The musical adaptation of Fun Home, a graphic novel by Alison Bechdel that I reviewed a few months ago, is one of the most anticipated new works heading to the Broadway stage. Bechdel’s novel is a truly an incredible literary experience that uses its multi-genre form in ways very few writers have achieved (but more on that later). Bechdel has gained quite a following, both for Fun Home and for her work as a lesbian cartoonist. Seeing the Fun Home world on stage would definitely be something to look forward to. Performances sold out far in advance and I was only able to get tickets à la Cancellation Line.
NB- The performance of Fun Home that I saw last night was part of the Public Lab series at the Public Theatre. It is being revised on a daily basis. So tonight’s show will likely include revisions that I did not. And tomorrow night’s show. And the next. And the next. Until November 4th. So please keep in mind that mine was a singular experience and is in no way indicative of the play’s progress.
And now that we’ve got that out of the way… was it any good?
Let’s start with the strengths. Sam Gold’s production has assembled a pretty amazing cast. All the characters are brought quite vividly to life, including Alison herself. Martin Moran plays a great and nuanced father, which is important since he is the center around which Alison’s reflections on sexuality, adolescence, and art revolve. Alison is played by three actresses- Beth Malone is a contemporary, snarky Bechdel at the moment of writing her novel, Alexandra Socha exuberantly portrays a nervous, adolescent Bechdel. But Sydney Lucas, as the youngest Alison, is a scene-stealer, playing Alison’s childhood gender exploration with ease, charm, and confidence.
Some of the musical numbers are fun and present some of Alison Bechdel’s satire and thoughtful humor. Obviously, it being a Lab performance, numbers are not as ornately staged as they would be in a full production, but the staging works well within its limitations.
The main reason why Fun Home the novel works is its critical distance from the emotional autobiographical events. There is a very delineation between Alison the writer and Alison the child/adolescent. Just as there is a great critical distance (and a time span of 20 years) between Alison the critical interpreter and Bruce Bechdel, her emotionally distant and repressed father. The reader invests not in the emotions of the story or the characters, but in how Alison the writer encounters her past and tries to make meaning out of it. Yes, of course, there is a certain level of emotion IN that distance. But it’s striking how much we DON’T know – how blurry Bruce’s life remains by the end of the story, how impenetrable his feelings and those of his wife seem. The reader, and Alison herself, never truly reach a moment of clarity about her relationship to her father. She can only grasp at clarity with the many literary allusions, theoretical interpretations, uncanny parallels, and echoes of her own sexual identity. Basically, the power of Fun Home come from the array of echoes we experience. Echoes that don’t quite clarify or express feeling, but rather navigate the space of a something much more complex than feelings Echoes that achieve, as best as possible, some kind of multi-layered pastiche of meaning.
For this reason, the musical adaptation is keen to frame the story with older Alison at her desk, hard at work, starting her autobiography with that same level of critical distance that is pervasive in the book. However, from that point onwards, Fun Home loses sight of those same things that make the novel so great. Part of that failure, I believe, is the conflicting nature between the nature of the novel and the nature of the traditional musical genre. Traditionally, musicals are musicals because songs amplify feelings. They are like super-sonic, high-octance Shakespearean soliloquys. Of course, not all musicals follow this track (“Next to Normal” might be a good example of one that veers slightly off this path). However, Fun Home‘s musical numbers fall right into the trap of giving characters the room to express and clarify all the feelings that, frankly, if left blurry as in the novel, would be all the more powerful. What we end up with is an over-simplified, over-dramatized, but underwhelming version of the original Fun Home. More often than not, it even verges on the ridiculous and unoriginal. Case in point: the balladic “The ache, the ache” sung by Bruce as he recommends “The Great Gatsby” to the yard-worker. A much better scene would have left Bruce’s already-sexually-charged dialogue with the yard-worker without the cliche, over-dramatized interruptions. In the novel, Bruce’s power, which is splashed all over the pages of the novel, is not his unmediated passion but his almost mythic impenetrability.
Also, what was the reasoning in dedicating the set largely to contemporary Alison’s Vermont apartment when you’ve got the kooky, museum-esque Fun Home mansion at your disposal? This is another thing the musical gets wrong. Fun Home is not a prim, proper mansion, hiding all the family flaws behind its decor. It’s an almost overwhelming cluster of ornaments from different time periods complete with tacky Victorian wallpaper. It is pure aesthetic. And, like the style of the novel, it unfolds with layers and layers of resonance. It’s a sort of hodge-podge of collector’s items, embellished with lace and tassels, with frick and frack. Yes, the ornament covers-up the emotionality of the family problems. But so does Alison with her critical distance. Now, set designers, get to it!
I hesitate to provide more specific examples of how I see the musical at odds with the book, since it is a work in progress and much will be changed, even within the next week of Lab performances. I would like to emphasize, however, that if the musical adaptation wants to have the novel’s resonances, it’s got to resolve the inherent contradiction between the story’s distance and the musical’s indulgence.
Remaining performances are Sold-Out, but for the super curious and adventurous, there’s the cancellation line, maybe an extension in the future? I’d be interested to see where this musical ends up: Fun Home