Drawing the past in musical memoir ‘Fun Home’
Presented by 4th Wall Theatre
Book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, inspired by Alison Bechdel’s best-selling graphic memoir.
Music by Jeanine Tesori.
Studio Playhouse, 14 Alvin Place
By GWEN OREL
As soon as “Fun Home” became available for community theaters in New Jersey, 4th Wall’s Artistic Director Kate Swan leaped to secure it.
4th Wall is the first North Jersey company to produce it, Swan said.
The company has no regular home. It rehearses in Montclair Operetta Club’s space in Montclair and has performed at Westminster Arts Center in Bloomfield and in the Burgdorff Center in Maplewood. The company was created in 1996 by friends who had worked at Montclair Operetta Club, according to the company’s website, with the mission of doing small, not so well-known musicals that are not star vehicles.
Alison Bechdel’s award-winning and bestselling 2006 graphic memoir about growing up a lesbian in her family’s home, a funeral home, "Fun Home" was adapted into a musical by playwright Lisa Kron (“2.5 Minute Ride;” “Well”), with music by Jeanine Tesori (“Violet” “Caroline, or Change”). It opened at the Public Theater in 2013 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014. After it moved to Broadway, it won the Tony for Best Musical in 2015.
“When I saw the show on Broadway I was blown away by the style of storytelling,” Swan said. “I thought that it was revolutionary and fascinating and emotional.”
One thing that strikes Swan as important is having a lesbian leading lady. Bechdel’s graphic memoir is important to the LGBTQ community, she said. “So when her life, her book was made into a musical, it kind of changed the landscape for that community, to be able to see her story on stage. It was an exciting moment.”
Swan herself didn’t know the book "Fun Home" before she saw the musical, and said that is when she and her husband saw it. “We felt like we were watching something new and special,” she said.
She and her husband kept grabbing each other’s knees and saying “This is amazing.” In "Fun Home," three actresses play Small, Medium and Big Alison, as she relives and interprets her family’s history, trying to understand her her father, a closeted gay man whose suicide changed her life, and wrestling with writer’s block.
“You know, figuring out your parents from an adult perspective instead of remembering them from a kid’s perspective is something that fascinated me,” Swan said. The three actresses and scenes are in different time perids, “and they overlap and it’s not chronological and it’s not linear in any way,” Swan said.
Small Alison (performed at 4th Wall by Montclair’s Annika Bergstrom-Shaw) is Alison from 4 to 13. Medium Alison is in her freshman year at Oberlin, coming out and living through a pivotal time. And adult Alison draws "Fun Home" as the audience watches.
Big Alison is “trying to remember her life and remember her father in a way that both honors him and explores what the hell happened to him,” Swan said.
While having an older character interact with a younger version of herself is as old as “A Christmas Carol,” the director said, “there’s an otherworldly quality in trying to remember it to draw it.”
And it’s not a standard old-style musical theater score either. It has pop elements to it.”
“Ring of Keys,” which was sung by Small Alison a the Tony Awards, “is something that’s universal, not just for young lesbians,” Swan said.
Small Alison sings when she sees a butch delivery woman:
I thought it was s’pposed to be wrong
But you seem okay with being strong
It’s probably conceited to say,
But I think we’re alike in a certain way
Swan said, “It’s for everybody to go, ‘Look I see someone I recognize. I know you. I connect with you in a way that other people don’t understand. I think that’s a powerful message.”