On the evening of June 7th, The Tony Awards were broadcast into a whole bunch of homes via teevee.
On the evening of June 7th, history was made when Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori became the first entirely female writing team to win for book and score; when Sydney Lucas sang “Ring of Keys” to theatre enthusiasts across America; when the only show ever on Broadway about a butch lesbian won Best Musical. Fun Home took five total Tony Awards: Michael Cerveris won for best actor in a musical, Sam Gold won best director of a musical, and Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron KILLED IT as previously mentioned.
On the evening of June 7th, I sobbed uncontrollably on my couch, refreshing my Twitter feed and various live blogs because this is a day I legitimately never anticipated.
Fun Home is a show about memory; about writing memoir. There is no such thing as truth when human beings are involved: everything is wilting flowers and a writer (or a cartoonist) is constantly grabbing at thoughts and events that decay so much faster than we expect them to. I had the opportunity to see Fun Home, a musical based on the graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, before it opened. They invited every lesbian in New York that has ever written words, I think. No expectations attached. We wound up sitting next to friends we hadn’t seen in a while (queers) and we screamed when we saw them squeeze past knees to sit in the two empty seats adjacent. But I digress. Which is perhaps appropriate, given the show is a show about memory. Digressions become the story.
I was, oddly enough in retrospect, worried the show wouldn’t pass The Bechdel Test. I’ve just become so accustomed to Broadway’s particular brand of misogyny — one which we all know and excuse, one which hasn’t stopped me from loving Broadway — that I couldn’t imagine any other kind of show. I was worried even though Fun Home originally opened at the Public, off-broadway; even though Lisa Kron did the book and lyrics; even though Jeanine Tesori wrote the music; even though it’s based on Alison Bechdel’s memoir in comics and that the book certainly passes. That’s how strong the flower-fication is with Broadway.
The show passes, of course it does, it has to, the show is centered on the character of Alison Bechdel. Three extraordinary people play Alison at various points in her life—Small Alison (Sydney Lucas) paints us a picture of childhood; Middle Alison (Emily Skeggs) is going to college (and coming out in college); Alison at age 43 (Beth Malone) is trying to string all the flowers together, to find the inbetweens that are memory. Not only does Fun Home have a named female character who talks to another named female character about something other than a man, it has a woman so dynamic and multifaceted that it takes three actors to play her. Watching someone harmonize with oneself, reverberating through the past and the future, is the closest thing I’ve ever seen to the experience of memory in performance.
My name is Alison, too, and I’m not the same person I was when I was Small Alison. I’m not even the same person I was five years ago, as Middle Alison; no one is.
I found reminders of who I used to be when I reread the book before seeing the show—not just in memories (which are never to be trusted), but in the physical evidence. Like when I discovered I’d left a streak of blood at the bottom of page 14, despite having promised myself that I’d resist my typical urge to gnaw at my cuticles while reading this time, and then realized that the streak was dry. I’d bled on it five years ago, back in 2010.
In the middle of the chapter titled “In The Shadow of Young Girls in Flower” (borrowed from Marcel Proust with his tea-soaked madeleine memory), I found a leaf.
“Look at this!” I said to my fiancée Abby.
“You don’t remember that?”
“Not at all.” It wasn’t surprising—I have a memory like a wiffle ball.
“I found it there when I was reading your copy—I showed it to you. It’s from when you first read it, I think.”
Right! Yes, I’d been sitting on a stone bench in a grey henley outside Scott Hall, for once actually washed, dried and groomed because I had a raging crush on Professor A, the first masculine-of-center queer woman I’d seen regularly with my own eyeballs since coming out. A leaf fell into my book, like something that would happen in a stock photo.
I first read Fun Home while taking Professor A’s creative writing class at Rutgers University. I was twenty-two. The pages were xeroxed because it was a 101 class and we couldn’t be trusted to purchase anything. I don’t remember which chapter was assigned, but after reading it, I immediately went out and bought the whole thing.
I was newly out, newly heartbroken and newly back from Paris. I had newly beaten my disordered eating (sort of—at least I was putting food in my mouth again) and despite having cut a full two feet off my hair, I still managed to look like a cast member from the musical Hair— still soft like petals in the eyes, patchouli-scented, earnest and often reading in the grass. I still thought I was going to be an actress forever and I was about to graduate with a degree in theatre.
It was an exciting time full of great change; I was panicking. This is how I was, as Middle Alison.
My problems were tiny buds in comparison to those of Alison Bechdel’s. Her problems were in full bloom. I devoured the book in a time where I was barely eating, when I was trying so hard to be girly — I don’t do that now. I am now what so many women fear becoming: a masculine woman with short hair and a perpetual button down shirt. The leaf fell in the shadow of the young girl in flower and it stayed there. I probably hoped Professor A would pass by and see me reading it. I was probably wearing tie-dye under that grey henley. I was probably still wickedly skinny, pitching my voice higher and trying to laugh softly. Femininity was important, especially as an actress.
One of the last images in this chapter is young Alison as she sees a butch woman for the first time — her father, Bruce Bechdel, asks her if that’s what she wants to look like. It is a question loaded with shame, as most girlhoods are. She lies, “no.”
Five years ago, the panel struck me. But it didn’t reach me. It’s been a journey. Middle Alison didn’t recognize the message: this is you, this was you, this will be you. This is how you will look; you will look this gay. Alison today can’t figure out how she didn’t: the professor was a masculine of center woman; the leaf fell on these pages in particular; she (me) was so uncomfortable in her (my) body because it was undesirable for theatre and she (I) sought out this book when it called. Christ, I even share the author’s name, which has the curious effect of convincing me that all the characters are speaking directly to me, through the pages and into my world. That was me, but I couldn’t see it yet.
A different person would certainly have to play me, were this a musical of my life. I went from straining to be a flower-child in a flower press to comfortably taking up space in the men’s department; getting my hair cut with clippers; laughing like a barking dog instead of like a sighing plant, making noise only because it was moved by the wind. Now, people call me “sir” and get flustered when I open my mouth and sound a lot more like Glinda the Good Witch than they expected. But I don’t mind. I’m Alison, now. And I recognize just how damn hard it is to be Middle Alison.
Perhaps saying “no” to masculinity wasn’t a lie. I wanted to be an actress, and actresses who are masculine don’t work. There are no roles for masculine woman. There are barely roles for women who take up space. So it wasn’t that I’d never seen a butch woman before these pages and didn’t know that masculinity was possible in women. It just didn’t occur to me that it was a possibility for me. So I kept trying to fit my body into clothes and plays that weren’t made for it.
There is a lot right about theatre culture, but there’s a lot wrong with it too—I felt the pressure, and when I was unhealthy-skinny I got cast so much more. Small is feminine, said the numbers to me. Broadway musical theatre was never meant to grow roles for women other than those of delicate flowers.
In the days leading up to seeing Fun Home at Circle in the Square, I tried to think of Broadway roles for masculine-of-center women in musicals. I’m no theatre historian, but I’ve taken so many Theatre History classes that knowledge has fallen on me like so many watermelon seeds, spit from the mouths of those who know better than I; they took root and planted jazz-hands in my heart forever.
And I could think of only one role: Shirley, from The Producers. She sings one phrase (“keep it gay”); she is fat, speaks in a humping voice with her thumbs in her tool belt; she’s a punch line, held up against the glamorous (feminine) gay men.
I’m not a person who gets upset with jokes made at my expense—I see nothing inherently wrong with Shirley in The Producers. To any person who’s spent time in technical theatre, that joke is about the business and the stereotypes therein (many lesbian electricians). But with an average audience, this subtlety might be reduced to laughing at a manly dyke. A woman who takes up space. Even so, I have no issue with it. My beef is that it’s the only role I can think of.
If I stretch real hard, I can include Joanne from Rent. But I have to stand on my tip toes to come close on that one — she is a lesbian, and androgynous, but not masculine. If I reach around in the other direction, I can include Peter Pan — but that character is a boy and I’ve reached too far again.
Maybe I’m forgetting someone, but that’s not really the issue, even though memory is the star of the show. The issue is that, whether the role exists or not, I couldn’t access it.
When I quit theatre, I was allowed to change; I didn’t have to reach, to contort, to shrink, to press. I didn’t have to bloom into a flower. But listen, here’s the point: if I had stuck with acting, to the point where I was maybe really good, or even great, and I auditioned for anything on Broadway there would only be one role for me to play. And that role didn’t exist when I left.
That’s why it’s hard to be Middle Alison, trying to figure out who you are in a culture where no mirrors reflect you. That’s why it’s hard to be Small Alison, and reach your roots into soil without having all the information.
When Beth Malone stepped onto the stage as Alison Bechdel on the night I first saw Fun Home, I wept. I cried for almost the entirety of the performance. I tell you this because I missed things. I might have missed a connection, the stability of a lyric, the soft scent of a leitmotif sprouting. Such delicacies might have gone under-appreciated with tears and snot running down my face.
The only thing I could see in front of me was me. Even with our lives so vastly different, this was the mirror I never had in the place I wanted it most five years ago. I can blame the tears on the uncanny coat of pollen that is the personal intersection with a piece of art; I am allergic to something I’ve never been exposed to before and it feels so good. I could curl up in the shadow of this tree forever.
I saw myself in Malone’s portrayal of Alison—a walk with legs far apart, leaning forward; a tee-shirt and jeans; short, short hair. And I saw myself as a writer there, too— pen always between her fingers as she gestured, and toward the end of the musical frantically trying to draw things out as they vanished from her memory. Malone captured the experience of flowers dying in her hands: “What’s this? ‘Table in the living room with / jack in the pulpit.’ Oh. Oh. I was going / to draw that in this panel.” Oh. Oh. Why am I crying again at this musical? I can’t quite remember.
I saw myself in Small Alison, too. The song “Ring of Keys” illustrates the moment where Alison sees the butch woman for the first time. I knew what was coming when the clank and noise of the diner began and I grabbed my fiancée’s hand, expectantly. It opens with Small Alison arguing with her father, as she has been the whole show, about wearing a barrette. He argues the barrette can suitably function to keep her hair out of her eyes.
“So would a crewcut,” Small Alison replies. It was a song about desire sung by a child; not sexual, but physical. The desire to know, to understand. To find one’s reflection in a sea of people not like you. I understand that—every gay person understands that. It’s not a song I ever thought I’d see on Broadway, a song about seeing yourself in adulthood (“It’s prob’ly conceited to say / But I think we’re alike in a certain way,” she sings), for finding a woman “handsome.” That is how I was, as Small Alison.
And it was just broadcast during The Tony Awards.
And Middle Alison. Gosh. Middle Alison. We get to see Middle Alison realize her first crush, on a woman called Joan (Roberta Colindrez). We see the first time they have sex, the aftermath — Middle Alison sings that she’s changing her major to Joan, still in white underwear and socks. Joan remains asleep as Middle Alison whisper-trills, “So by the time you’ve woken up / I’ll be cool, I’ll be collected / And I’ll have found some dignity / But who needs dignity? / ‘Cause this is so much better.” I remember stepping into the hallway in my underwear, bare feet on cold tile, after I slept with my version of Joan and jumping around. I was confused but optimistic and I liked it. That is how I was, as Middle Alison.
They were all there, all together, all singing, all occupying the same space on the stage. All these Alisons who are one person. Broadway grew up. Broadway presented everything in a woman that it had been distilled to laugh at. The show already made history without the Tony Awards. And then.
Tonight, this kind of representation was awarded. Tony history was made with the first all-female team winning for best score — women take up space with their songs and stories. Children who saw Sydney Lucas sing might have found a mirror; every gay adult found a mirror for the kid they once were. Actresses who might have otherwise sent themselves through the flower press can point to this musical and say, there. There. It is the Best Musical. For once in our damn lives, something made for mainstream labeled the masculine queer woman as “best.”
This is a show about memory. If singing with yourself works backwards, could it work forwards too? Since my Middle Alison and my Small Alison live in me though they are long gone, does that mean they saw this? I’d have to assume yes—that they took note of the remarkable resemblance between Joan and the woman who broke our hearts back then; that they know we have a song to belt out while doing the dishes that does not require the suspension of our own disbelief; they can see we quit acting for so many reasons, and that if this show — the only show about a masculine-of-center lesbian on Broadway ever — had won a Tony back then, that would have been one less reason. One more road sign. One more way we could have seen ourselves in the world while we were panicking. It is so hard to be Middle Alison, to be Small Alison, but I think they feel better, somehow.
I would’ve saved so much time I lost in searching. But mostly, I think, my Alisons are excited to feel the cartoon tap tap on her wrist and the un-shy, un-floral and unabashed belted song: “I think we’re alike in a certain way.” Tonight, the theatre world just told us they know us. They sang it to us. Thank you, Alison Bechdel. Thank you, Fun Home.