When cartoonist Alison Bechdel published Fun Home in 2006, it made nearly every best-of-the-year list. Her story of growing up lesbian in small-town Pennsylvania with a closeted gay father forever restoring his Victorian funeral home (a.k.a. the “Fun Home”) was praised for its ability to push the boundaries of both memoir and graphic novel. But when Bechdel heard that someone had optioned the rights to Fun Home with the intention of adapting it for the stage, she found herself confronting a new, unexpected question: Could it work as a musical?
Apparently, yes. Last month, Fun Home the musical opened at the Public Theater in New York, directed by Sam Gold, with music by Jeanine Tesori (Caroline, or Change) and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron (Well). Critics have called it “achingly beautiful,” and the Public just announced its run has been extended through December 29.*
I first met Bechdel two summers ago on Cape Cod, when I was finishing up a memoir about my gay father called Fairyland. I recently caught up with Alison about her experience seeing her family played by actors, imagining her father’s life had he lived, and the challenge of creating a butch protagonist for the stage.
Responses have been edited for clarity and length.
What was your relationship with musical theater before Fun Home? Were you a fan?
Not particularly. My mother was an actress so I’d see her in plays growing up. Other than that, musicals, as a form, were just complete alien territory to me. In fact, I think that’s partly why I agreed to the whole project. I didn’t feel a particular investment. I couldn’t even imagine my story as a musical. I felt like I could let go of it.
Were there any film or TV offers?
There was a film offer, very early on, and I thought about it. And I thought it would be a really terrible thing if a bad movie got made about this book. I really didn’t think I could live with that.
So you turned it down?
I don’t mean to make myself sound more noble than I actually am. I didn’t turn it down. I decided, how much is my soul worth? And I decided it was worth $50,000, because that was the amount of money that would make a substantial change in my life. So I asked for that amount. And they said No, that’s too much, we can’t do that. And I felt a great relief about it.
But with the stage adaptation it’d have a smaller reach?
Yeah. If it were bad, not many people would see it. It wouldn’t go on existing in the world like a movie would.
There are three Alison Bechdels in the stage version of Fun Home. There’s small Alison who wants to understand her remote, often angry father; college-age Alison who comes into her lesbian identity soon before her father takes his own life; and 40-something cartoonist Alison who struggles as she tries to tell the story with cartoon captions. What was that like, to see these three versions of yourself on stage?
I can’t put that into language yet. It’s very strange and surreal. It also feels like a tremendous gift, because they got so much so right. It’s a really amazing feeling to see my family resurrected in this way. The three Alisons correspond to my own idea of myself. I’m someone who was always writing about my life. So that, in a way, feels natural to me.
At the preview I attended, I saw you in the lobby with your 91-year-old aunt and your brothers. How did it feel watching the show sitting with them? Was their reaction to the show different than their reaction to the book?
You don’t see people reading your book. You do see people watching a play. Which is, I guess, why people write and perform in plays because you get that immediate feedback. But it’s also a very emotional medium. Musicals can be very emotionally powerful. I think that Lisa and Jeanine drew something out of my book that I was not able to get to, a really potent, cathartic feeling.
I think music can tap into emotions more directly than words on paper or words and drawing on paper can.
I totally agree. I guess that’s why I work on paper. (Laughs)
Did your family like it?
Yeah, they did seem to like it. My youngest brother and I, we had this amazing moment of crying together. After the cast left the stage, we just kind of sat there and held each other, which we’ve never done.
Were there any words exchanged?
There were no words. We just let it wash over us. I guess this is what I fantasized might have happened with my book, but of course never did.
One of the things that struck me watching Fun Home was how you and your father took such different paths in reaction to your gay identities. For his generation, being gay wasn’t something you talked about. He didn’t like labels. But then we see you in college, coming of age at a time when there are queer clubs on campus and a clear path of acceptance. Did you ever imagine what your father’s life might have been like had he been born a generation later?
That’s the amazing thing about your book and how it fits in with my story. Your father met with the fate that I feared my father would have met if he had been able to come out. My father died in 1980. And whenever I tried to think, What would it have been like if he lived, if he hadn’t killed himself, all I could imagine was him having AIDS, and dying somehow from AIDS. I couldn’t envision his future. And in fact that is your father’s story.
But before that end (and like your dad, he died before he was 50), there were still many years when my father could live openly and have adventures, feel a sense of community and camaraderie, a sense of self-realization.
Your father’s response to Stonewall was to come out publicly. My father’s response was to burrow even deeper underground.
I had a strange mix of sympathies watching your father deal with those buried feelings in the play. On the one hand, I felt sympathy for his need to stay closeted and how dangerous it must have felt to him if he was outed. But then, there’s the way he takes it out on the family. It was interesting that his angriest outbursts seemed to take place offstage. You would only hear it, and not see it, and in a way, that made it more menacing.