece of theater to examine.