For my last stop on my annual trip to New York, I paid a visit to the 2015 Tony Award winner for Best Musical: Fun Home. Based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel memoir of the same name, Fun Home features music by Jeanine Tesori (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Shrek the Musical) and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron. Staged in the round at the intimate Circle in the Square Theatre, the musical follows the character of Alison, who is played by three different actresses of different ages, as she grows up and struggles to come to terms with both her own sexuality and her complicated relationship with her father, Bruce.
Fun Home began its life in New York with an acclaimed Off-Broadway run in 2013 at the Public Theater, much like another current Broadway hit, Hamilton. It is unique in both its subject matter (it has been praised for being the first mainstream musical about a young lesbian) and structure. Adult Alison (Beth Malone, Tony-nominated for this role) is a cartoonist and serves primarily as the narrator of the piece as she looks back on two of the most formative times in her life. “Small Alison” (understudy Alessandra Baldacchino at the performance I attended) is 8-years-old and just beginning to realize that something may be different about her. “Medium Alison” (Emily Skeggs, also Tony-nominated for this role) is 19-years-old and in college at Oberlin, where she begins her first romantic relationship with another woman and comes out to her family.
While Alison’s story is obviously the heart and core of the show, Bruce (Michael Cerveris, who won a Tony for this role) is on his own journey. He is far from the most loving father—he scolds young Alison to put on a dress rather than acting like a tomboy, and holds his family and the staff of the funeral home they run to the highest standards. All of this is an attempt to mask his own struggle with sexuality—while married to his wife, Helen (Judy Kuhn, another Tony nominee), he has frequent sexual encounters with other men, some of whom are underage. Bruce’s inability to accept himself hinders his ability to accept Alison, which is increasingly frustrating as she comes into her own and gains confidence.
The cast, in particular Cerveris and the children, is simply fantastic, bringing a needed balance of levity and honesty to a difficult story. While Fun Home is a poignant, well-written, important story that absolutely belongs on the stage, I couldn’t help but ask myself if it may have been better off as a straight play rather than a musical. For me, the music was by far the show’s least memorable feature. While I can vividly remember emotions, staging, scenes, and moments, only one song (“Ring of Keys,” which the show smartly chose to perform on the Tony Awards telecast) really stayed with me—the rest of the music was ultimately a bit forgettable. I don’t know that the presence of music really did anything to further enhance the emotions that are already so clear—if anything, the musical numbers sometimes felt like an out-of-place distraction. And that may be the point—the music is often rather playful, adding some humor and lightness to the heaviness of the story as it builds towards an ending that is rather tragic. Without it, the emotional wallop would have been even more intense, but would that necessarily be the worst thing? I do think expectations played a part. When any musical is as generally beloved as Fun Home, I tend to go in expecting not just a powerful story, but powerful music. While it is an excellent achievement in terms of theater, I don’t know that I would call it an excellent achievement in terms of musicals.
Ultimately, Fun Home is a raw and honest exploration of growing up, sexuality, and family, particularly the impact secrets can have on one. While you may not leave with an urge to put the songs on repeat, you will certainly leave full of feelings.
Fun Home is currently playing on Broadway. A national tour is also in the works for later this year. For more information and to purchase tickets, please visit http://funhomebroadway.com/.