The Family Play

Author Alison Bechdel reveals what it was like to see her very personal graphic memoir Fun Home transformed into a Tony®-winning Broadway musical. An exclusive from the Straz Center’s INSIDE magazine.

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Photo: Elena Seibert

In 2015, an innovative, poignant and bold little musical swept the Tony Awards®, netting Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book and Best Direction. Something of a dark horse, Fun Home unfurled no epic celebrity life story, no sweeping revival or rollicking adaptation of a hit movie.

It was, however, an impressive musical adaptation of an acclaimed graphic memoir by an underground lesbian icon, Alison Bechdel. The book, which she laboriously constructed from memories, photos and a painstaking illustration process, lays bare (often to pitch-perfect notes of dry humor) the Bechdel family secret – Dad’s unexplained rage and obsessions had a source, one that was very closely tied to Alison’s own sense of identity.

You would think that a story built around a father’s suicide, a funeral home (the “fun home” of the title), the social torture of being gay in a straight world and a woman’s examination of these family dynamics may be a bit dark and heavy. In the case of the musical Fun Home, you’d be wrong. It’s a sweet story of an earnest person’s role in a complicated family, the misfirings of familial love and the awkward stumbling toward an understanding of our true selves. And, there’s a winning homage to “Partridge Family”-style gumption in the face of life’s often overwhelming realities (“Raincoat of Love”).

The Straz Center’s magazine caught up with Alison by phone at her Vermont farm to talk about her creation of Fun Home and then being the observer to Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s adaptation of the book into the award-winning musical.

INSIDE MAGAZINE: Let’s talk a little about you and your cultural thumbprint. It started with your underground hit comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For and continued with “The Bechdel Test” about how to spot gender equality in films that came from the comic. Now, these huge works of literary cartooning, Fun Home and Are You My Mother?. How did you get here, to icon status?

ALISON BECHDEL [laughs]: I often ask myself that question! I don’t know. I guess … a strange thing happened in the world of comics. When I graduated in the ‘80s, cartooning was not about a career path. It was kind of a sketchy thing to be doing with your life. I loved writing cartoons about lesbians, this very marginal culture, but I wasn’t thinking about being a success or making money. I was caught up in being a part of this community – especially as someone who had had a traumatic loss in my family [her closeted father’s suicide], and writing comics for this community became a mission for me. I was doing the comic for fun, then a job came out of it, and things happened from there. The big shift happened when people realized that comics weren’t just for kids, that comics could tell really powerful and complicated stories for adults. Attitudes changed with [Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel about his father, a Holocaust survivor] Maus. I was able to continue to work and draw because of this shift.

IM: Do you think you’ve come out of the underground with the success of Fun Home the musical? Do you consider yourself mainstream?

AB: No, I don’t consider myself mainstream. Superman is mainstream, so I’m not mainstream in that sense at all. I’m more mainstream than I was though. Yeah, I was a subcultural phenomenon for a long time, writing this soap opera-like comic strip about lesbian friends. Then, when I moved to tell this story about my family and growing up with my father and his sexuality … for whatever reason, that touched a bigger audience than the comic strip.

IM: There are a lot of children who loved fathers who had major unresolved issues and emotional secrets. Perhaps that’s the universal appeal of Fun Home, that it’s a family story that touches on that confusion. In the time between publishing the book and the book’s success, did you suspect the family relationships would be so relatable?

AB: No! I had no idea that was going to happen! It felt like such a particular, idiosyncratic, unique, weird story. I couldn’t imagine who was going to relate to it. I was trying to envision my audience as you’re supposed to when you’re a writer, and I was thinking about the audience for my comic strip. But, they wouldn’t like it because it was too weird … it was asking something else of my reader. So, I decided to write the book for myself. I was my audience. For whatever reason, that thinking paved the road for other people to relate.

IM: In the graphic memoir, you tackle so many deep philosophical questions – who am I?, what does it mean to be me?, what is the true self and what does that have to do with the people who were my mother and father?. In reading the book, we didn’t know so much was going to be demanded of us intellectually. Do you still consider yourself a cartoonist? You seem like so much more than that.

AB: I’d argue that’s what cartoonists do, what cartoons can do. I feel excited and committed to this process of taking these complex internal experiences and rendering them in comics in words and pictures. I want my work to be accessible, and it’s from an inaccessible place, I acknowledge that. But, it’s a good challenge.

IM: With the success of Fun Home and the book about your relationship with your mother, Are You My Mother?, you’ve done it as the artistic, sensitive child. You fulfilled the impossible emotional needs of your parents: you got your dad out of the closet and we all accept him for who he is, and you got your mom on Broadway [she was an actress in Pennsylvania]. How are you feeling about that? Is it a triumph?

AB [laughs]: I never thought of it that way, that’s so funny! I do feel good about it. But, I think if you went back to Beech Creek, Pennsylvania, and asked that same question, you might run across some objections. I’ve talked with many of my parents’ friends, and mostly they’re supportive, even in spite of the personal tolls the works may have taken. I feel really good about the whole project.

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First appeared in New York Magazine – April 6-19, 2015.

IM: So, your very dense, very literary, very enjoyable and gut-wrenching personal story became a hit Broadway musical. That must have been a surreal experience.

AB: I saw it evolving slowly. It wasn’t a Broadway thing at first. It was happening at The Public Theater downtown. After years of development … I hadn’t seen any of it, and my first experience of it was that Lisa and Jeanine sent me a CD of a workshop and a script. So, it was me in my office listening to the CD and reading a script. I hadn’t known what to expect, but it was so moving to have my family brought to life like that. It was a year after that, I saw a workshop of the play. It was really powerful.

IM: When you saw the actors performing you and your family members, how was that experience for you as the real Alison Bechdel?

AB: In a way, I felt like I was getting a taste of my own medicine. [laughs] I’d written about my family all these years, and here I was being turned into a character. Maybe because I am a writer and that transmutation of life into art is something I understand well, I adjusted pretty quickly to it. It wasn’t exactly me, it wasn’t exactly my family … but, it was, in a strange way. These characters captured the essence of who my family was.

IM: The songs in the musical are fantastic. We love “Ring of Keys” and “Changing My Major.” Do you listen to the cast recording as you work, or do you consider the musical version something that belongs to Lisa and Jeanine and you leave it alone?

AB: I feel both of those things. Clearly, the musical is their creation; it belongs to them. I didn’t have anything to do with making it beyond writing the book. But I do love the musical, the soundtrack. I temporarily can’t listen to it … you know, you reach a certain point [and you just have to step away.]

IM: You’ve reached your super-saturation point?

AB: Yeah, but I listened to it like a million times before I reached that saturation point. And, I listened to so many versions of the songs. There were so many beautiful songs that got cut along the way.

IM: I heard Lisa and Jeanine scrapped song after song. We would have wanted to quit after writing so many songs that didn’t get used. They didn’t seem daunted, though.

AB: I know. I cannot imagine working the way they do, that sort of collaborating with so many different people, so many moving parts. It seems impossible to me. The key is to be ready to scrap your stuff and start over. They could do that over and over again.

IM: Lisa and Janine seem to be as powerful in their milieus as you are in yours. They seem to be the exact right team to have turned your memoir into a musical. One of the great successes of the show is that homosexuality is treated as just a place you come from, like the Midwest. No morality, no agenda. It just is. What do you make of Lisa and Jeanine’s achievement with your text?

AB: We’re all the same basic age, the same generation. Lisa and I grew up as part of that movement that was making that change [regarding homosexuality] happen. So, part of it is that’s where we all came from. I also feel like what made their adaptation so spot on was that they were willing to approach the whole project fresh. They completely made it their own by going through a lot of the same processes I had to go through to tell the story in the first place. To be open to the material, to not make a foregone conclusion as to how it’s supposed to be. They could hold it but not impose a shape on it. That’s part of what took so long developing the musical.

IM: It’s an incredible adaptation. You can’t try to adapt a graphic memoir as a graphic memoir to the stage because musicals require a different set of skills. What you were able to accomplish with images and words, they could do with music and lyrics. The same tension was created.

AB: That’s really good insight. There’s a way comics and the musical form are similar. It’s so rare there’s a good movie adaptation of a book … to have a great movie made from a great book is rare because the needs of a novel and a movie are opposed. Lisa and Jeanine found a way to put the story on to great effect.

IM: We can’t wait for the show to get here. We’re really excited for our community to see it. Is there anything that you would like to say to an audience member who may not be familiar with you or with your work but who likes musicals and is going to be in the audience?

AB: One thing I would say is … I don’t want to step on anyone’s experience of the play before they see it. But, I do want to assure people that this play is about a funeral home, a family that is, in some ways, unhappy, and even though there’s a suicide in it … somehow, it manages to be a very uplifting and often very funny play.

Fun Home plays in Morsani Hall Nov. 28 – Dec. 3.