“Fun Home” the Musical is Messy, Hilarious, Nostalgic, and Totally Worth It

The show is over, the lights come up. The actors take their bows; small Alison jumps on big Alison’s back, and they all run out of the room. Throughout the audience, people are sniffling, rifling through their bags for any tissues they may have missed. I almost ask the woman next to me if she needs a hug. Because while the last 100 minutes gave us plenty of opportunity for laughter, shock and nostalgia, the overwhelming feeling in the room that night is wistful sadness.

Fun Home, the musical adaptation of the Alison Bechdel graphic memoir that so many of us love, opened on Broadway on April 19. Since then, it’s received a dozen Tony nominations, among other awards and accolades, and many of its performances have sold out. The one I saw did; two empty seats in front of me appeared to be the only no-shows in the entire Circle in the Square theater. The crowd was diverse in age and appearance, but everyone seemed taken in by the story of an adult Alison (Beth Malone) remembering a chaotic youth marked by her father’s strange behavior and eventual suicide.

Sydney Lucas, Beth Malone and Emily Skeggs as the three versions of Alison Photo by Joan Marcus

Sydney Lucas, Beth Malone and Emily Skeggs as the three versions of Alison
Photo by Joan Marcus

The three versions we get of Bechdel — “Small Alison,” “Middle Alison,” and just plain “Alison,” according to the playbill — are each in a discovery phase of their shared life. Both young Alisons are stumbling toward maturity, trying to express themselves to a father who has a wholly different vision of her. Adult Alison knows he won’t understand, but continuously kicks herself for not explaining better, demanding answers. Early on, she announces what those who have read the memoir already know: This story will end with her father, Bruce (Michael Cerveris), committing suicide. She has limited time to speak with him before then, to learn what she can about how his warped, intangible trajectory affected her own development.

Because Alison is a lesbian, as she discovers in stages charmingly familiar to queer viewers. She is also a cartoonist, drawn to a medium her father refuses to take seriously. She doesn’t know what she wants to be like as an adult, but it’s not reflected in any of the adults around her. Her mother, Helen (Judy Kuhn), is robbed of her own dreams and resigned to living with a man who has no affection for her. Bruce, a big, shouting, singing force, is nonetheless opaque, living with lies and loneliness. Middle Alison (Emily Skeggs) starts to get an idea of the right track for her when she falls in love with Joan (Roberta Colindrez‘s truly dreamy, self-described collegiate dyke) but even then struggles to really say the words: I am a lesbian. And when she finally does, her parents act like they don’t hear her. It’s the same struggle that millions of young queer people endure every day, one that I endured.

That’s why I felt stung during one of small Alison’s pivotal scenes. Eating in a diner with her father, who is busy reading, Alison notices a delivery woman no one else seems to pay much attention to. She is strong, a butch with short hair, boots and, Alison sings triumphantly, a large ring of KEYS! Alison, who has struggled to dress comfortably while her father pressures her to fit in with other girls, revels in the realization that a grown woman could dress like this and be okay. She has received the first piece of her role model puzzle. Sitting in the audience, hearing those around me laugh at an admittedly silly musical number, made me want to get up and defend the girl on stage. Her story is the one that’s still developing! I thought. This is a huge deal for her! Take this seriously! 

Like many of my reactions to this play, this one came from a deeply personal experience as a queer woman. Which is great, and powerful, and exactly what good theater should inspire. But weirdly enough, it was a moment in which I felt othered — in a theater with visibly queer people! during a play about a lesbian and her gay dad! — acutely aware of all those in the audience who were there out of curiosity about something they had never experienced. It made me empathize even more with adult Alison, who throughout the play cringes and blushes at her younger selves’ more awkward moments.

Sydney Lucas and Michael Cerveris as small Alison and Bruce Photo by Joan Marcus

Sydney Lucas and Michael Cerveris as small Alison and Bruce
Photo by Joan Marcus

Media representations of childhood are inherently revisionist — reproduced by adults, they search for complex meaning in youthful experiences that, while multifaceted and complicated, were lived by a less-developed mind. To a child, cause-and-effect reasoning is a blunt tool, and varied daily experiences are often viewed sequentially rather than in relation to one another: I didn’t eat my lunch; then I was starving all afternoon; then I had three servings at dinner; then I threw up on the carpet; then Mom got mad at me. An adult would see each situation as leading to the next (if I had eaten lunch, I wouldn’t have gotten sick; if I hadn’t overeaten at dinner, my parent wouldn’t be upset) but a child doesn’t necessarily connect the dots. And an adult looking back on a situation from their childhood may connect dots that shade experiences in a way their younger self never felt.

Fun Home gets that. Throughout the story, adult Alison wanders the set, observing small details and wondering aloud if she’s remembered correctly. At times, she rushes to sketch details before they disappear; in other moments, square lights appear around multiple scenes simultaneously, as if she’s viewing the comic strip in her head faster than she can transcribe it. Staged in the round, the play has just enough set detail to keep the eye bouncing while characters bound in and out through a multipurpose door. Scenes flow organically from one to the next, and bare-bones representations of Bechdel’s father’s same-sex dalliances inspire a truly impressive amount of discomfort. Small Alison never knew about her dad’s affairs, and middle Alison can only piece together the components her mother reveals. But neither she nor the audience needs a full play-by-play to feel how wrong the encounters are.

Bruce is the loudest character in the play, and it would be easy to think of him as its main character. He’s the only one whose story gets a beginning, middle and end. But that would be a shortsighted view of what Fun Home is, and why it’s so important. The play, like the graphic memoir, is not just Bechdel’s recounting of her father’s painful, semi-closeted life. It’s an investigation, a desperate search to pin down how who Bruce was made Alison into who she is.

Beth Malone and Emily Skeggs as Alison and middle Alison Photo by Jenny Anderson

Beth Malone and Emily Skeggs as Alison and middle Alison
Photo by Jenny Anderson

It’s also a hilarious, emotionally sharp retrospective on growing up, from the delightful disco-themed commercial small Alison and her brothers record for the funeral home, to middle Alison’s declaration that she’s changing her major to Joan. The story interjects these joyous scenes with less comfortable ones of Bruce’s dalliances or family arguments, because that’s really what it’s like when you’re young. Good things happen, then bad ones, then funny ones, then awful ones.

Malone told the New York Times the story maintains that strict, investigatory sense as a reflection of Bechdel’s personal ethos: “Even her look is all about telling the truth — no ornamentation, nothing pretty. She hates lies — lies and embellishments are what got her dad killed.”

Without lies or embellishments, all Fun Home has is one woman’s messy set of memories. But those recollections are brilliantly recounted by actors who really seem like a family struggling to understand one another. Three representations of Bechdel feel both distinct and familiar, and the music is strong without overpowering the story. In the end, the play sticks with you for the same reasons the memoir did when you first read it: It reminds you how hard it is to understand who we are.


Fun Home is playing now at Circle in the Square theater in New York. Tickets are available at Telecharge.

Kaitlyn lives in New York, which is the simplest answer you're going to get if you ask her where she's from. She went to journalism school and is arguably making the most of her degree as a writer and copy editor. She utilizes her monthly cable bill by watching more competitive cooking shows than should be allowed.

Kaitlyn has written 69 articles for us.

32 Comments

  1. This was great! I just read Fun Home, and I have struggled so much since to describe it to people. I really like your last line that it is about how hard it is to understand yourself

  2. it’s interesting to hear you say that bruce could be understood as the story’s main character. i saw the play at the public theater two years ago, and i couldn’t tell you anything about alison’s father’s presence in the show. i think this speaks more to my own interest and connection with alison’s story, more than anything. his personal storyline, for me, is incidental to alison’s and how she is affected by him. what does that mean for audiences who truly see alison’s story as incidental to bruce’s and how he is affected by her? i wonder if this is what happens when stories by and about queer women reach a truly mainstream audience? it also makes me wonder if the reason this musical has been so successful is because something has happened in the production process to make it understood as a story about a man and his daughter rather than a lesbian and her relationship with her parents. i’m just sort of pondering out loud now, but this was a great review and gave me a lot to think about.

    • I included that line in part because of what you said the other day about the NY Times review…it made me realize that as I’d been reading about Fun Home, a lot of the coverage had been focused on Bruce. Certainly some of the biggest audience reactions were to his story. Comparing what I saw to what I’ve read of the show’s early performances, it seems like the Broadway version has dialed up the intensity of her obsession with her father. He’s consistently used as a foil to her emotions, pressing her back when she tries to draw or wear certain clothes, and his decision to live in the closet — with painful consequences for all those around him — is very deliberately cast in parallel to her struggle to get out of it. And at times like the one I mentioned above, it felt like Alison was the comedic relief to his desperate depression.

      So yes, I think a huge part of what has made this iteration of Fun Home successful is that Bruce is an interesting, tortured and (most importantly) controlling character. Alison is telling this story about him as a way of exploring herself, but when he’s there in front of you dancing and singing and commanding and prowling, Bruce is the focus. A lot of that is due to Michael Cerveris’ acting, too — it’s really phenomenal. And I don’t think it necessarily is a bad thing to offer Bruce as an inroad for those who don’t have the background you or I may have that pushes us to identify so much with Alison. But it is something to note, especially because, like you said, this is a queer woman’s story about growing up queer, and that aspect needs to be preserved even when it’s repackaged to (ostensibly) appeal to a more mainstream audience.

    • I feel like it’s also important to note that as a new play, Fun Home has gone through an intense development process since its first production at the Public – and maybe Bruce’s presence in the play has actually changed since two years ago!

  3. I read this book as a student at College of Charleston last year when it came under fire for “promoting the gay lifestyle,” and ardently defended it in English class, in an editorial for the Post and Courier, and to basically anyone who would let me talk long enough to listen. The story changed my life for the better, and I am so, so glad to see Fun Home get the recognition and audience it deserves <3

  4. Terrific review. I’ve seen Fun Home twice, once at the Public, and once at the Circle in the Square. In the transition, Small Alison has lost one of the songs that helps her claim her identity–where she imagines, while wearing her jean jacket, driving around in a convertible and rescuing a lovely woman.

    Just a note: it’s a graphic memoir, not a graphic novel.

    • Thank you for the compliment! I wish I could have seen the version with that song in it. Sydney Lucas is really great, and I wanted her to have more development.

      Good catch on the novel/memoir distinction, too! I will fix that now.

    • I’m so sad that “Al For Short” got cut! Partially because the lyric “pardonnez-moi, mademoiselle / je voudrais to make sure everything is, euh, d’accord here” is some brilliant freaking musical theatre songwriting (not to mention some INCREDIBLE franglais, speaking as a bilingual lady). Not to mention “I don’t know what it is about you, but you make me feel so safe” speaks in such startlingly plain terms about what it’s like to be attracted to women and not have words for it yet. You go, Lisa Kron. But I hear that the moment that replaces it (I haven’t seen it on Broadway yet, though I saw it at the Public–next month can’t come fast enough!) is just as wonderful, and I understand why it’s been cut (because it makes “Ring of Keys” a stronger moment, and I fully support that).

  5. I cannot fathom even for a moment how someone could possible laugh at “Ring of Keys”. Sure, I bet Small Alison looks adorable singing it, but that song is HEARTBREAKING. The first time I heard it I cried for like ten minutes afterwards. As a MOC woman who also hated to wear dresses and hairclips as a little kid (though I sometimes do now)that song just hits me so hard. I want to see this show SO BADLY. But now I’m desperately afraid that seeing it with an audience who wouldn’t or couldn’t appreciate it the way I do would completely ruin the experience for me.

    • 🙁

      I guess I cannot promise that it would be worth it even if some in the crowd laughed, but for me, there were so many positive moments separate from that one where I looked around and saw people crying, holding on to one another, etc. Like, in a way that was really cool and impressive. If you’re concerned about that, I would suggest seeing it with a few friends who can hold your hand and pass some tissues.

      • I’m going to have to defend the laughing here. I laughed. My girlfriend laughed. The other lesbians we were there with laughed. Hard. Almost the entire audience (mostly queer in those early days) laughed. It was knowing laughter, BIG laughter, wonderful happy laughter.

        I assure you much of the laughter isn’t laughing because there’s something wrong with the sentiment behind the song. It’s because there’s something RIGHT with it. It’s awesome and such a wonderful release.

  6. I saw the show today for the second time at Circle. It was a Wednesday matinee crowd, which is notorious for being school groups and senior citizens. And the theatre was packed with both. The school kids got rowdy at certain parts (like when Joan and Alison kissed and I heard a kid yell out “Get it, boo!”), but not any crazier than I’ve experienced any other shows with student groups.

    The older audience appeared to enjoy it as much as I was. My friend who was sitting separate from me (sold out shows means you buy single tickets) told me that there was a husband and wife in their seventies sitting next to her and just weeping. During one point, the wife saw how much my friend was crying as well, and she reached out to hold her hand. I looked across the theatre at the end of the play and saw a woman sobbing in the front row. I don’t know what part of the show affected these people, but they were clearly moved.

    I believe a lot of these people relate to the distant relationship with a parent. Or trying to figure out that relationship now that the parent has died. I feel like the show is as much about lesbian woman discovering her queerness as it is about a child trying to connect to a parent. In fact, her queerness is what drives much of the discovery and truth telling.

    And one final note about RING OF KEYS: “Do you feel my heart saying hi?” This line breaks my heart EVERYTIME.

    I will never say enough things about this fantastic story and this glorious show!

  7. Your comment about audience members laughing at Ring of Keys is so interesting to me, because that wasn’t my experience when I saw it off-Broadway. In fact, Lisa Kron and June Thomas at Slate speak to this in this 2013 feature about the show:

    Kron was worried that audiences would laugh at that last song—“I really struggled with finding language to describe [the butch stranger] that I didn’t feel was a trigger for a straight audience,” she told me. As a Tony voter, Kron sees every Broadway show, and she has grown weary of a tiresome trope: In several recent musicals, “there was a moment where someone would say the word lesbian as a non sequitur because it was funny. I’d be so on board, and then I’d be slapped in the face by it. It was just like, This character’s a joke. This is not a person.”

    Can one new musical overcome years of lazy stereotyping? In the Fun Home preview that I recently attended, no one giggled when young Alison sang “Ring of Keys.” Instead, the song elicited gasps of recognition.

    I wonder how Broadway audiences are changing the experience of watching this show, then?

    • It actually makes me feel really good to hear the thought that went into it. The moment honestly took me by surprise, because like I said, I felt like before that the crowd had been on the same page as I was. I don’t feel the reaction was a result of a purposeful playing up for laughs — obviously, it was acted in a way that had me bawling. But it’s definitely inevitable that bringing the show to a bigger audience will produce some reactions from people who just don’t understand the very personal experience of a marginalized group.

  8. Also, as someone who is musical theatre af, I have a few things to say:

    1. Can Judy Kuhn and Sydney Lucas tie for the Tony? Please? I feel like I go back and forth on who ‘needs’ to win every day. I mean, Judy is long overdue for a Tony in the first place, but in this particular case, she takes a role that many in the theatre community were calling “underdeveloped” and turns “Days and Days” into a remarkable, subtle, nuanced, and HIGH STAKES tour de force in one song the likes that I haven’t seen since Christine Ebersole doing “Another Winter in a Summer Town” from Grey Gardens. But then Sydney Lucas is 11 YEARS OLD and making me feel like I should drop out of my musical theatre degree program because I will NEVER BE THAT GOOD.
    2. On a related note, #TESORI2015, Y’ALL. Let’s see a woman win Best Score for only the second time (and the first time a female writer from a musical theatre background will win).

      • I wish Best Lyrics still existed (throwback to 1971, y’all) so that Kron could win that too! 100% #KRON2015 as well. I really feel like this show is going to sweep. It’s a really strong season (Something Rotten and An American in Paris, anyone?), but gosh, do I ever believe in this show.

        • I wish Best Lyrics still existed, too. Lisa Kron would definitely win! And, yes, it has been a ridiculously strong season, which is amazing. I just love THIS show so much!

  9. Thank you Autostraddle for supporting my current addiction! I’ve been listening to the songs repeatedly, and my wife just bought me a copy of the book for my birthday! We live way too far away to make it to see the play, so all of the review have been lovely to read.

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