Reflections on Fun Home
I am a little late coming to the table at Fun Home. Complications of time, money and geography made it impossible for me to see it any sooner, though I have listened to the Broadway cast recording, again and again, in anticipation of what turned out to be a very unique show that deeply affected me when, and only when, I was able to witness it in the round, live, at the Circle in the Square Theatre.
What makes Fun Home work on every level is how, despite some heavy and difficult to digest material, it remains accessible through its raw humanity and humor. Seldom have we encountered a musical that is more earnest and genuine with its emotions (good and bad) than Fun Home. It’s blatant honesty and unapologetic dive into the uneasy whirlpool of family dynamics is reminiscent of Falsettos (but with a dreamlike haze).
In particular, I found certain things about Fun Home stood out and forced me to embrace it even more than I was initially inclined to. Here are my reflections on the nine things that draw me into the story of Alison Bechdel and company and that compel me to make a return visit to the Fun Home.
1. How real does this family look? These people could live next door to you. No one is overly perfect, polished or Polaroid-ready. These are human beings and it helps make Fun Home an accessible story for all. From the lanky, awkwardness of the children, to the disheveled, put-upon look of the mother, to the middle-aged paunch and receding hairline of the father. They aren’t ugly people; they are just real. For a story that subtly encourages you to recall your own family’s problems and imperfections, it helps that you can see them onstage.
2. The set: I feel like I've been in this home before. Nothing about it looks fabricated or Broadway-sized. It is all perfectly assembled to create the home of a fussy man who catered to dead people and their families. The wooden furniture, the Tiffany lamp, the bric-a-brac that filled the nooks and crannies. This could have been anyone's aunt's or grandmother's house, but it is distinctly the Bechdel residence at the same time.
3. The costumes: Holy 70s fabulous flashbacks! I am in my 40s, thus a child of the 70s, and I can attest to the fact that there were pictures of me sitting in Santa's lap in outfits that look suspiciously like the clothes these kids are wearing - right down to that hateful bowl cut on the oldest boy. I kept looking through the program for my mother's name as creative consultant on this show. We are some Garanimals and a Terrycloth headband away from reliving my childhood.
4. The exuberance with which the three Bechdel children sing “Come to the Fun Home.” Take three kids and put them in the awkward situation of growing up with dead bodies and satin-lined coffins as part of the usual environment. What would they do? They would normalize it, of course and make it a part of their play. The kids, pretending to create a television commercial for the family funeral home, brings a much-needed burst of levity and an even more important sense of escapism, to their off-kilter and sometimes sad world.
5. Michael Cerveris: We have been watching Mr. Cerveris morph before our eyes for over two-decades, from the title character in Tommy, to a Tony-winning turn as John Wilkes Booth in Assassins, from the title character in Sweeney Todd to Juan Peron in Evita. None of his (top-notch) performances up until now match the uneasy web of complexity and self-serving narcissism he spins as the closeted homosexual and married father-of-three, Bruce Bechdel. He earns this Tony Award, night after night, embodying a man who can barely stand himself, and yet finds moments to shine in ways that we can find compassion for him. It is a nuanced performance, as fine as the lace that Bruce seems to treasure.
6. The painful moments of silence: There is nothing more excruciating than needing to share something, but knowing that you can’t. Sitting with someone in silence, unable to look each other in the eye, but knowing that if you could just break down the wall there could be a connection. Fun Home has these moments of acknowledged silence, nowhere more apparent in the song “Telephone Wire” where a young lesbian and her gay father are riding down the road together, but cannot address what the other one is because it might let down a guard that has always protected them and their place in their family. Side-by-side, staring off into the distance, you even feel the metaphorical silence when they are singing because no emotional connection is ever made. It’s deafening and it is perfection.
7. “Changing My Major” is one of those musical theatre songs that you aren’t expecting: an epiphany that is both self-revelatory for the character and humorous, thrilling and self-revelatory for us. To Allison, realizing she is a lesbian is a big deal. What makes it accessible to us is that we have ALL had that turning point in our life, sexual or otherwise, where we had a moment of clarity. I found the song taking me back to those moments of clarity in my life and, from a new perspective, seeing them in a different way.
8. The Non-Linear Storytelling: It could have been very easy to take the easy route and tell the story of Fun Home in chronological order. Instead, we get to adventure back and forth with Allison Bechdel through three different stages of her life. Each stage is so compelling that we become attached to what are ultimately three different characters (despite being the factions of one). We never want to give up on one for the other, so joyously we keep coming back to all, even witnessing them share the stage occasionally.
9. “Ring of Keys” – I am moved to tears watching a little girl have an excited inkling that she might like women. What makes it wonderful is that, like anyone at that age who can’t articulate exactly what makes an attraction (or even understands what one is), Allison can only speak about this key-bearing woman in terms that are within her grasp: her clothes, her swagger, her haircut, her boots and her glorious ring of keys. It closely orbits what she she has yet to fully realize, but as a child, she paints the picture to the best of her ability. This is musical theatre at its finest: when the authors can climb inside a character and see through her eyes with precision and speak for her in just the right language.