'We Just Sat and Held Each Other': How It Feels to Watch Your Life Story Onstage

Fun Home author Alison Bechdel talks about watching her memoir about growing up lesbian with a closeted gay dad get reinvented as an off-Broadway musical.
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The Public Theater / Joan Macus

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.

Yes. In earlier versions they had him being more overtly angry on stage in a way that just didn’t work. That was a brilliant solution on their part. Because of course, that’s often how I experienced it too.

In Slate, June Thomas wrote that Fun Home is the first musical about a butch lesbian. How do you feel about that?

When this whole project began, the only reason I proceeded with it was because Lisa Kron would get it right. I think I would have felt more trepidation if it had been anyone else, certainly if it had been a man. I knew Lisa was a lesbian. I know her work. I trusted her to get this right. I trusted that she understood the importance of representing a lesbian accurately.

From the get-go, we had conversations about butch representation, and how impossible that has been historically. When you would see lesbians in a play or a movie they would be played by a straight actress who didn’t get it, who couldn’t quite go there. So we knew that was going to be an issue. And I knew that Lisa would be the person to make that happen, if anyone could.

She did a great job with the lyrics to “Ring of Keys,” and the excitement of small Alison, dramatizing that moment in the diner when she sees a butch lesbian for the first time.

That was a risk too. Having this child singing about desire in that interesting way also feels revolutionary.

Your mother, Helen, played by Judy Kuhn, has a beautiful number about the burden of making everything perfect, “Days and Days and Days.”

That was not in earlier versions. That was something that came out along the way. In my book my mother doesn’t appear enough to make her a fully fleshed-out character in the play. They added that. They needed more about her.

The song seemed to convey her sadness and also the impossibility of her situation. Did you feel this number captured her experience?

I did. I feel like my mother was a prisoner of her generation in the same way my father was. She couldn’t leave that marriage. You couldn’t get divorced as easily as now, even if she had wanted to.

Your mother performed in musical theater. She also died this last spring. What did she think about this musical being made?

All she would say was, “Well, I’d be very interested to see the reviews.” (Laughs) I gave her the script, the sound files of songs. Here’s the stuff, if you want to listen to it and read it. But I’ll just tell you, it’s kind of intense. I personally had a very powerful experience hearing them. I think she didn’t do it. I think it was just too… it wasn’t her story. She was always clear that there was something I didn’t get right. Who wants to see themselves turned into a character in someone else’s drama?

Meanwhile, the reviews have been phenomenal.

She would have been excited.

In Are You My Mother you wrote that you felt closest to your mother with a play between you. Do you feel closer to her through this play?

I do feel the play treats her very empathetically. I like that. I feel like my mother was kind of a hero. I mean, I think of her as a hero. I think she comes across as someone who’s dealing with a really challenging situation in a graceful way.

You wrote that in writing Fun Home you wanted to give your father “a proper funeral.” In the musical Fun Home, you’re watching your father dying again and again, every time it runs. What was that like for you to watch?

So far, my viewings of the play have been fraught. I’m there with my brothers. I’m there with my father’s sister. I have all these different friends, from different parts of my life. I know the people involved in the production are anxious to know my response. So, it’s hard for me to have my own direct response.

Self-conscious?

Super self-conscious. That gets in the way of my emotional response. The first time I saw the play, I was sobbing. But now I can’t help but having a certain guard up. It’s much the same as when my father actually died. I cried for five minutes and then I stopped. And that was the last time I cried about it for many years.

Fun Home is a graphic novel but there’s only one graphic image from the book that appears in the show, and that’s the image of your father hoisting you in the air, in the game of airplane. Where did that idea come from? Was that a surprise to you?

That was a total surprise to me. At earlier stages there were elements of my drawings that were incorporated. At a certain point I realized that they were not going to do that any more and I felt kind of disappointed. But I was like, Fine. They got to the essence of the book. It doesn’t matter. But then there’s that final image, which is the beginning image from the book. And that felt very powerful to me, to limit it to one image, at the very end. And that perfect image that sums everything up was very wonderful.

Why is it “perfect?”

Most of the time I was working on Fun Home, it began on what is now page three. Then I had the realization that what the book was really about is how I learned to be an artist from my father. So I bookended my story with James Joyce's incantation at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, "Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead." He's taking off; he's going to be a writer. The musical can't go off into my labored literary allusions, but it does capture the spirit of them very beautifully. Alison gets launched by her father, and because of that, she is able to go on and do something he wasn't able to do.


*This post was updated at 8:23 p.m. on Nov. 14 to reflect that the Public Theater has extended Fun Home's run through December 15.
*This post was updated again (!) at 11:55 a.m. on Nov. 18 to reflect that the Public Theater has extended Fun Home's run through December 29.

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Alysia Abbott is the author of Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father. She lives with her husband and two children in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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