Above: Beth Malone, Sydney Lucas and Michael Cerveris in the original Broadway production of FUN HOME.
Acclaimed author and critic Daniel Mendelsohn takes his godson to see the musical on Broadway.
Thomas, who is seventeen, straight, and stands six feet four inches (also: a varsity golfer and bowls a 253), has always liked musicals—a fact that both pleases and amuses his gay godfather. When he was nine or so we’d be likely to find him in the family room, a blond crew-cut poking out from a mass of blankets, legs slowly disappearing into the cushions of the sofa, as the Streisand movie version of Hello, Dolly! blared from the TV. In theater as in everything, it turned out, he has his own way of looking at things. A year or so ago we were having breakfast and he said, chuckling, “Remember that musical I used to like?”
“You know, about the store clerk who’s in love with that girl?”
His mother, my parenting partner—my decision to become involved in the raising of Thomas’s older brother was the subject of my first book—raised a puzzled eyebrow. “A musical about a store clerk?” She looked at me. “Isn’t there a clerk in My Fair Lady?”
Thomas rolled his eyes. “No, not that one!”
Lily and I rattled off the names of every musical we could think of. The fact is, I’m not really a musical buff; Lily knew more titles than I did. “No, no!” Thomas shook his head in exasperation. “The one with the restaurant! Where they’re dancing down the stairs!”
I burst out laughing: that one I knew. “You mean Hello, Dolly!?”
“But that’s about a matchmaker who’s trying to get a rich guy to marry her even though she’s supposed to be finding him a wife,” I offered. “The part about the store clerk and the girl is a ‘subplot.’ It’s not the main part.”
Thomas was unimpressed. “Well, that’s the part I liked best.” We didn’t argue. Thomas has always known what he likes.
Two weeks ago, I wondered how he’d like FUN HOME, the adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel about growing up in a funeral home and realizing not only that she’s gay, but that her antiques-collecting father is gay, too. (His name is “Bruce,” no less.) I’d read Bechdel’s book when it came out—mostly, I have to admit, because it had been nominated for a literary prize that another memoir of mine was up for. At the time I hadn’t read many graphic novels, and was deeply impressed by the touching interplay between Bechdel’s sweetly ingenuous drawings and her murky, often disturbing themes. Given that Thomas’s tastes in popular entertainment have always run to sunnier subjects, I’d emailed him some of the publicity material about FUN HOME a week before we went into New York City for the show, just to make sure he was OK with what it was about. The sexuality, the children’s dim awareness that all was not right with their parents, the suicide were a long way from Yonkers and Horace Vandergelder.
I hadn’t read many graphic novels, and was deeply impressed by the touching interplay between Bechdel’s sweetly ingenuous drawings and her murky, often disturbing themes.
The text Thomas sent to let me know that he wanted to go was typically laconic. “Sounds good.” A few days later I was in New Jersey visiting him and his brother and their mom, and he looked amused when I told him that in the sequel to FUN HOME, Bechdel has a panel in which her mother razzes her because my memoir had ended up winning that lit award. “That is very cool,” he grinned: a chink in the Spartan armor. I grinned back and said, “Well, her book was turned into Tony Award-winning hit musical.” He looked at me philosophically and said, “True.”
We liked the show. I have to admit that sometimes the perfectionist father, obsessed with restoring his Victorian house, was a bit too close for comfort. “Everything is balanced and sereeeeene,” the three small children of Bechdel père sing at one point., gently lampooning their parent’s yearning for a moment of interior perfection—“interior,” here, referring to the furniture as well as to his troubled soul. Had I been like that? I cringed, too, during a scene in which, during a family trip to New York City, the father tries to tiptoe out of the apartment where the family is staying in order to go cruising. I glanced uncomfortably to my right. Thomas’s face, with its Tatar planes, was impassive.
Toward the end of the show, as his double life crumbles apart, Bruce Bechdel’s demons get the better of him. I’d read the graphic novel, and knew what was coming. When Thomas pulled at my arm, I was worrying that all this was, perhaps, too disturbing. I leaned over. “What is it?”
“I have to go!” he whispered back.
Crap, I thought. I was right. What to do? I said, “It’s fine if you don’t like it—“
“I have to go to the bathroom,” he hissed, shaking his head. “But it’s so good I don’t want to leave!”
I smiled. “You can go quickly but then you’ll have to stand at the back until it’s over.”
He shook his head. “I’ll stay.”
And he did. Thomas, after all, knows what he likes.
After the show was over, as we were walking out of the men’s room, I turned to him. “So what was your favorite part?
“Everything,” he said, as we got in the cab and started the long trip back home.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Daniel Mendelsohn, an award-winning author, critic, and translator, contributes frequently to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. His books include the international bestseller The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, which won the National Books Critics Circle Award and the National Jewish Book Award; a memoir, The Elusive Embrace, a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year; two collections of essays, and new translation of the poetry of C. P. Cavafy, which included the first English translation of the poet’s Unfinished Poems. He teaches literature at Bard College.