Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home is the first mainstream musical that centers on the story of a young lesbian, according to the show’s creators.
The bestselling memoir about the relationship between the deep-thinking artist who grew up to pen comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For and her unhappy, closeted father premieres as a musical at the New York Public Theater on October 22. Three women of different ages will play Alison, who spends the book reflecting from middle age on the tense childhood spent partly in the funeral home her parents operated.
The promotional photos of the show are pretty hilarious, if you’ve read the dark memoir. Here’s the whole unhappy family dancing!
And Alisons of all ages pondering their identities:
There are many challenges to adapting the complex, vulnerable graphic novel into musical theater, including how sexual orientation will work into the promotion of the show. As the Slate headline “Is America Ready for a Musical About a Butch Lesbian?” makes clear, some producers may worry that straight audiences won’t go see a play that focuses on the story of a lesbian. The show’s promotional description on Playbill and Broadway.com don’t directly mention queerness at all—instead, they pitch the play as a mystery about a father and daughter:
When her father dies unexpectedly, graphic novelist Alison dives deep into her past to tell the story of the volatile, brilliant, one-of-a-kind man whose temperament and secrets defined her family and her life. Moving between past and present, Alison relives her unique childhood playing at the family’s Bechdel Funeral Home, her growing understanding of her own sexuality and the looming, unanswerable questions about her father’s hidden desires.
Clearly, queerness is central to this story and is a major crux of Bechdel’s memoir. As a straight person, I was drawn into Bechdel’s memoir in a large part because her sexuality—and her father’s—are a major part of the story from the get-go. The raw honesty of the book strikes readers immediately; Fun Home feels like a story Bechdel has waited a long time to tell and is writing exactly the way she wants. I hope the people promoting Fun Home the musical see the value in telling a compelling personal story, rather weakening the plot by going out of their way to make sure straight people feel invited to listen.
While the promotional text for the show downplays the queer aspects, it seems like show writer Lisa Kron is aware that she is in a tricky place balancing the significance of sexuality to the story and the desire to make the show resonate with straight audiences. “Musicals are traditionally the straightest of the straight, even though they were largely made by gay men. They’re about a leading man and an ingénue,” Kron noted to Slate. She says she struggled to adapt the story in a sincere way, but with language that would make sense to straight folks.
Kron described feeling motivated to get Fun Home right after seeing several recent musicals where “there was a moment where someone would say the word lesbian as a non sequitur because it was funny. I’d be so on board, and then I’d be slapped in the face by it. It was just like, This character’s a joke. This is not a person.”
As that interview reports, several of the show’s songs deal directly with Alison’s sexuality. One called “Al for Short” is about young Alison imagining herself as a heroic rescuer of damsels and tune “Changing My Major” deals with Alison discovering sex in college.