Broadway Passes The Bechdel Test With 'Fun Home'

Apr 16, 2015
Originally published on June 6, 2015 4:06 am

A certain kind of book seems practically written to be adapted into a musical. Phantom of the Opera, for example, or Wicked. Then there's Fun Home, based on a graphic novel by a middle-aged lesbian cartoonist that grapples with themes of suicide, shame and familial dysfunction. Fun Home was a bestselling book, then a smash off-Broadway hit at the Public Theater.

The memoir, by Alison Bechdel, takes its title from her family's sardonic nickname for their business — a funeral home. It delves into the mystery around her father's suicide, which took place around 1980. Bechdel, then a student at Oberlin College, had just come out to her parents as a lesbian — and learned her father was a deeply closeted gay man.

Bechdel agrees that the book is not exactly the most obvious source material for a musical.

"I thought it was crazy," she tells NPR about her reaction when the idea was first broached. "I didn't know how it was even possible."

But composer Jeanine Tesori, best known for writing the music for Caroline, Or Change and Shrek The Musical immediately responded to the story about an artistic but repressed and unhappy family.

"I knew that it was a singing piece," she said during an interview in her Manhattan office. "You could just hear it. All of the songs — they sing their desires and what's being held back."

Far more challenging Tesori says, was figuring out how to tell Bechdel's story without using her cartoons, which the creative team tried hard to incorporate in earlier versions.

"Oh my god, we had so many songs about her drawing, remember?" she says. "I mean, we had songs and songs and songs."

Tesori's talking to her collaborator, Lisa Kron, a playwright and longtime member of the downtown theater collective the Five Lesbian Brothers. Kron spent decades writing plays about lesbians back when they were practically invisible in popular culture — let alone on Broadway. It took Tesori and Kron seven years to create Fun Home the musical, but Kron thinks the timing ended up being perfect when the show opened off Broadway a year and a half ago.

"There was a critical mass of images of lesbians in the culture," she says. "So this could move forward in this way, that the audience would have the scaffolding that they could place this in.

That scaffolding allows for a show tune based on a moment when the main character realizes her sexual difference. Alison Bechdel, only about 9 years old, is with her dad in a diner, when she notices a butch delivery woman, and is transfixed by everything about her. The song is called "Ring of Keys."

While writing the lyrics, Kron resisted cultural assumptions about masculine woman as unattractive or as punchlines. She found language that told a different truth. The 11-year-old who sings it became the youngest Obie winner in off-Broadway history. Sydney Lucas originated the role of "Small Alison" off-Broadway when she was only nine.

"Lesbian woman have come to see the show and say they remember that in their childhoods," Lucas says in her dressing room, referring to that moment of epiphany. "It's cool."

Lucas is one of three actors who play Bechdel at various points in her life. It's a cultural watershed for Broadway to feature a lesbian main character, says Kron, partly because musicals bring an unequaled sense of romance and empathy to their protagonists.

"There is nothing that gets in your bloodstream like that thing," she says. "So to have not just a lesbian but a butch lesbian be that person? That is a big moment."

The real Alison Bechdel is having quite a moment herself. In the past few years, Swedish movie theaters adopted a ratings system based on what's become known as " the Bechdel test." (That's when a movie features more than one female character ... and they talk to each other ... about something other than a man.) The book Fun Home has become required reading on many college campuses. And recently, Bechdel won both a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur "genius grant."

"My life is so crazy lately," Bechdel confesses.

Just a decade ago, Bechdel was best known for a beloved but relatively obscure cartoon series called Dykes to Watch Out For that ran in gay and alternative newspapers for decades. Like Bechdel, Kron created lesbian-themed work back when it was — by definition — marginal. Now that it's on Broadway and bestseller lists, she believes mainstream lesbian artists face a new challenge.

"We need to pay attention and think who else is out there that we have not seen yet," she says. "Who doesn't feel fully human in the culture. Because there are lots of other people who haven't gotten to this point yet."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And now we consider a musical tribute to family dysfunction. This weekend, the off-Broadway smash "Fun Home" heads to Broadway. It's an adaptation of a best-selling graphic novel by a lesbian cartoonist.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "FUN HOME")

BETH MALONE: (As Alison Bechdel) Caption - I leapt out of the closet, and four months later my father killed himself by stepping in front of a truck.

SIEGEL: NPR's Neda Ulaby tells us how this comic book memoir found its way into the limelight.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: The book details in words and pictures how cartoonist Alison Bechdel came out in college around 1980 and then how she learned her father was gay and deeply closeted. Shortly before his suicide, the two took an awkward car ride together in their small Pennsylvania town. That's a scene in the musical.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "FUN HOME")

MALONE: (Singing as Alison Bechdel) Telephone wire run and run.

ULABY: The character Alison is desperate to connect with her dad, but she just can't.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "FUN HOME")

MALONE: (Singing as Alison Bechdel) Say something, talk to him. Say something, anything. At the light, at the light, at the light, at the light, at the light, at the light, like you could say so how does it feel to know that you and I are both...

MICHAEL CERVERIS: (Singing as Bruce Bechdel) Hey...

MALONE: (Singing as Alison Bechdel) Yeah?

CERVERIS: (Singing as Bruce Bechdel) ...Where do you want to go?

ULABY: Not exactly the most obvious source material for a musical. Here's how the real Alison Bechdel reacted when the idea first came up.

ALISON BECHDEL: I thought it was crazy. You know, I didn't know how that was even possible.

ULABY: But composer Jeanine Tesori heard music in the story about an artistic but repressed and unhappy family.

JEANINE TESORI: I knew that it was a singing piece. You could just hear it - all of the songs, they sing their desires and what's being held back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "FUN HOME")

MALONE: (Singing as Alison Bechdel) That was our last night.

ULABY: Fun home was the Bechdel's nickname for their family business, a funeral home. It was challenging, Tesori says, to tell Alison Bechdel's story without using her cartoons.

TESORI: Oh, my god, we had so many songs about her drawing, remember? I mean, we had songs and songs and songs.

ULABY: Tesori's in her New York office with playwright Lisa Kron. Tesori is straight. Kron is gay - so gay she spent decades writing plays about lesbians when they were almost invisible in popular culture. But alone on Broadway, it took the two seven years to create "Fun Home" the musical. But Kron thinks the timing was perfect when it opened off-Broadway a year and a half ago.

LISA KRON: There was a critical mass of images of lesbians in the culture so that this could move forward in this way - that the audience would have the scaffolding that they could place this in.

ULABY: That scaffolding allows for a show tune based on a moment in "Fun Home" the memoir. The real Alison Bechdel, only about 9 years old, is with her dad in a diner when she sees a woman she immediately knows is different in the same way she's realizing she's different too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "FUN HOME")

MALONE: (As Alison Bechdel) You didn't notice her at first but I saw her the moment she walked in. She was a delivery woman. She came in with a handcart full of packages. She was an old-school butch.

SYDNEY LUCAS: (Singing as young Alison Bechdel) Someone just came in the door like no one I ever saw before. I feel - I feel...

ULABY: While writing those lyrics, Lisa Kron resisted cultural assumptions about masculine women as unattractive or as punchlines. She found language that told a different truth.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "FUN HOME")

LUCAS: (Singing as young Alison Bechdel) Your swagger and your bearing and just the right clothes you're wearing. Your short hair and your dungarees and your lace up boots and your keys. Oh, your ring of keys.

ULABY: In "Fun Home" we see Alison at different points in her life. Eleven-year-old Sydney Lucas has played small Alison since Lucas was only 9. The role earned her an Obie Award. She's the youngest winner in off-Broadway history.

LUCAS: Lesbian women have come to see the show and sort of say that they remember that in their childhood. It's cool.

ULABY: It's also a cultural watershed for Broadway to feature a realistic lesbian main character partly, says Lisa Kron, because musicals bring unequaled romance and empathy to their protagonists.

KRON: There is nothing that gets in your bloodstream like that thing, so to have not just a lesbian but a butch lesbian be that person, that is a big moment.

BECHDEL: Yeah, I mean, it would be enjoyable enough if it was any butch lesbian but it's me (laughter).

ULABY: Cartoonist Alison Bechdel has been having quite a run. Not long ago, Swedish movie theaters adopted a rating system based on what's come to be known as the Bechdel test. That's when a movie has more than one female character and they talk to each other about something other than a man. "Fun Home" the books become required reading on many college campuses, and recently, Bechdel won both a Gugenheim and a MacArthur Genius Grant. Still, she says this musical is a big deal.

BECHDEL: It's a huge deal. I mean all the - my life is so crazy lately. Who does that stuff happen to?

ULABY: Evidently, to someone who just a decade ago, was best known for a relatively obscure cartoon series called "Dykes To Watch Out For." Like Bechdel, playwright Lisa Kron was a lesbian performer back when lesbian work was, by definition, marginal. She says now that it's on Broadway and bestseller lists, mainstream lesbian artists face a new challenge.

KRON: We need to pay attention and think who else is out there that we have not seen yet that doesn't feel fully human in the culture because there are lots of other people who haven't gotten to this point yet.

ULABY: The musical "Fun Home" has come close to selling out most of its preview performances. The show officially opens on Broadway this Sunday. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.