Last Saturday night, I got to (finally) see Fun Home: the Musical.
I am a HUGE Bechdel fan. I starting reading Dykes to Watch Out For secretly, when no one was looking, while shopping at a women’s book co-op tucked into the basement of a Carytown food co-op while I was in graduate school in Richmond. My very first therapist had told me where it was in hopes, I think, that I would realize both that I was a lesbian and my boyfriend of the time was an abusive asshat. The bookstore had a central table and all the Dykes collections were tucked onto the side of the table toward the back of the store, and my glimpses of the interiors of the five books that were available then made me wonder where I could find these amazing women, or people like them. I was disappointed that the women who ran the co-op weren’t Mo or Lois or Ginger, despite their best efforts to bring me into the circle. Eventually, I ran out of excuses and halfway workable lies to tell my boyfriend about where I was going, and I stopped going to the bookstore.
I didn’t see more of Bechdel’s work until a few years later, when I left that asshat and got together with my current wife, who owned all the collections. I read through them ravenously and then kept current via Lesbian News, which always had a set of the latest Dykes in the center of the issue, and eventually moved to the web, where Bechdel was posting them on her website. Naturally, when Bechdel first published Fun Home, we bought it almost immediately. (We were also lucky enough to get hold of an autographed copy of the sequel, Are You My Mother?) If I’d been more familiar with NYC, as many of my friends are, we probably would have seen the musical sooner, but I am something of a coward about traveling, and require some time to adapt myself to the idea of going somewhere relatively new.
In this case, travel was facilitated by a friend who so strongly recommended the show that she offered us crash space at her house if we wanted to see it. So we took her up on it.
So after spending the afternoon at the Met, we settled down to wait in the lobby of the Circle in the Square Theater on Broadway, and watched people come in, including many of the actors. I was feeling tense already. I’d read reviews, I’d watched performances of “Ring of Keys,” I’d read Bechdel’s reaction to seeing it. I was afraid my expectations might be too high. I was a little afraid of my own reactions to seeing it.
Annnnd right from the dimming of the lights and, “Daddy, hey, Daddy, come here, okay?” I was sitting on my vast array of feels and trying to keep them down.
(We were two rows behind Big Alison, the character in the red t-shirt in the top right. Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
Not being much of a theater person, I’d never thought of the challenges of scene changes on a round stage before, and pretty much immediately, we got to see the careful orchestration of action and actors in the scene changes. Scenes shifted while the actors were singing, everything on wheels and moving swiftly and flamboyantly under our gazes. The stage mechanisms were another entrancing surprise, with pieces sinking into the floor and others rising up, with rearrangement happening out of sight. The dais rising up and turning during one of the key scenes late in the play caught me by surprise, and it was an entrancing effect.
The lighting was its own character. Most of the time, it was the usual sort of gesturing, “Hey, over here, there’s something going on over here too,” but sometimes it morphed into comic strip squares, framing off action and sequence and reminding us that this was a comic book.
I’ll say that there wasn’t a single weak link in the show — everyone’s voices were strong, everyone (as far as I could see) hit their cues and entrances perfectly, and I got a definite sense of cast-as-far-more-functional-family underlying the performance of a very dysfunctional family. The musicians were great, and I frequently found myself looking over to see what they were doing during the less intense bits of the show (here’s an interview of the musicians from just after the Tony Awards, if you’re interested; I think they’ve added a separate conductor who is a woman, because I saw her out there a few times, but can’t remember whether I saw her during the show).
Our show supposedly had a new Little Alison, but the more I look at the pictures, I’m pretty sure we had Gabriela Pizzolo, and that kid could belt. Our Medium Alison, Lauren Patten, is Emily Skeggs’ understudy in on a temporary run and she was utterly geekily adorkable. (Also, OMG, they dressed her in a striped shirt, like Mo, the main character from Dykes to Watch Out For.) Big Alison was, of course, Beth Malone, who was constantly onstage, watching and narrating everything, and only occasionally interacting. It was apparently the second-to-last show for Oscar Williams, who played Alison’s brother Christian.
(Little Alison, front, Big Alison, back. Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
I loved the fact that the show is designed to give every major character — all three Alisons, Helen, and Bruce — at least one showstopper. The kids (Little Alison, plus brothers John and Christian) as a trio got a magnificent 1970s-style “commercial” to perform, and the actor who plays RoyPeteJeremyWhoever (I mentally dubbed him “Boytoy” — he played whoever Bruce is going for in the current scene) got to lead an amazing Partridge Family/Brady Bunch-style group piece. (Sadly, Joan didn’t get a song to herself, or even a duet with Medium Alison. That’s okay, Joan was smoking hot and her lines/moves were very memorable.)
OMG the feels were NONSTOP.
I couldn’t sit on them any more when Bruce was berating Little Alison into wearing the dress he wanted her to. There was a break from the butch feels when Medium Alison had her big song, “Changing My Major to Joan,” which was exploding with the familiar delight and epiphany and delirium of figuring yourself out while also falling in lust/love. But then I broke completely at “Ring of Keys.” (Here’s Gabriella performing it at the SAGE Awards.) When I was listening to the standalone performances, I didn’t get the gutpunch as much as I did when it was in context with the emotional momentum of the whole show behind it. The gutpunch was still there despite the obnoxious group in the audience who kept laughing during it. (Straight people, I assume, who Just Didn’t Get It.)
Then I got surprised by Helen’s solo, “Days and Days,” which didn’t so much gutpunch as cosh me with a blackjack. In reading the book, I always heard Helen’s voice as flat, almost a monotone, with a Bette Davis-like growl and twist of sarcasm. The song (and singer, Judy Kuhn), however, cracked open the heart of an abusive relationship, of a relationship where you’re pretending all the time that there’s nothing wrong, but everything is wrong, and it just goes on and on because it has to, somehow, somewhere, you just have to keep doing the things and all your energy goes into Doing The Things and you can’t put any energy into thinking about leaving or ending things because Someone Has To Fucking Do The Things Goddammit Don’t You Fucking See.
(I bet you’d wondered where that mention of that relationship waaaay up there was going to come back. Yeah, me too, surprise. It didn’t help that there were a lot of similarities between that asshat and Bruce. But not between me and Helen, thank many stars.)
(Big Alison and Bruce. Photo credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)
From there, the feels were all running amok for “Telephone Wire” (with Big Alison trying to find a way to change the past, like, I think, we all do) and “Edges of the World” (Bruce’s mad scene and OMG the staging for that) and the three-Alison finale, “Flying Away.” Standing ovation with tears streaming down my face and my shoulder muscles screaming with all the clapping.
Enormous post-show emotional crash as we walked to the subway. My wife kindly read to me on the NJTransit train back to where we were staying. In the break between short stories, I said, still wrecked, “Can we see it again?” And she said, “Yes.”
Go see it. Seriously. I know everyone’s talking about Hamilton these days, but don’t forget Fun Home, especially if you’re any flavor of queer. It’s the good kind of shattering.