"Lesbians aren't the only ones who should see this show." Wise words from one of the younger stars of the FUN HOME touring cast as they wrap their stint in Chicago. See what they're bringing to sunny California this January. And don't forget to read part one (Broadway closing) here.
That dazzling artistry and the respect which felt very much like love that Alison Bechdel spoke about after the last performance of Fun Home on Broadway is still in evidence in Chicago at a Sunday matinee of the road company and Carol Shorenstein Hays has flown in from San Francisco for the day to again host a dinner party for the show. It is important to her for the cast to feel welcome even before they arrive in San Francisco to open the newly renovated Curran with the musical on January 26th.
Chicago is as distinct a city as San Francisco. Sarah Bernhardt, who gave a benefit performance of Phaedra at the Hearst Greek Theatre in Berkeley for an audience of five thousand after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, said of Chicago that she adored it because it was “the pulse of America.” Indeed, if Chicago is a toddlin’ town - gangly with its gangland lore, poetically big-shouldered - San Francisco is more golden in its gait, graceful, quieter as it shoulders the beautiful burden of its perfect posture. Chicago bustles about as the sun rises on its architectural splendor. San Francisco saunters toward its sunsets. Chicago has a grudging grandeur. San Francisco, though certain about its own, is more circumspect about it. Each city is known for its poets and its politicians and its ports.
Indeed, if Chicago is a toddlin’ town - gangly with its gangland lore, poetically big-shouldered - San Francisco is more golden in its gait, graceful, quieter as it shoulders the beautiful burden of its perfect posture.
In San Francisco we speak of Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk and Mark Twain and Courtney Love and Armistead Maupin and Nancy Pelosi and Jack London and Mark Zuckerberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Willie Brown and Jerry Garcia and Herb Caen and Marc Benioff and Michael Tilson Thomas and Willie Mays. Maya Angelou was the city’s first African American female cable car conductor. Willie Brown has said of her that she was “really one of the indigenous people in the development of all of us in the San Francisco Bay Area.” In Chicago they speak of Mayor Daley and Al Capone and Carl Sandburg and Ricardo Muti and Ernie Banks and Saul Bellow and Barack Obama and Mike Royko and Studs Terkel and Michael Jordan and John Belushi and Tina Fey and Hugh Hefner. Oprah Winfrey became the first African American female talk show host when she lived there which enabled her to become the first African American billionaire. “My first day in Chicago was September 4, 1983,” she has said. “I set foot in this city, and just walking down the street, it was like roots, like the motherland. I knew I belonged here.”
Shorentstein Hays is deeply rooted in San Francisco. She belongs here. That sense of belonging, in fact, can be traced to her early memories of the Curran where she spent so much of her precocious childhood. She told her daughter Gracie Hays of how the Curran in some way, in fact, mothered her and certainly fostered her desire to become the successful producer she is today. “I came to the Curran just about every Saturday,” she told Gracie. “I would put my party dress on and take the #1 California bus to Union Square and I would walk around I. Magnin’s glove department which was so glamorous. Then I would walk down the block to the Curran. There were lots of people outside and I thought, oh, that’s great, they are waiting for me. Everyone would say, ‘Oh, you are so adorable!’ So there I was, being completely adorable with all of these people who accepted me, and I walked in with them. I was completely welcomed. Oh! And there were bon-bons. I helped stack the bon-bons. And they said, ‘Oh, thank you. Adorable!’ I said, ‘You’re welcome.’ Then I noticed there were people walking upstairs and I thought, I will just walk upstairs too. And I did. I walked to the tippy-top of the theater. I had the time of my life. It’s the first time I learned how to applaud. I heard someone say the word, ‘Bravo!’ I thought that was such a fun word the first time I heard it.”
Shorentstein Hays - still child-like at 68 in her sense of wonder - identifies today with the precocity so evident in the ten-year-old actors and actresses playing the Bechdel children in the cast of Fun Home here in Chicago. They had all just heard “Bravos!” of their own shouted at the curtain call of today’s matinee before arriving at Petterino’s restaurant where she is hosting the cast dinner. The children at one of the three tables at Petterino’s - which was named for the long-time maitre’d at The Pump Room, another famed Chicago restaurant - regale the other diners with their love of performing Fun Home and what books they are reading, including, predictably, all of J.K. Rowling’s oeuvre as well as, unpredictably, The Giver, a 1993 young-adult utopian/dystopian novel by Lois Lowry which has been assigned to them by their tutor. They surprise the other guests by telling them that they even take classes during each performance of the show. “When we have 20 minutes between scenes, we’re backstage studying with our teacher,” says Carly Gold, one of the actresses playing Small Alison. Has she ever missed a cue because of being engrossed in her lessons? “Not yet,” she says. “I can do both. But our teacher is good at knowing when we’re about to go on.”
"Lesbians aren't the only ones who should see this show."
Fun Home is a family musical in so many ways - especially now that it is on tour and the mothers of the children in the cast are traveling with them. Sitting at the table with their precocious, talented sons and daughters, all the mothers admit that some of the subjects dealt with in the show - lesbianism, gay fathers, suicide - did engender conversations with their children before they decided to make the commitment to take the roles and tour with this most special and moving of musicals. All of the mothers agree, however, that the adult subjects are dealt with so lovingly and empathetically in the script and lyrics that Lisa Kron has so expertly based on Bechdel’s book that any concerns were easily assuaged.
“Lesbians aren’t the only ones who should see this show,” ten-year-old Pierson Salvador, who plays the young Christian Bechdel, wisely offers when the subject of the show’s adult themes is broached at the dinner table. Such a quote from a such a youngster starring in such a show could have easily found its way into a Chicago column by Mike Royko or a San Francisco one by Herb Caen if they were still around and writing them. The mothers laugh. Carly rolls her eyes, just as she does as Small Alison in Fun Home, then asks if the bruschetta appetizer is gluten-free.
All through dinner, the children giggle and get along like any other children who are not as talented as they. They tease each other. They don’t want to eat their asparagus. Their mothers - tired no doubt after another long week on the road - allow them a certain amount of rambunctiousness at the table. This is, after all, their life right now - as normal as it can be as they go about the business of being children even as they have grown-up jobs portraying children eight times a week. Life on-and-off a stage takes a kind of toddlin’, big-shouldered grace for adult actors to handle as they shuttle back and forth from reality to make-believe. But it is especially true for children and their supportive, exhausted parents. Yet it can be a beautiful balancing act if the right artistic equilibrium is found. “Unexpected intrusions of beauty. That is what life is,” wrote Chicago’s Nobel Laureate Saul Bellow in his novel Herzog. Pierson and Carly and their cast mates have a 7:30 curtain this Sunday night. Dinner has to end. There are roles to play. Songs to sing. Audiences to move to laughter and tears. All kinds of lessons to be learned while waiting for their cues. This, as half-hour beckons back at the theater, is life for them on this Fun Home tour: the intrusion of beauty.