I don’t usually see the long-game commercial value or even artistic point in musicals that follow only-internal character development without much in the way of plot. First of all, they rarely work, because the lack of propulsion gives them soft narrative and focus that tends to sprawl; but as Next to Normal and The Color Purple (especially in its recent UK iteration directed by John Doyle) have proved, you can make a go of it if you’re assiduous about maintaining the perspective through which the story is told and about having a clear development goal, a point for the main character to reach that will signify a triumph over repression and the achievement of guilt-free self-acceptance. Indeed it’s just possible that this may signify a new, developing subgenre of musical in keeping with issues that are increasingly meaningful and prominent in New Millennium society, especially with the Far Right having pretty much made itself so visible and even iconic a bulwark of ignorance, intolerance, denial and suppression that neutering any such influence can—in a musical theatre context—have the impact that releases genuine catharsis in an audience. As long as the forces in opposition are clear and clearly personalized, there can be enough dramatic tension to sustain an evening and a score to fill it.
Certainly that seems to be the case with Fun Home. An adaptation of an award-winning and autobiographical graphic novel (or, in this case, mature-audiences longform comic book) by Alison Bechdel, it tells the adult author’s (Beth Malone) story of growing up in the 70s as the daughter (small: Sydney Lucas and medium: Alexandra Socha) of a loving yet uptight and rigid father (Michael Cerveris), who keeps his family—including two other siblings (Griffin Birney, Noah Hinsdale) and his wife (Judy Kuhn)—continually apprehensive about committing infractions to the rulers that define his sense of order, as such things send him into rages of hurtful disapproval. And as Alison finds her sexual identity developing, coming to realize that she is a lesbian, her emergence and unabashed declaration send her precariously balanced father into a tailspin leading at length to his suicide; because the irony—and of course where repression exists there must be one—is that the father is a closeted homosexual who cannot conceive of the repercussions to the life he has carefully crafted for himself if he comes out…if he allows himself to come out. (By the way, there are no spoilers in this paragraph. All the dramatic themes, including a specific foreshadowing of the suicide, are stated cleanly very close to the top of the show—as indeed they are in Ms. Bechdel’s graphic novel, which the musical follows about as faithfully as a musical reduction may.) The title Fun Home is of course meant ironically, but is also double-edged wordplay, for the house doubles as Dad’s place of business; he’s the director of a funeral home, which his kids shorthand knowingly as fun home. (Other characters include Alison’s first and also first serious lover [Roberta Colindrez] and Dad’s surreptitious playmates [all Joel Perez].)
For the first-time librettist-lyricist of a full-length, mainstream-venue musical (the Public Theatre), Lisa Kron acquits herself with the craft-control of a savvy veteran, knowing what to sing about and when, plus respecting the principles of craft. Jeanine Tesori’s music is both eclectic and apt, original and sometimes strikingly beautiful when it needs to be, evincing a fine grasp of period pastiche (usually used to amusingly ironic effect) elsewhere. Sam Gold’s direction is commensurately in the slot, putting over clean staging and just the right tone: big enough to be real musical theatre and real enough for intimate verisimilitude.
All this said, Fun Home may not be for everybody (though I daresay most will find it hard put not to find it persuasive). But I think it speaks to anyone, certainly any group, who knows what it means to risk the pain of taking charge and stepping out of the shadows, to achieve the greater good of owning your own life and living it unashamed. That should give it a long, proud life of its own…
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