Cartoonist and memoirist Alison Bechdel spent years in therapy trying to exorcize the skeletons in her family closet. She grew up in the hamlet of Beech Creek, Pa., current population 703. Her father was a popular high school English teacher who restored old houses and ran a family-owned funeral home on the side. Her mother was a teacher who moonlighted as an actress.
Their home was a precious Gothic Revival antique, filled with museum-quality furniture and exquisite period details. “It was really magical and beautiful. We felt quite special living there,” Bechdel says during a phone interview from her home in Vermont. But her father, Bruce, was fastidious. “As a kid I hated it, because I spent so much time vacuuming and dusting.”
The public face of the family was just as squeaky clean: three kids, solid community members, buckets of artistic talent. But beneath the surface, the clan harbored secrets that Bechdel didn’t grasp growing up. That disjuncture inspired Bechdel as an adult. She recounted the family story in her 2006 graphic memoir, “Fun Home,” which was a stunning crossover success. The memoir was adapted into a musical, earning five Tony Awards in 2015, including Best Musical. The national tour comes to the Boston Opera House on Tuesday and runs through Oct. 29.
At first glance, the material doesn’t seem like that of your typical musical comedy. The character of Alison came out as a lesbian at 19, only to have her mother reveal that her father was a repressed homosexual who’d had affairs with other men and his male students and almost went to jail. A few months later, her father committed suicide by walking in front of a Sunbeam Bread truck. That’s certainly enough material, but for a musical?
Playwright and actress Lisa Kron, however, was captivated. She has written autobiographical plays and understood the tension between fact and fiction when she read “Fun Home.” She and composer Jeanine Tesori approached Bechdel with the idea of a musical in 2010. “I said ‘yes’ right away, even though I had said ‘no’ to a film offer,” Bechdel says. “I didn’t know much about musicals. It felt like a form that was sufficiently alien to me, so it was fine to turn it over.”
She gave the pair carte blanche, and they remade “Fun Home” from the ground up, with Kron writing the book and the lyrics. “You have to give it its own originating impulse and tell the story fresh,” Kron says during a phone interview from New York. “It is quite a rigorous process.”
Kron went through the memoir, making lists of every location and every event. She discovered that the driving force was the nature of memory. “She wasn’t telling a chronological story about things that had happened in her family,” Kron says. “She was asking questions about her relationship to her father and about memory.”
Her solution was to have three actresses play the character of Alison at different stages: a little girl who loves her daddy, a college student celebrating her sexual identity, and an adult watching her life unfold and asking “What’s true in all this? What was really happening?”
The musical is bookended by images of the adult Alison writing her story. “There is no ‘Fun Home’ without that voice of the adult asking questions and interrogating what she is looking at,” Kron says.
Bechdel helped provide background and gave Kron her childhood journals. And she asked for only one change. Kron had written that her father’s precious William Morris wallpaper wasn’t the real thing, but it was. The change was made. “It was really important to him,” Bechdel says.
The musical revolves around the adult Alison coming to terms with her father’s actions. Bechdel didn’t know about his secret life until her mother revealed it, including details about her father’s affair with her beloved baby sitter, Roy. “I was just gob-smacked,’’ she says. “My entire childhood was something other than what I had thought. Everything was turned upside down.” Her father was trapped, she says, in a time when he had to live a lie.
In her memoir she writes, “I’d been upstaged, demoted from protagonist in my own drama to comic relief in my parents’ tragedy.” Not anymore. The character of Alison was the first lesbian protagonist on Broadway.
Bechdel thinks her parents would have been tickled to know that they, too, are characters in a musical. They met in a college theater production, and her late mother, Helen, performed at the Millbrook Playhouse, a summer stock theater. Her father was on the board of directors. And Bechdel and her brothers put on performances at the family’s funeral home — which they dubbed “fun home.”
Her first influence was Mad Magazine, and she later admired the work of R. Crumb and Art Spiegelman, whose graphic novel “Maus” made her realize the potential of the genre. The artist got her start in the early ’80s with the comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” where she first introduced what has come to be known as the “Bechdel Test,” based on an idea coined by her friend Liz Wallace. A work of fiction doesn’t pass unless it features two women talking about something other than a man.
“Fun Home” aces the test. But Bechdel never expected to see her life onstage. This summer, she and her brothers saw “Fun Home” at the Millbrook Playhouse. “It was bizarre,’’ she says. “My mother was performing there in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ when my father got caught with an underage kid. Our family was in jeopardy. We thought we would have to move.”
The reception was friendly and supportive. And she and the original Broadway cast took a field trip to the family home, now a vacation rental. “I laid my ghosts to rest when I wrote the book,” she says. Some of her father’s original restorations are still there, including the beloved William Morris wallpaper. “It was much nicer when we lived there, though. It has gotten a little tacky.” Her home in Vermont, which she shares with her wife, Holly Rae Taylor, is the antithesis of the house where she was raised. It’s small, unadorned, with Ikea furniture and metal filing cabinets.
She does wish that her parents could see the musical, because it might have been able to heal their scars. Of course, that’s impossible. There would be no play, no memoir, if her father had lived. But has she healed? Twice over. “I thought I had worked it all out in the book,’’ she says. “But seeing this play has had a whole separate cathartic effect.” The skeletons, no doubt, are out of the closet.
Presented by Broadway in Boston. At Boston Opera House, Oct. 17-29. Tickets start at $44. 800-982-2787, www.broadwayinboston.com
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