“I just have to meet the right people,” the college-aged Alison in the musical version of Alison Bechdel’s memoir Fun Home tells her father during a tender, tentative phone call between them when she’s attempting to confide in him about her awkwardness while indirectly letting them both know that she is aware that she is about to awaken to her truer self.
Part one of 'Two Parties, Two Casts, Two Cities: One Show'. See part two, Chicago closing, here.
It is the kind of self her gay father could alas never be fully true to in his own tragic life. That unalloyed almost-connection between parent and child is at the heart of this remarkable musical that, in turn, connects with audiences on so many levels - familial, emotional, sociological, political, but finally as a performative work of art.
"[Alison is] connected in some way to the universe and these kind of heightened things occur in her life all the time." -Holly Rae Taylor
I thought a lot about that line the night before Fun Home had its final performance on Broadway when Carole Shorenstein Hays opened her home on Fifth Avenue to celebrate the show’s success with a buffet dinner set out on the glass dining table beneath a glorious Basquiat painting that anchored a room filled with other works by Calder and Oldenburg. Hays is the producer who two years ago led the move of the show from The Public uptown to Circle in the Square where it received five Tony awards, including the one for Best Musical in 2015. I looked around the room at the Broadway and upcoming national company casts; Bechdel and her wife, the artist Holly Rae Taylor; Hays and her husband Dr. Jeff Hays; the show’s director, Sam Gold; writer Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori who created the lyrics and book and music for the show; an assortment of other writers; some jaded journalists; Scott Forstall, the ex-Apple genius who raised the bar at the company during his time there as one of Apple’s foremost innovators and who, as his first foray into producing, helped Hays move Fun Home to Broadway; and, yes, my own ever-awkward reflection in the entry hall’s mirror.
Surveying such a crowd I wondered if we all had felt as that college-aged Alison had felt when trying to reach out to her father? Did we all just need to find the right people? Our own creative herd? There is a certain sort of alchemy involved in creating theatre. No one sets out to create a bad play or musical. But because it is a collaborative art form one has to find “the right people” in the process. Fun Home was blessed in its journey from Bechdel’s book to the Broadway stage with itself having found the right crowd, its own herd. And they were all in the Hays’ living room that night: artists surrounded by art. And love. There was a lot of love in that room that night which was exemplified by Hays surprising Bechdel with a birthday cake after having toasted the show and its creators and casts.
“Alison’s official birthday is tomorrow,” Bechdel’s wife whispered to me.
“Wait. Her birthday just happens to be falling on the closing night of Fun Home?” I asked .
“Yes,” said Taylor. “Kind of hard to believe isn’t it. But it’s true.”
“That’s a God-thing,” I chanced speculating, hoping that Taylor wouldn’t roll her eyes at such a comment since it was a heartfelt one.
“I’m so glad you said that,” she instead whispered to me after Alison had blown out the candles on her cake. “That often happens with Alison. She’s connected in some way to the universe and these kind of heightened things occur in her life all the time.”
Fun Home itself is a God-thing, I came to realize in that moment, as I looked around at the Fun Home family gathered together in that room. The show’s deep redemptive qualities - making sense of one family’s tragedy, its attempt at healing while doing so - sets so many others on their own redemptive, healing paths after seeing it.
Fun Home was blessed in its journey from Bechdel’s book to the Broadway stage with itself having found the right crowd, its own herd. And they were all in the Hays’ living room that night: artists surrounded by art. And love.
On the following evening that creative herd that had gathered at the Hays’s apartment shepherded itself - because that’s what such herds do - over to the Circle in the Square Theatre to see the show’s final Broadway performance. Also spotted in the audience were actress Cherry Jones and writer and activist Larry Kramer. The audience gave each entrance an ovation but then settled down to experience the show’s brilliantly told story, its soaring music, the laughter woven so lovingly through it, and the final inextricable heartbreak before that hopeful, redemptive, healing coda in its last lovely moment.
The tears flowed at the final curtain call - from the cast as well as from so many of us in the audience. Kron and Gold and Tesori and Bechdel joined everyone onstage; the audience roared even louder when they did.
Kron spoke: “There are a million, billion thank-you’s emanating from the hearts of everyone standing here right now. I’m sure that you can feel them. But before we end this run we wanted to acknowledge what was there when we began. We wanted to thank Alison Bechdel for writing a book with questions so big and feelings so deep and artistry so fine and complex that we could have mined it forever and we would have never reached the bottom.”
“We almost did,” Tesori interjected, joking about the many years it took her and Kron journeying forth artistically before they finally found the right pathways into telling Bechdel’s story in this musical form.
“But it has been a journey,” Kron continued, “that has been so capacious that there has been room for all of us and all of you to stand inside of it together. So we feel that it is fitting that the last words that come from us on this Broadway stage are, ‘Thank you, Alison.’”
The audience roared at that but then quieted when Alison, in that quiet, dignified way of hers, became the last person to speak from Fun Home’s Broadway home. “I have always had a hard time telling where life stops and art begins,” she said. “And this beautiful, beautiful work of art about my life has not helped matters. I want to thank all you people for handling my book and my real life with such dazzling artistry and with such respect, a respect that has felt very much like love.”
FUN HOME, in a new version helmed by its Broadway director Sam Gold, opens at the Curran on January 26th and runs through February 19th.
Read about Chicago's closing weekend here.