I grew up seeing and loving Broadway musicals, but I never felt represented in them until now. For decades, musicals have been the industry of straight romance and Disney cartoon adaptations. Queerness has its place in the musical, mostly in unnamed winks to the audience, but when a queer character is out they’re more likely to be a man. Broadway in general—and musical theatre, in particular—were certainly associated with queer culture, but it was invariably queer male culture—La Cage Aux Folles, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Falsettos. In a medium known for its flamboyant, boundary-breaking characters, lesbian sexuality seemed largely shunted to the sidelines. Fun Home brought women to the fore with an adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir that brings to life three Alisons, at different ages. It’s the scenes with college-age Alison that make me sit on the edge of my seat, watching her struggle with her sexuality and the first blush of feelings for Joan, a fellow student she meets outside the Gay Union at her college.
A few scenes later, Alison has slept with Joan, and she’s out of her skull because she’s had sex with a woman for the first time. As she sings about “changing my major to Joan,” I swoon over the idea that someone has mapped these feelings, feelings I had all over the place during college. It’s sweet, romantic, and ultimately about sex, but it’s all three together, a triumvirate we rarely get with queer women in pop culture.
Beyond identity, Fun Home covers Bechdel’s father’s sexuality and suicide and her family’s funeral home business. While fans of the memoir were wary that turning such complicated material into a musical would strip the story of its nuance, when it opened on Broadway in April 2015 Fun Home was an instant hit, bringing powerful queer representation to the stage. The show won five Tony Awards, including a historic first: Creators Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori became the first female duo to win Best Original Score.
After more than 600 performances, Fun Home is leaving Broadway this month, with a yearlong national traveling show launching on October 2 in Cleveland. And a short run in the Philippines—the show’s first international production—will take place this November.
In “Fun Home,” three different actresses play Alison Bechdel at different stages in her life. Photo courtesy Public Theater.
Fun Home’s platform as a personal, queercentric story has resonated well beyond the theater world. In March, Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, brought 17 ambassadors—including, notably, Russia’s—to see the show. She wanted them to see Fun Home, she told the Guardian, because it dramatizes issues of LGBT rights “in a way that [U.N.] resolutions and statements never can. This is the way we are going to break through.” Their presence didn’t go unnoticed by the Fun Home cast. “Performing for the U.N. ambassadors was such a trip,” Joel Perez, who plays most of the show’s adult male characters, told me in an interview. “Suddenly, we were a part of a global conversation. I think it’s easy to forget that our LGBT family around the world has so far to go when it comes to visibility and acceptance…representation is crucial if we want to change people’s perceptions of queer people.”
This year, the cast also traveled to Orlando after the shooting at the Pulse nightclub to perform a benefit concert–version of the show. “As a Puerto Rican man, I could have very easily been at that club the night of the massacre,” says Perez. “With our performance, we were able to cultivate a safe space for the Orlando LGBT community to come together and share a beautiful experience with one another.”
And sometimes, like when marriage equality became law in 2015, the show simply stood witness in the right place at the right time. It’s no small deal that everyone tuning in to the 2015 Tony Awards saw Sydney Lucas, who played the young Alison, recall the first time she saw a butch woman and felt, “I know you.” Emily Skeggs, who plays college-age Alison, agrees, and noted in a recent interview, “Once a week, we will have a young person come up to us after the show and say something like, ‘Thank you. The show meant so much to me. I’m gay and I haven’t come out yet, and those are my parents right behind me.’” This is also the impact of Fun Home, these small moments of humanity.
In addition to those small moments of humanity, Fun Home will help open the doors to future Broadway productions engaging with a wider variety of queer life and culture. The theater folks applauding Fun Home’s successful run on Broadway all agree on one thing: They want more. Perez advocated for going beyond “coming out ‘origin stories,’” to dig into “more nuanced and intricate parts of the queer experience.” Hopefully, Fun Home will help pave the way for greater diversity of queer representation on Broadway in the future. “We’re taking great leaps in representation,” says Rachel Kunstadt, a theatre writer, producer, and the cofounder of LezCab. And the next step is giving characters multitudes.