Musical-theater training programs fetishize the “I Want” song — the number that comes soon after the opening of many shows and lays out the protagonist’s predicament. (Think of “Something’s Coming” in West Side Story or “The Wizard and I” in Wicked.) It says everything about the intelligence behind the new musical Fun Home that its authors have taken a good look at such musical storytelling traditions and mostly chucked them.
Or more interestingly, reinvented them, in this case by twisting the “I Want” cliché into something wholly original: a “He Wants” song. Offered in the usual spot, it is sung by the family of Bruce Bechdel: a home-restoration martinet who has turned his wife and three kids into assistant curators in the museum of his mania:
He wants the real feather duster used on the bookcase
Find all the books we read and carefully restore
He wants them alphabetized by classification
A volume out of place could start a third world war
Much will be out of place before the evening is over, and the question of who is the actual protagonist will form an important part of the drama. But this sideways approach to introducing unusual characters and issues is more than just an effective way to set up an unusual story; it also signals the show’s radical formal intentions. That Fun Home carries them out so thoroughly, while retaining the musical theater’s unparalleled capability for expressing emotion and color, is something of a miracle.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that the authors — Lisa Kron wrote the book and lyrics, Jeanine Tesori the music — had to find new tools to build Fun Home. It is based, almost but not quite uniquely, on a graphic novel: Alison Bechdel’s 2006 memoir of life with father, subtitled “A Family Tragicomic.” In it, Bechdel looks back on earlier versions of herself as she and “they” try to understand the blustery enigma of Bruce, who aside from being more Martha Stewart than Jimmy Stewart, is a high-school English teacher, runs the local funeral home (hence the title) and is, in retrospect, quite obviously gay. That Alison learns this only as she is discovering her own lesbianism at college is just one of the story’s many wrenching ironies. The flowering of her identity through sexuality coincides with (and perhaps, she thinks, even causes) the collapse of his.
Kron, whose breakthrough plays (The 2.5 Minute Ride, Well) were themselves memoiristic, had the daunting job of exploding Bechdel’s densely interwoven and often highly literary narrative in order to rebuild it as theater. Among her most consequential choices was dividing the character of Alison into three Alisons at different ages, each played by a different actor: the adult Alison at 43, trying to write her book; “Medium Alison” at 19, coming out at Oberlin; and “Small Alison,” around 8, desperate for her father’s attention but also chafing under it. (He forces her to wear girly dresses and barrettes, when all she wants are jeans and a crew cut.) As the story moves back and forth among the three timeframes, this approach not only allows us to maintain our bearings but also solves certain problems of age appropriateness. The 43-year-old Alison would be absurd singing the hilarious title number, in which the young Bechdel kids create a Jackson 5–style commercial for the family business: “We got Kleenex and your choice of psalm … Think of Bechdel when you need to embalm.” And the 8-year-old Alison could hardly be expected to make out with Joan, 19-year-old Alison’s hot Oberlin classmate.
There’s a trade-off, of course: a slight loss of narrative power because you have to invest in the three Alisons separately, as each one is introduced on her own and dominates a different part of the action. But narrative power is not generally lacking. Partly this is because Kron’s lyrics, tailored directly onto the story instead of struggling to fill predetermined song slots, are, like adult Alison, shorn and frank, without an ounce of fat. They are witty only where wit is called for; when gawky, bookish Medium Alison finally experiences, with that hot classmate, the all-consuming pleasure of sex, Kron comes up with a song whose catchy refrain is “I’m changing my major to Joan.”
Tesori, whose exhilarating music for Caroline, or Change sounded like a ten-car pile-up of period styles, switches gears here to match what Kron is doing. Except for those numbers that require it — “Raincoat Made of Love” is a trippy fantasy of happy family life that sounds an awful lot like The Partridge Family’s “Come On, Get Happy” — she entirely abjures pastiche, the Hamburger Helper of contemporary musicals. For the most part she abjures traditional song forms as well, opting instead for yearning fragments and bits of refrains that clump like cells into musicalized scenes: a smart parallel to the way Bechdel builds pages from individual panels. It also feels right, in portraying people who can’t find their way to happiness, to postpone the emotional payoff a conventionally turned melody can offer. And when recognizable verse-and-chorus numbers do arrive, they are all the more effective for being unusual.
Despite the care obviously lavished on its theoretical underpinnings, and despite its seriousness, Fun House is neither gloomy nor crabbed. At first you think it might be, with David Zinn’s set mostly empty except for piles of furniture lined up at the back of the stage. Gradually, though, Bruce’s dream house — his family’s nightmare — assembles itself before your eyes in all its fussy glory. Similarly, director Sam Gold is willing to let the show take its time, and ride out a few longueurs, to build naturally from its own premises. Even the unusual choice to reveal the outcome of the drama nearly at the beginning — a choice that has a very different effect onstage than it does in Bechdel’s novel — pays off eventually. The comedy is richer for the foreboding, and the last half-hour deepens as it hurtles toward the unbearable ending you already know is coming.
As has become almost unremarkable for new musicals at the Public, the production is topnotch, from wigs to orchestrations. And Gold has assembled a cast of singing actors doing some of the best work of their careers. Judy Kuhn makes the role of Alison’s stifled mother, a somewhat shadowy figure in the novel, a living warning. (Her song “Days,” admitting the waste of her life, is devastating.) The three Alisons are spot-on: Beth Malone with her adult angst and perfect Tintin coif; Alexandra Socha, raw and self-mocking; and especially an astonishing young actress named Sydney Lucas. Has a child ever been asked to play such feelings as Small Alison’s infatuation with a butch deliverywoman? This is new.
But it’s Michael Cerveris as Bruce who gives the show its spectacular wallop of sadness. He renders the bravado and self-distortion of this bizarre character, whose viciousness somehow feels as inevitable as it is unforgivable, with an insinuating body language that’s partly preening and partly writhing in shame. It’s as if Bruce’s overrefined taste had turned itself on him. Yet what would he, or the musical, be without such discernment? Early on, as Bruce sifts through a box he’s salvaged from a neighbor’s attic, he holds up a coffee pot and asks, with annoyance, “Is this junk or silver?” In the context of Alison’s story, it’s a comment on the vagaries of memory: What parts of the past are valuable, or even real? But it’s also a reflection of the way gifted artists can pick through the remnants of a tarnished art form to make a new kind of story shine.
Fun Home is at the Public Theater through November 17.