By Morgan Politzer
I did theater for 14 years growing up, but I’ve never seen anything like “Fun Home.”
“Fun Home” was nominated for 12 Tony Awards in 2015 and took home five, including Best Musical. It’s the first time a musical written by a women had won in that category. ”Fun Home” is also the first time a Broadway production has featured a lesbian leading role. The production opened at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C. on April 19.
The musical is based on the 2006 graphic novel Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, in which she describes her relationship with her late father and journey of self-discovery.
“Watching my book Fun Home get turned into a musical has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life,” Bechdel said in the show’s souvenir book. “And also one of the most surreal … getting to see my childhood reenacted onstage by gifted actors singing beautiful music is an experience I haven’t been able to find words for yet … and I’m starting to think I probably never will.”
The show opens with Alison (Kate Shindle), a grown woman, reflecting on her life as a “lesbian cartoonist” as she recalls memories from her childhood. Three actresses play Alison at three ages in her life: her childhood, her freshman year of college, and her adult life. We watch Young Alison (Alessandra Baldacchino) learn about life and herself as she helps run her family’s funeral home, or as she her family calls it, the “fun home.” During key moments in her life, Adult Alison stops the scene to insert a “caption,” describing the moment in time and why it is so important.
We then watch Alison go off to college, where Medium Alison (Abby Corrigan) slowly learns to embrace who she is and her sexuality. The play shifts back and forth between scenes of Young Alison and Medium Alison as Adult Alison narrates her life and discovers the truth about her family and her father’s hidden homosexuality.
I didn’t know what to expect going into the show. It made me think in a way theater never has before. I couldn’t form a coherent thought after the final curtain came down, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. It was as if the actors had taken every bit of emotion they had and just dumped it on stage. The air was almost thick with it, like you could feel the frozen energy all around you.
I think this was due in part to the ending. Most musicals wrap up the show with a happy, tie-it-up-with-a-bow type of ending. But in the final seconds of “Fun Home,” we watch Bruce kill himself as he steps in front of a truck. He faces the stage, and the horn of a truck rings through the theater, filling your ears and echoing inside your head. A white light off-stage grows brighter and brighter, until you can’t see or hear anything and it consumes your whole being as we live through Bruce’s final moments with him. Then all goes black.
The stage slowly lights up again as Small Alison, Medium Alison and Adult Alison reprise the opening song, creating eerie harmonies until their voices eventually melt into one, as the child finally becomes an adult.
While the production deals with topics that are widely discussed today, the characters remind us of the role they play in history. As both author Alison and character Alison learn to come out and embrace their sexuality, so too does society. Growing up the 1980s, Bechdel explains that “in the same moment I realized I was gay, I also realized that it was okay to be gay.” Her story of acceptance mirrors the growing acceptance of society.
“Since the show takes place in the 80s, it’s contemporary in a non-contemporary way. You get to play the past and future, which is really fun because there’s always something to think about,” said Karen Eilbacher, who plays Joan, Medium Allison’s love interest. “It’s a lot of life on stage. This show talks about things everyone should talk about and maybe can’t, or can talk about and want to talk about more. It’s about communication and being true to who you are and understand people around you. Just listen to your gut.”
I think as a society, we tend to love musicals because they allow us to temporarily escape daily life and experience something completely different. But it was the complete lack of “different-ness” that made “Fun Home” stand out. It’s matter-of-fact bluntness about Alison’s everyday life that makes it that much more real and emotional. The captioning of such ordinary moments is what made it that much more intense as we feel compelled to watch.
There is no “edge of your seat” moment as there is with most dramas, but it was no less intriguing. Her blunt, “this is just my life story” attitude makes ordinary actions seem that much more extraordinary. Alison isn’t trying to make us believe anything fantastical or jump out of seats with disbelief. She only wants to be heard for who she is: a person.
In such an intense show, the young children helped lighten the mood a little bit. Small Alison and her two brothers, Christian and John (Pierson Salvador and Lennon Nate Hammond, respectively), have a large, flashy number in which they try to create a commercial for their “fun home.” They bring an element of fun and innocence, combined with intense choreography and acrobatics. Their childhood playfulness helped keep the characters young and hopeful as they are forced to deal with their changing world.
“Fun Home” was definitely not what I was expecting it to be. It left me a little bit breathless, yet all I could do was think as the cast and crew fiercely defended its well-deserved Tony Awards. But the moment Shindle began to sing, the chills I got let me know I was a welcome visitor in her fun home, and I loved it all the same.
“Fun Home” runs through May 13 at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C.
Featured Photo Credit: Feature photo courtesy of Joan Marcus and The National Theatre.
Morgan Politzer is a freshman journalism major and can be reached a firstname.lastname@example.org.