This year’s Tony Award-winning musical Fun Home opened in New York when I was in California. I finally caught up with it this weekend at the Circle in the Square Theatre, where it has now settled in for an open ended run. It was a brave and original choice for the Tony voters to offer the show 5 top honors, including Best Musical, Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical (Michael Cerveris), Best Book of a Musical (Lisa Kron), Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre (Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron), and Best Direction of a Musical (Sam Gold). Its chief competitor was An American In Paris, which is a stunning but more conventional musical that might appeal to a larger national audience. Five major Tony Awards, plus three more nominations, are quite a load for a small musical to handle; there are just nine actors on stage and three of them play the same role at different ages. So there are no crashing chandeliers, no helicopters, and no dancing feet making merry.
All evening long, the authors have taken a topical subject (adjustments and maladjustments to the appearance of homosexuality in what would otherwise appear to be a typical American family, living in a conventional small town in Pennsylvania.)
Mother Helen and Dad Bruce have three kids, all of them lively and happily living in harmony. But no, daughter Allison is the odd one out, and she is revealed to us at three stages of her young life. As narrator, she is a middle aged cartoonist who is living comfortably with the knowledge that she is, and always has been a lesbian. It was her Mother who let her know that she always knew her Dad was a closeted homosexual who could not cope with the pressures of his time, and who managed to end his compromised life by succumbing to an oncoming truck, the headlights of which come crashing down upon him.
This is clearly not the usual turf of musical theatre. Based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, the writers have written without compromise, offering us a meaningful play with music that’s been cast to perfection, and staged by Sam Gold with fluidity and insight into character. Ms. Kron’s book and lyrics have the power of any fine play, and Ms. Tesori’s music is sensitive to its many moods. No songs are listed in the program, which is unusual. But in fact, there are no songs in the usual sense. The ideas that are musicalized are instead sung at us in complicated and accurate mood pieces that deal with such complex feelings as the days that are lost by repressing the truth, the complete switch in the teenage Alison’s head when she discovers her feelings are directed toward a Joan, not a John. The awkward first erotic feelings are beautifully written and expressed by Emily Skeggs and Roberta Colindrez as a more experienced college student who is secure in her sexual identity.
Judy Kuhn has her best role in several seasons as the Mother (Helen) and scores with the lovely “Days and Days” in which she shares her dark secret with her daughter Allison. Michael Cerveris fills his characterization of Dad (Bruce) with nuance and variety. He has moments of warmth and intimacy with his children, but his first encounter with a male worker in his home tells us all we need to know about the great conflict within him because of the attraction he feels. His guilt for feeling more for this stranger than for his wife, the glue that keeps his family together, is palpable.
It’s something of a breakthrough, this Fun Home. More play than musical, it certainly probes more deeply than most works in either category. I suspect that Ms. Tesori’s music will resonate even more movingly on further hearings, and I’m certainly going to invest in the original cast CD, for though the acoustics at the in-the-round Circle In The Square are adequate, some of the subtleties are lost, particularly when an actor is facing the other side of the house. I suspect there is more to this score than my first hearing implies, and even that first hearing commanded respect.
The choices made by the creators in fashioning a style for this complex microcosmic tale of a very real family of five, struggling to find fulfillment in a world that is not always accommodating, are brave, dangerous, and ultimately rewarding.
Take a chance on Fun Home (a euphonism for “Funeral Home,”which is the family business and has been for generations. Irony, even in the title).
Fun Home is playing at Circle in the Square Theatre – 235 West 50th Street (Broadway at 8th Avenue) in New York City. For tickets, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200, buy them at the box office, or purchase them online.
Purchase the cast CD on Amazon.com for only $12.99.