For quite a while now, Lisa Kron’s work and life, as seen through the prism of her plays, have shone in the public eye. Garnering accolades that include Obie and GLAAD awards for her memoir/monologue 2.5 Minute Ride to Well (named a Best Play of 2004 by The New York Times, AP and The Advocate), Kron has been a chronicler of family life. Up until Fun Home, which just won her two Tony Awards, that family has primarily been the one in which she was raised. Now with this Tony-winning musical, also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama—sharing the credit with composer Jeanine Tesori—she takes up another universal story about families in her adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir.
That Fun Home is universal in its appeal is a matter Kron observes with clarity. “[The play] is fundamentally about parents and children, that primal yearning for a connection in both directions, which we can never satisfy.” Here, the narrative recounts Alison’s relationship with her father who commits suicide shortly after she comes out to him. It’s this quest for parental love, for sharing and understanding, which is never resolved, with which we identify.
Grabbing the attention of critics and audiences alike, the show continues to garner the popularity that has eluded so many new musicals this season. That speaks to Kron’s dedication to her craft. When she began her career in New York at The WOW Café, “the press was not paying any attention to us,” Kron recalls. “If nobody is looking at you, you have total freedom,” she remarks almost humbly, recognizing that experience as one lucky break.
Talking to Kron, it’s clear that the specifically lesbian-centric theater that evolved at WOW, emerged precisely from the autonomy those performers had: their unchallenged right to engage in their perspective as lesbians, and to build on it. That was unique in the theater at the time. “We were just working for our own pleasure and curiosity,” Kron emphasizes.
Young lesbians (like myself) flocked to see the work of those pioneers—Lois Weaver, Peggy Shaw and Holly Hughes among them. We shared a dynamic, fluid connection between their work and our fledgling adventures, and their individual stories fortified our own experiences.
As Kron recalls, WOW Café created the opportunity for our diversity to be noticed. “We need all types of different people to see the world. Theater is uniquely well-suited to that.” Reflecting on her comment, I notice that she’s primed me with an essential aesthetic. Not only is Kron affirming the need to experience others in order to appreciate ourselves in the bigger scope of things, but we as lesbians also need a vast audience to see who we are and to experience our diversity.
Like many of us, Kron is struck by the shifting cultural views towards gays and lesbians in recent years. “I never thought I would see these straight audiences relate to [Fun Home] personally, and not get stuck on the fact that the characters are lesbian,” Kron delights in telling me on the phone, as she’s rushing out to a meeting. “Five years ago, I don’t think this would have happened.” She continues, describing the shifting nature of culture as “a scaffolding of images [in which you] fill in the grid…Culture is always referencing itself. There’s enough of a scaffolding there now, so that the work isn’t in a vacuum.”
Not only is Fun Home the first lesbian-themed musical to play on Broadway, it’s also Kron’s first musical of which she is both author and lyricist. The latter Kron describes as a “weird intuitive process that allows you to do so many things. [The musical as a form] is elastic in that way.”
In this “sung-through” piece, Kron emerges as a delightful, teasing iconoclast. Pairing car rides and lunches, shirts and socks, grades and piano, her lyrics welcome us into the Bechdel’s home. Tesori’s melodic score and the onstage orchestra blend into the daily life of this musical family.
Unlike the pastiche of songs in jukebox musicals, which proliferate in musical theater, there are many different kinds of songs in Fun Home. In “Ring of Keys,” for instance, small Alison describes seeing an old-school butch, the likes of whom she’s never seen before, but with whom she immediately identifies. The lyrics and the approach are simple and to the point. On another note entirely, “Telephone Wire” is sung as an urgent tug of war amid two characters and between their unconscious thoughts and their actual conversation as it jumps back and forth in time. The urgency of that conflict between Alison and her father, of course, is the core of the play, which Kron drives to psychological transparency.
Throughout the musical, Alison, portrayed by three actors (Beth Malone as Alison the adult, Emily Skeggs as Middle Alison and Sydney Lucas as Small Alison), often appear simultaneously, one reflecting on the other. Consulting and cajoling between the ages, our heroine revisits the cynical, tense man (played by Michael Cerveris) who raised her, and who will ultimately leave her.
In this role, Cerveris plays a closeted gay man who maintains terse control in spite of his natural eagerness for self-exploration. As his wife, Helen (sensitively played by Judy Kuhn) is sadly disabused about marriage, love and homosexuality—Alison’s included.
That the acting is outstanding is highlighted by its Tony wins in the category of Best Musical and Best Lead Actor in a musical (Michael Cerveris), and nominations for Best Featured Actress in a musical—with Judy Kuhn, Sydney Lucas and Emily Skeggs all named in that same category. Indeed, if the Tonys are in any way a reflection of popular taste, it’s worth noting that Fun Home and American in Paris, each with 12 nominations, led the race. The latter, based on the classic movie starring Gene Kelly, is beautifully choreographed and enchanting. On the other hand, Fun Home lives and breathes in the world that has been, until recent times, undisclosed and undisclosable. It’s also challenging in its innovative use of form, in which all time is present and intemporal.
To the credit of its creators, Fun Home is more than the sum of its parts. From its New York premiere on the proscenium at the Public Theater to its current staging in the round, one can appreciate how effectively this production at Circle in the Square breaks the boundaries between stage and audience. All of us live equally within Alison’s consciousness, listening to her memories and joining in her family. As directed by Sam Gold, the production is intimate and disarming.
While Gold, Kron explains, has a special affection for working in the round, the technical issues that it created were also enormous. I’m struck by her description of the sound system that had to be built specially for this production, with tiny speakers placed throughout the house on micro delay, because sound travels slowly.
“My primary interest is in theater and how theater works,” Kron opines when I ask her how she transcends the trappings of sentimentality in writing memoirs about a woman’s experience. “The thing I pursue—my perspective as a lesbian is the place I start from. Theater doesn’t say anything assertive, or make claims; it asks questions. The more you use the tools of theater in the biggest way, the bigger your work will be.”