Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home begins with a game of “Airplane,” in which Bechdel’s father, Bruce, propels his child into the air by bouncing her on his upturned legs. The image introduces an intimate exploration of Bechdel and her father before his suicide, four months after she came out of the closet, motivated by his own repressed homosexuality.
Appropriately, the musical adaptation, Fun Home, begins with the same scene, but before anyone gets airborne, Bruce (played by Michael Cerveris) interrupts with a song—until he too, is interrupted, this time by an adult version of Alison (Beth Malone), who reveals that the plot of Fun Home is actually framed by the author at her drafting table. Then, a third interruption, the entire cast raucously bouncing across the stage, many people from many times flooding the scene—a parade of memories to mirror what Alison will write. Fun Home, then, is the act of writing Fun Home, a peek behind the curtain that show’s Alison’s process, and the frustrations of remembering a life from a distance.
Alison starts in the middle of the stage (the musical is set in the round, with seats on all sides; before the show, I was warned that I would not be allowed to use the bathroom, lest I step on stage), but from there, she moves around her memories and occasionally pipes in to frame the scene, or to cry “Caption!” and dictate what she will write underneath it. She will also comment on a scene, sometimes as a joke, like groaning at the awkward memories of college-age Alison (Emily Skeggs), and other times angrily, as when she implores Bruce to say something rather than remain silent as he does in her memories. Alison will even comment on the prose used in Fun Home, complimenting a particularly good line or phrase. It’s gratifying to see this writer at work, funneling scenes and words.
The largest disparity between book and musical, however, are the moments in which Alison completely steps aside for other characters’ solo performances. These include Bruce’s final song before his death; a song sung by Alison’s mother (Judy Kuhn) about her turmoil, a topic the book only just mentions; and most memorably, an earnest declaration of self by young Alison (played by Gabriella Pizzolo, but seen by most as performed by originator Sydney Lucas during the 2015 Tony Awards, where Fun Home won best new musical, and she received Best Featured Actress). To readers of Fun Home, these moments are wondrously refreshing, a new glimpse at the characters they had previously seen filtered through Bechdel, speaking for themselves.
But with this freedom comes new anxieties, expressed by Alison as she struggles to cohere these scenes. At times, she will dismiss a caption (“’Tsunami-like,’ what does that even mean?”) or mutter “Oh, right, right” when a different memory interrupts the one she is trying to render. Her frustration is most deeply felt as she watched items from her childhood home disappear from the stage as she begs for them to stay. Memory, Alison shows, is fleeting, a struggle to pick and choose, to guess at what is no more, and to peel towards what went unseen in the first place.
If the joy of Fun Home the musical is to watch Alison in the process of writing, then it also serves to remind that the joy of Fun Home the book is to experience the completed product, one with Bechdel guiding her reader along a carefully plotted path. This resonates most in the musical’s final scene—which is, in fact, a return to that first one, in which young Alison demands that game of “Airplane,” revealing that Alison has visited every other memory portrayed in order to craft just that moment. Young Alison is joined by the other versions of herself in commanding Bruce, “Don’t let go yet,” as he lifts his daughter above him. The musical ends with one final, or perhaps the very first, caption: “Every so often, there was a rare moment of perfect balance when I soared above him.”
If Fun Home is a book about memory, then Fun Home is a musical about capturing those memories, an adaptation of a work that not only tells the story through a new medium, but takes a deep look at the craft. The audience emerges with both a unique experience as well as a new appreciation for an old one, perhaps with a desire to revisit the source material—which, conveniently enough, is sold right there in the lobby. Pick up a copy, and the cast recording as well, and enjoy a story beautifully through many planes of memory.
Matt Bukowski is a contributing writer for Café Américain and a first-year candidate in the American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.