The graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic seems an unlikely candidate for a bestseller, and an unlikely candidate for adaptation for the musical stage. Densely intellectual and somewhat bleak, Fun Home tells the story of Alison Bechdel’s coming of age, her anxiety, her family’s prickly dysfunction, and her father, Bruce’s, early and violent death. Bechdel’s approach to her own childhood and her father’s death in the graphic memoir are at once incredibly personal and seemingly clinical. In her memoir, Bechdel recounts both her growing certainty that she is a lesbian and her father’s closeted homosexuality and illicit relationships with teenage boys in his adulthood. As Robyn Warhol puts it, Fun Home “is ‘graphic’ in all senses of the word: rendered pictorially, it presents explicitly detailed bodies in poses seldom seen in mainstream media, from naked corpses being embalmed to equally naked college students making lesbian love” (1-2). Scenes in which secrets and identities are teased out are packed with literary and historical references and psychoanalytic and philosophical commentary on both Bechdel’s childhood and her perspective on it as an adult. The pages are all rendered with a light blue grey wash for shading and Bechdel’s signature plain style depicting her generally unhappy-looking family and self at different ages. Bechdel is a virtuoso comics creator, and her memoir is a critical and artistic success.
Several years after the memoir’s 2006 publication, it was adapted quite well for the musical stage by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, and the resulting production became a critical, artistic, and box office success. The book Fun Home is about making meaning from selected fragments, about experiencing both familial closeness and distance poignantly, and about artifice: both making and faking. These preoccupations of the text make it eminently suitable for adaptation, and, more specifically, for the stage. Furthermore, Kron and Tesori are successful in their adaptation because they are able to employ theater conventions to achieve their ends just as Bechdel is able to employ the conventions of her medium, comics, to achieve hers. They are able to transfer some elements directly from Bechdel’s medium to their own and deftly translate others to work in the musical theater form. For instance, for both media, issues of framing are essential, as Bechdel, Kron and Tesori create both literal borders to scenes and figurative focus on specific moments and ideas. Kron and Tesori are able to adapt the ways Bechdel uses panel framing in the book to their own uses of scene-framing in the proscenium arch of the theater— and then in the production’s move to Broadway and a theater in the round, that frame is dissolved and re-envisioned. We thus have a growing body of site-specific versions of Fun Home: on different stages, and, of course, still in portable, mass-produced graphic memoir form.
Adaptations from the comics form must contend with comics’ uniqueness as a portable visual narrative that readers can shape and pace their own interactions with. As adaptation scholars have noted, every adaptation needs to be specific both to its culture and to its form. Linda Hutcheon, for instance, observes in her foundational work A Theory of Adaptation, “Whether an adapted story is told, shown, or interacted with, it always happens in a particular time and space in a society” (144). She thus argues that each reader or media consumer has an individualized experience of adaptation, while Thomas Leitch argues in his introduction to the Oxford Handbook of Adaptation Studies that “the fundamental challenge of adapters is to find equivalents in one signifying system for signs that might seem to be unique to another system” (3). That is, what makes a comic a comic cannot be replicated in other media, just as comics cannot be used to replicate a success specific to another medium. Instead, that medium specificity is the very thing that needs adaptation.
Bechdel presents fragments from which to make meaning
In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud famously claims that “closure” is an important feature for comics: readers fill in the gaps between the panels in order to create a coherent narrative (64 ff). He posits that it is these gaps that define the comics medium, and it is the act of closure that makes it interactive and individual: every reader pieces together the presented framed fragments of visual narrative in a slightly different way. In Fun Home, Bechdel enhances the effect of the fragmentation inherent in the medium by presenting the scenes of the narrative itself as fragments out of order, making the act of reading and rereading Fun Home particularly interactive. Helene Tison notes that in its original graphic memoir form,
“Fun Home is profoundly concerned with rereading … The redrawing and reimagining, the accumulation of different interpretations contribute to the complexity of Fun Home, yet meaning is brought to light through these different strata of representation of bewildering events” (346).
By the end of the memoir, readers feel more prepared to take on the work of piecing together the meaning of the fragments Bechdel presents throughout. Bechdel’s emphasis on what Tison calls “accumulation” accentuates links between the form itself and the story she is telling with it. If in “the best instances, the design of a comic is inseparable from the narrative” (Rosen 58), then Bechdel’s design is itself the narrative. Fun Home is a text that is inherently concerned with its own textuality, a kind of self-referentiality that adaptors can gesture toward in a number of ways, and that, as I will discuss later, Kron and Tesori approach successfully for the musical stage.
Even in a single panel of Fun Home, issues of fragmentation, and the contradictory sense of being too close and too distant, can be apparent. For instance, in the panel that would eventually become the branding for the show’s playbill, several medium-specific effects are rendered simultaneously.
In this large panel, which uses the blue grey wash to create a darkening sky at sunset, Bruce’s silhouette is almost upright, leaning against the fancy woodwork of the porch as he stands, apparently with arms crossed in front of him (Bechdel 150). The silhouette of Alison, a child, appears to be in motion, balancing precariously diagonally as she hangs on to the woodwork with one hand and pulls the weight of her body out from it, leaning toward her father, whose body is slightly leaning away from her. Readers can notice a contrast of adulthood and childhood, stillness and playing, between their poses, which also interact differently with the decorative scrollwork of the porch–one leaning in comfort, one pulling against in playful resistance. The similarities between Alison and Bruce, however, are also immediately apparent. They are both looking in the same direction, contemplating “the infinite gradations of color” in the sunset together, with their similarly messy hair and their similarly proportioned bodies, and while Alison is leaning toward her father and he is leaning away from her, they are, after all, both leaning in the same direction. Annette Fantasia writes about this panel, “The silhouetted figures of a young Bechdel and her father are literally framed by the elegantly crafted Victorian woodwork of their front porch as they look out at the sunset” (89). Warhol says of this same panel, “The wordless tableau says more about the emotional dynamics between the two characters than could be expressed in many pages of homodiegetic narration” (12). The dynamic angles and shared direction of their gazes emphasize the ways in which they are close to each other and the ways in which they are far apart.
The panel in which Alison and her father contemplate the sunset together is ambiguous in its implications about how similar Bechdel and her father are, about how different they are, about how close they are to each other, and about how distant they are to each other. Its ambiguity invites rereading as the fragments of Bechdel’s story come together, throwing new light on what has come before. Just as a reader is invited to reread the graphic memoir by its fragmentary presentation, Bechdel presents herself as not only the creator and framer of this documenting of her own past, but also as the rereader of it. Ann Cvetkovich notes that as the rereader of her own life’s documentation, Bechdel as narrator “goes back to the past and revisits it for the signs of queerness that she didn’t quite see at the time” (114) to aid her project of “reinterpreting a family history that has been characterized by deceit and false appearances” (Tison 346). Bechdel is interested not only in what happened when, but also in when she realized what those occurrences might mean, and how her realizations illuminated her past and future. Her rereading project leads to a layering of chronology that is generally associated with memoir and that is given specific force in the graphic medium, in which framed images in multiplicity form a revisitable and re-interpretable narrative.
Bechdel plays with the dual meaning of the term “artifice”
In Fantasia’s analysis of Fun Home’s relationship to a bildungsroman, she discusses this layering in the context of framing, particularly as it pertains to Bechdel’s forming aesthetic preferences. In a panel early in the graphic memoir,
“the comics medium allows Bechdel to externalize her internal thoughts and actually give them a spatial existence within the text balloon. The balloon here serves a rather complex role: the childhood articulation of aesthetic taste—‘my house is going to be all metal’—simultaneously reveals her emerging sensibility while it literally obstructs that which represents her father’s” (Fantasia 88).
Fantasia analyzes the way that this layering and framing convey the palimpsestic formation of Bechdel’s aesthetic tastes as she both internalizes and rejects her father’s ornate artifice, but she does not address the issues of economic class inherent in Bruce Bechdel’s desire for this ornate home style, young Alison’s dislike of the upkeep of it, or her preference for the utilitarian style that does not require that upkeep.
While for Alison the artifice of her home is a point of rancor, for her father it is a point of pride. Fantasia writes that “Bechdel continually registers an inauthentic image of her home and her family itself … throughout the text, Bechdel emphasizes the unnatural quality of her home, often highlighting, in the same breath, the unnatural means by which her father actually constructs it” (86). The creation of the effect of an upper-class Victorian home was layered in artificiality. Bruce takes pride in claiming the work he is doing to create the illusion of authenticity: gathering, refurbishing, arranging, and maintaining authentic “parts” to create an inauthentic whole, at a huge outpouring of time, effort, and labor. Of course, this is also true of his own family life, as Bruce’s work is visible, laboriously creating an illusion of himself as a straight husband and father.
The Bechdels are not authentically wealthy or high status, their house’s furnishings are not authentic in provenance, but the home is real. It was, as Bechdel reminds readers, her actual home where she and her family lived and watched television and ate meals and slept. It is authentic in its role in her life and childhood because her father created it, just as the images in Fun Home, even those that reproduce the Kodak logo, are themselves authentically hand drawn representations of Bechdel’s narrative because she created them to be so. Her father, though not the man she believed him to be, was, indeed, her father.
The first chapter of Bechdel’s graphic memoir is titled “Old Father, Old Artificer,” in a reference to James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Thus, even before the official first page of the memoir, readers are alerted to the importance that textual allusions will play in this narrative of identity-formation and to the ambiguous play on the term “artifice,” which means both to make and to fake. In Fun Home, Bechdel plays with how her father’s elaborate construction of their family life and home both created their experience and falsified it, and many readers and scholars have noted the ways in which the creation of a graphic memoir does likewise: it creates a representation of a life and, in so doing, shapes the experience of that life. As I’ve discussed, the issues of framing and fragmentation inherent to the medium are emphasized by Bechdel to create something wholly new—the graphic memoir—while also re-presenting something lived in a new way.
The issues of artifice and framing are linked through the presentation of the narrative as fragments of time presented thematically rather than in chronological order. Part of Bechdel’s act of creation is to provide links between moments not otherwise clearly connected. Throughout the book, complicated timelines interweave as Bechdel narrates coming to terms with her father’s death—he was hit by a truck in a suspected suicide—and the rest of the narrative works slowly and non-linearly up to that moment. Alison is depicted as a child and as a young adult, and she is sometimes away at college and joining the Gay Students’ Union, coming out to her parents, learning about her father’s problematic sexual history, and, eventually, learning of his deteriorating mental health and his death. Through this trajectory, the narrative takes many detours to the past: often back to Alison’s own childhood memories, but sometimes farther back to depict scenes from before Alison was born, as narrated by her mother. The lack of chronology emphasizes connections between moments that are presented in proximity, though they might not have occurred in sequence in the life of the narrator.
Because she does not present moments chronologically, Bechdel is able to emphasize moments as central, foundational, or culminating by their placement in the physical book rather than by their placement along a timeline. While this is possible in any textual form, it is reinforced in the graphic medium by choices in visual representation. Sometimes the book detours to the future as well, since the centerpiece of the book, which Bechdel herself refers to as the “centerfold” (Cvetkovich 114), depicts the cartoonist’s own hand, drawn larger than life, holding a photograph that would not be introduced in the main narrative until much later. I’ll discuss its function as a visual marker in the book in my next section of this article, but for this discussion of chronology I will here note that this is an interjection of the timeline of the adult Alison Bechdel whose voice is apparent in the detailed, intellectualized captions throughout the book rather than the Alison who is slowly working her way through the plot of the memoir being narrated.
That is, the book’s narrative does not work its way forward to depicting the adult Alison Bechdel. The culminating image of the book returns us to a view of Alison as a child, this time about to jump into a pool. Our view is of her back, and the captions surrounding her are from the unseen adult cartoonist’s perspective. In the graphic memoir, all we ever see of the adult narrator whose point of view is so apparent from the book’s many captions is her enlarged hand in the centerfold. The centerfold thus combines a depiction of a moment Bechdel was not privy to (the moment photographed) with her only visual representation of any part of her explicit present physical self (the fragment of her hand).
This graphic memoir exists as a richly intertextual document, filtered through the specific consciousness and hand-drawn work and design of Bechdel’s presentation of the world. That is, the narrator conceives of her world and her story as deeply intertextual, but she presents it through the filter of re-creating all texts, objects, and people’s visual representations through her own extremely detailed and technically correct drawn recreation, framed carefully in panels of her own design. Annette Fantasia posits that
“the visual and spatial dimensions of Bechdel’s medium allow her to represent self-reflexively the constructed quality of the forces that shaped her sensibilities, on the one hand, while calling attention to the similar means by which she visually and textually reconstructs these influential structures, on the other” (84).
In a minimalist style, attention is drawn to the few elements chosen for representation; in Bechdel’s style, because the representation is so careful and so dense, attention is drawn to what is not represented, and the manner in which all of that which is represented is filtered through Bechdel’s own subjectivity. This extremely individualized and personal filter would change in the story’s adaptation for the stage, where it would be embodied by multiple actors, not related to each other, saying and singing words and performing actions as determined by a group of people, not solely Bechdel.
Bechdel presents tension between problematic closeness and problematic distance
Critics have thoroughly discussed Bechdel’s methods. Not only does the artist meticulously recreate childhood artifacts such as her own handwriting in journals and the edges of photographs, when she does not work from photographic records of rooms or objects, or from the objects themselves, she sometimes photographs herself in poses and then draws her characters from those photographs. This adds an additional layer of visual filtering, because each individual rendering of a human figure in the book might be based on her own, and it also adds a layer of psychological filtering, because each drawing she creates this way requires her to both display and detach from whatever she feels and thinks about her own body. That is, Bechdel seems to see her own physicality as a tool at her disposal for her art, and the art she is creating in Fun Home is intricately concerned with the formation of her own identity.
These are not tidy layers of meaning and representation like sweaters on a cold morning that can be removed one at a time as the day warms. They are messily and inextricably interwoven. “The urge to re-embody that lineage transpires in every detail here. The process of re-vision and re-creation is put into relief,” according to Helene Tison (357). The act of recreating the image of each document included in the narrative by hand drawing it, and sometimes by literally embodying it first, creates a filter that personalizes the reader’s view of all the material and all the people who have contributed to the creation of the author as the book’s narrator. The images thus created participate in the book’s preoccupations with artifice and fragmentation by creating an original art work that combines a carefully selected variety of “authentic” materials filtered through Bechdel’s mind and hand.
Bechdel’s work engages in medium specificity in a number of ways in addition to the careful aesthetic filtering involved in meticulously hand drawing all intertextual referents. For instance, Bechdel’s rendering of typefaces and recreation of photographs with careful crosshatching are generally framed in traditional, though crowded, rectangular panels in multiplicity on each page of the graphic memoir. In the “centerfold” of the book I mentioned in my previous section, however, when Alison finds a sensual photograph of her father’s lover, there are no panel borders confining the image. Rather, the image extends to the edges of the physical pages themselves, so that there is an “exceptional suppression of margins, which produce a sense of immediacy and suddenness, so that the composition seems to seek to recreate for the reader the shock of the discovery for the author” (Tison 348). It is remarkably easy to flip to this page spread, since it is not only the middle of the book, but also visible as different from the pages’ edges. The pristine white of the page’s edges is there interrupted; the blue grey wash used sparingly for shading and emphasis elsewhere in panels is extended to be the background to the edges of the entire page spread, and this page spread is the only one for which this choice has been made.
By creating a splash page, Bechdel inserts a visual bookmark permanently embedded in the center of this book as a vertical line running along the outside of the pages’ edges when the book is closed. This sudden departure from the traditional use of panels is a method of inspiring an emotional impact in the reader that could only apply to comics and, in fact, relies on the readers’ internalization of the normality of panels in the medium. It emphasizes not only the centrality of the moment for the narrator’s inquiry into her father’s past, but also the revisitability of this moment for both the narrator and the reader. It is permanently marked on the edges of the book, easy to find again, and the fact that it is not presented chronologically offers the reader tacit permission to flip back to it, or anywhere else, whenever appropriate. This individual interaction with the codex book—seeing it in one’s own hands and determining which pages to examine at what pace and in what sequence—is a feature of the graphic memoir that cannot be directly transferred to the musical stage.
Many scholars have discussed the ambiguity of Bechdel’s reaction to her discovery of this photograph as she represents it in this centerfold. Cvetkovich, for instance, addresses those moments in Bechdel’s narrative that are “unrepresentable” because they represent trauma (112). By referring to the unfolding of family secrets about Bruce’s closeted double life, and the ways that his second life bled over into his family life in unpleasant ways, as “diffuse” (Cvetkovich 112), she gets at how Bechdel refuses to come to tidy conclusions about her father’s life, and about his death. The extent of his secret sexual activities in life, his state of mind at the time of his death—the record of which might show up tucked away in a locked box, or in a sudden understanding of a weird memory, or in a casual mention by her mother—are unknown and thus are presented as diffuse rather than concrete. Bechdel does not represent herself as an adult, and she does not claim to be representing her whole father, either.
Bechdel’s ambiguous representation of her father as neither hero nor villain is partially created through her own image-creation process, which requires her to document herself embodying his poses. She must, in drawing him from a photograph of herself as reference, identify herself with him in a variety of ways, in addition to the specific parallels she draws between their different experiences of homosexuality and aesthetic decisions. Thus, as the text she creates explores the way he influenced her, her method of creating that text requires her to make him over in her own image, merging herself with what she depicts. In the centerfold, by contrast, when she draws her own hand larger than life holding the photograph, her point of view is instead merged with the reader’s. The issues of closeness and distance inherent in the depiction are dynamic, as this depiction of her own hand is drawn from the very reference that she uses to draw her father’s hand elsewhere in the book.
In fact, the centerfold is so powerful at least in part because it combines the otherwise-undepicted figure of Bechdel the cartoonist, Alison the character, and the intertextual document “evidence” of the photograph. In this image, then, the only page spread in the comic to defy many of the expectations of the comics form that Bechdel utilizes in the rest of the book, Bechdel presents the photograph as a document that has a narrative capability, that can be examined and revisited, and that the readers have in their literal grasp. The reader’s gaze merges with Bechdel’s recreated own. Bechdel’s methods of achieving these feats are specific to the medium of comics, and when Kron and Tesori adapt the narrative for the stage, they must find other, comparable means to create the sense of distance, closeness, re-creation, and re-presentation that are so important in Bechdel’s book.
Kron and Tesori employ their own artifice to adapt Fun Home for the musical stage
A few years after it came out to great acclaim, this intellectual, intertextual, anxious memoir was implausibly adapted for the musical stage by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, women with impressive histories in the theater. “They treated this book with such respect that I think somehow it created this parallel structure that had equal, if not greater, resonance,” noted Alison Bechdel in an interview with Sean T. Collins for Rolling Stone. Playwright Kron had already written two critically acclaimed autobiographical plays in which she explored her parents’ experiences of the Holocaust and the civil rights movement, respectively, and she had worked with the Five Lesbian Brothers’ group extensively. When they began work on a Fun Home adaptation, Tesori, the composer, had already won awards for her music for Twelfth Night at Lincoln Center, as well as for Violet and Caroline, or Change, both at the Public Theater. While both creators have lists of awards and achievements spanning various media and roles, their work together on Fun Home is now what each is known for.
Unsurprisingly, Bechdel is both analytical and introspective in her discussion of Kron and Tesori’s adaptation. In the Rolling Stone interview, Bechdel addresses a lot of the issues inherent in the change of media between the page and the stage:
“Adding music and live action makes it much more intense and immediate. The book is more go-on-your-own-pace. You’re able to go off on a lot of different digressions. It’s a different experience. But maybe I’m a person who writes graphic narratives and not musicals because I am uncomfortable with that kind of direct emotional power” (qtd in Collins).
In this statement, Bechdel seems to elide the experience of reading a graphic narrative with the experience of a solo author/artist creating one. For both experiences, pacing and ordering is at the will of the individual. In either case, the individual can flip backward or forward, revisit, take breaks, pause to look up a word or confirm an allusion, change viewing perspective, lighting, or context, and read aloud or silently. As Hillary Chute observes, the comics medium is unique in its ability to “capture time and space on the page,” determining our “rhythm of acquisition.” (qtd. in Fantasia 95). While that is certainly true, I find that it is equally important to consider the ways that the comics medium allows readers access to the visual narrative without determining the pace or situation of the acquisition. Readers can pick up the text, open to any page with random access, flip between pages, read quickly or slowly, look up from the page to consider, or put the text down and then revisit it later in different lighting and at a different page, all of which are features specific to the portable paper codex form.
For a stage musical, however, the experience of the audience member is remarkably different from the experience of those involved in its composition and production, especially in terms of collaboration. Kron and Tesori must trust not only each other, but also their actors and production team over and over every night to put on the show they have all agreed upon. Live theater, especially with full production quality and an ensemble cast, is an act of collaborative trust every performance, and the audience must participate in that trust, agreeing to uphold their end of the bargain as a member of a group with quiet, fairly still, though appreciative, sustained attention.
Kron and Tesori created the musical for the stage of the Public Theater in downtown Manhattan. Their process involved a number of decisions specific not only to the medium of musical theater, but also to the site in which their musical would first be seen by audiences. Therefore, it is possible to examine the medium specificity of the stage musical as a stage musical, the way that it was suited particularly to its debut at the Public, and what changes it underwent when the production transferred to Broadway as interlinked issues of medium and site specificity. In each case, Kron and Tesori’s success also incorporates an understanding of the formal capabilities of the graphic narrative form, along with an understanding of how their work can adapt the rhetoric employed in one form to another.
I posit that the creation of an adaptation of Fun Home as a stage musical shares qualities with both the artifice of Bruce Bechdel, who shapes the lived experience of real human beings by shaping the physical space around them in artifice, and with the artifice of Alison Bechdel, who shapes the identities of people by introducing them to an explicit, bounded, finite work of art that exists in the real world and purports to depict it rather than simulate it. In the graphic memoir Fun Home, artificiality in the real world of our lived experience is more problematic than the artifice of creating art that can bring us to truths about our real world. In the theater, audience and creators alike share a liminal space between them.
In theater, issues of closeness and distance are represented differently
Kron and Tesori were faced with issues inherent in any stage adaption that creates an embodied version of a text from a page. What is a two-dimensional drawing becomes on the stage a living and breathing human body with tangible weight making audible noise and interacting in three-dimensional space. As I have discussed, the book Fun Home already had a layered and complicated history of embodiment, because the drawings were not only drawings of real people, often in scenes Bechdel lived through and represented on the page as depictions of her lived memory, but also because of how Bechdel often based the drawings on photographs of her own posed body. The history of bodies and disembodiment on the page of the graphic memoir was then palimpsestically grafted onto its re-embodiment for the stage.
Bechdel has herself addressed some of the issues with seeing her work adapted and embodied in this way. She documents and analyzes her reactions to having her autobiographical work adapted for the musical stage in her short comic, “Play Therapy,” which was published in New York Magazine when the production moved to Broadway in April 2015. In “Play Therapy,” she notes that she was initially dubious that Fun Home could work as a musical and was amazed by how well it adapted. She states that when she listened to the demo, she expected it to be light and fluffy, at “arms-length,” but rather, “here was my distant, repressed family, brought close” (Bechdel, “Play Therapy”). Remarkably, that comment was about listening to the songs on a demo recording, not even seeing live people enacting the scenes. Thus, for Bechdel, seeing was secondary to hearing, and when her “characters” were given voices, they already felt startlingly embodied.
While the meticulous visual “features of the text … give Fun Home an aura of embodiment that distinguishes it from prose autobiography” (Warhol 6), there are still elements of embodiment that could only be realized in the move from reproduced two-dimensional static images to a three-dimensional living, moving human being existing in the same space and time as the audience. More than seeing a processed image of a person moving on a screen or listening to a recording of a person singing a song, being in the same physical space and time as an actor engages all the senses in a kind of real interaction different from turning on a recording.
Notably, the stage musical version of Fun Home as Kron and Tesori conceive it even gets an extra body: that of the adult narrating Alison Bechdel. As I discussed in connection to the graphic memoir’s centerfold image, “nowhere in Fun Home does Alison the narrator introduce a cartoon image of her present self; all the drawings represent phases of the past self she recreates through the graphic memoir” (Warhol 3). The only contemporary adult depiction of the author is that larger-than-life fragment of her hand holding the photograph in the startling centerfold. In the musical, however, the disembodied narrative voice of the captions is enfleshed. The production draws explicitly on the figure of Alison Bechdel as cartoonist, which is one of the ways Kron and Tesori adapt the self-referentiality of the book for the stage.
In the musical, the adult cartoonist Alison begins by unpacking a box of objects and discussing her project of writing a graphic memoir about her own childhood and her father’s troubled life and death. A child version of Alison, played by another actor, comes on stage and demands her father’s attention. She wants him to play airplane. As the adult cartoonist Alison guides the audience through her memories, we see scenes of her as a child, played by a child actor, interacting with her family, and scenes of her as a college student, played by a different young adult actor, interacting with the character “Joan” at college and with her family. These different Alisons help the audience keep track of developmental stages in the character’s growth, as do the adult cartoonist Alison’s spoken lines of situating narration. The narrator says “caption” when narrating, and she sometimes drafts different ideas for captioning scenes in which younger versions of herself interact with her family or college girlfriend.
The figure of Alison the adult cartoonist fulfills many functions in this show. Working on her own graphic memoir, she joins the cast, interacts with the other characters, and speaks both directly to the audience and, sometimes, to herself. She guides the audience through the scenes of the play, and her spoken narration, along with the visual cues of the differently-aged versions of Alison, help the audience keep track of the story despite the lack of chronology. Furthermore, the multiplicity of Alisons on the stage extend the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief in the relationship between the actors. In the graphic memoir, readers are invited to see each set of lines forming a character—from the same pen, the same hand, and the same model as each other—as different. On stage, in contrast, the audience is invited to see three different people as the same person, and many of the other actors as closely related to her. This is a different approach to the theme of fragmentation so important to the story, one that is appropriate and successful for the musical stage rather than a graphic memoir.
Theater also has conventions of “closure,” and making meaning from fragments
Another way in which Kron and Tesori adapt the graphic memoir for the stage is in refining its scope. As Bechdel has noted, the author of a book can sprawl and tangent as she wishes, while those creating a stage production must be more focused. The experience of the show must feel complete in one sitting1 and therefore requires more handholding so that audience members do not get lost in the non-chronological storytelling, since there can be no flipping back to earlier pages at the discretion of an individual audience member. As Reneta Kobetts Miller observes, any written text need only please one person at a time, in the situation of his or her choosing, while theater is site-specific and must please dozens or hundreds of people at once (55). The embodied figure of the narrator is useful in this respect, because the show takes the form of her own chronological trajectory of thinking through these events and their interconnectedness.
The culmination of the show, like the final panel of the graphic memoir, returns the audience to its opening moments, even more explicitly than the book does. The ending brings back an airplane metaphor that opens both the book and the stage musical, when Alison as a child calls upon her father to play airplane with her and let her balance on his feet. At the end of the show, as this recurs, the three versions of child, college, and adult Alison say, “I’m flying away,” and the adult cartoonist Alison, who has served as our narrator throughout the show, offers the spoken caption “every so often there was a rare moment of perfect balance when I soared above him” as the very last line of the play (Kron and Tesori). Not only does this manage to end the narrative of the stage musical on a surprisingly hopeful and literally uplifting note, it also effectively wraps the audience around to the production’s own origin: this line appears on the very first page of the graphic memoir.
This change, which makes the final scene more explicitly match the first one, is part of Kron and Tesori’s overall strategy of focusing and streamlining the complicated and fragmented narrative to fit the form of musical theater. It is true of any adaptation that “complications of possible reception mean that adapters must satisfy the expectations and demands of both the knowing and the unknowing audience” (Hutcheon 128). Thus, extensive sections about Alison’s childhood anxiety, and her various interactions with people outside of her family, are also removed in the stage adaptation in order to enable a stronger focus on Bechdel’s relationship with her father and on each of their relationships with telling the truth about homosexuality. Even with this increased focus on their sexuality, it is notable that a problematic section of the graphic memoir, in which Bechdel presents the information that her father had been molested as a child not only led to his adult homosexuality but also led to his pursuing teenage boys as sexual partners, is removed. Gone, too, are most of the references to psychoanalytic theory and many of the references to literature, enabling the show to reach a broader audience in the timeframe given to a live performance.
In addition to all the changes required because the pace of narrative acquisition is externally set for the audience, the stage musical has its own set of genre expectations and formal qualities that an audience uses to understand it and that an audience brings to it. For instance, just as readers of a graphic narrative expect their participation will be required for meaning making to account for changes between panels, audience members at a stage production also commit closure by filling in the gaps between what they see. Audiences understand that when the lights go down between scenes, something will likely be different—a change in setting, or at least in time—when the lights come up again for the next scene. The frame remains static because the proscenium arch of the stage set’s opening stays the same rectangle, and an audience member stays basically the same distance from each actor on stage throughout the length of the show, so lighting can take the place of the close-up to draw the audience’s attention to specific elements of facial expression, body language, or scenery.
There are also genre expectations for the stage musical. On stage, Fun Home gains performative fantasy elements in particular songs that create spectacle and are fun but do not share the intimate tone of the story overall, another way that Kron and Tesori address the self-referentiality of the text. In one big production number, for instance, Alison and her brothers playact a “commercial” for their father’s Funeral Home, the “Fun Home” of the title, and in another, Alison’s imagination turns her family into a hugely smiling, spangly song-and-dance team like the Partridge Family. In each of these scenes, colorful, busy lighting and group choreography are used to create a spectacle incongruous with the characterizations and plot of the story overall, utilizing the very genre markers of the stage musical itself to comment on the veneer of performativity in the Bechdels’ presentation of their lives. The various ways these production numbers could be processed by an audience member are layered. It is possible to enjoy them as clever, catchy, and fun, whether or not one also appreciates their nuanced artifice in the context of the story being told.
Kron and Tesori’s choices are suited to a range of audience familiarity with conventions of the theater in other ways as well. For instance, even those members of the audience who do not spend a lot of time scanning poetry and thinking about rhythm and rhyme scheme expect the lyrics of a song to rhyme and expect the rhythm of the song to be consistent. Therefore, in a scene near the end of the show, when Alison and her father are in a car together unable to say the word “gay” to each other, and therefore unable to have a meaningful conversation in which they might have a genuine personal connection, the missing rhythm and rhyme can make it obvious to the audience what is being left unsaid. Lines that should rhyme with “say” and “away” instead stop jarringly, trail off, or get interrupted, leaving the audience frustrated not only in sympathy with the character Alison’s inability to connect with her father, but also by the unfulfilled promise of each line of the song, for which expectations are tantalizingly not met. The unfinishedness of each line frustrates and fragments, emphasizing the lacuna in a self-referential way by coupling the audience’s unmet expectations of auditory connection with the characters’ unrealized potential for a genuine personal connection.
Bechdel herself was able to have both of these frustrations, as she was both in the audience for the show and a character in it. She writes in “Play Therapy” as a caption to a panel depicting the workshop of the show in 2011, “If you can get some brilliant artists to make a musical about your childhood, I highly recommend it. It’s very cathartic” (Bechdel, “Play Therapy”). After being amazed by the emotional power of the demo tape alone, she was amazed again by the workshop, and then again when she saw the actual production at the Public. The musical created by Kron and Tesori succeeded wildly in adapting Bechdel’s work for the stage, because they understood not only how to use the medium and genre specific modes of meaning making particular to musical theater, but also the ways that Bechdel had used her own medium and genre specific tools and how to successfully translate them into the new work of art.
Site Specificity: Fun Home is framed by the proscenium arch at the Public Theater
Kron and Tesori, in their collaboration and workshopping of Fun Home, were not creating the Platonic ideal of the Fun Home stage musical, but rather planning and executing a specific production of it. Thus, their success incorporated site specificity as well as medium specificity and was due, at least in part, to working well with the shape and dimensions of the particular stage and the audience’s association with the particular theater where the show premiered.
The production was innately a Public Theater one. Even before it premiered in the Newman, the largest theater at the Public, Fun Home was workshopped there in a smaller venue. Manuel Betancourt, who saw this workshop version, the revised Public premiere in the Newman, and then the transfer of the show to Broadway, wrote a thoughtful comparison of the three stage versions, calling them Small Fun Home, Medium Fun Home and Fun Home, rhetorically invoking the growth of the character Alison herself in the musical, since the child, college, and adult iterations of the character are referred to as Small Alison, Medium Alison, and Alison. Betancourt notes that the workshop version he saw, even though it was a year later than the one Bechdel documents in “Play Therapy,” was clearly not a finished play: “Small Fun Home premiered in October 2012, in the 99-seat Shiva Theater of the Public, as part of the Public Lab series. In accordance with the space if not the scope of the story, the production was modest and, well, small” (Betancourt). He continues to stress its “smallness” in a rhetorical move that highlights its incompleteness: “The smallness of the space allowed an intimacy during all of the solos … The stage and its star were small, but you could already see glimmers of the brilliant musical it would become” (Betancourt). And indeed, the play changed and grew before its official premiere with much fanfare in the larger Newman theater at the Public. For instance, Betancourt notes that “the role of Bruce seemed to expand, less an ephemeral memory and more the gravitational pull of the show” before the musical’s official premiere in the larger Newman Theater of the Public. Thus, even before the show’s celebrated later move to a Broadway theater, Kron and Tesori were already thinking about their show in terms of site specificity, employing the innate features of individual performance spaces.
The Public is a downtown New York institution. Not only was it the original home of Hair in 1967 and Hamilton a few years ago (among other impressive and groundbreaking shows that have moved to Broadway), it is also the theater that puts on world-class free Shakespeare in the Park productions every summer in Central Park, and it is the home of the Mobile Unit that brings productions of Shakespeare plays to populations that would otherwise have difficulty reaching them. The theater’s history and political orientation shape what plays are produced there, how they are produced there, and audience expectations about what they’ll see there. An audience at the Public would be primed to see a difficult, unlikely musical succeed.
As I have mentioned, when the full production of Fun Home premiered at the Public, it was on their Newman stage, the biggest that the Public had to offer, seating about 268. The Newman has the traditional setup of a wide room of seats narrowing to the stage, framed by a proscenium arch, in which all the action is presented in a rectangular box. A look at the Public’s various stages makes it clear that this was a conscious choice, because the show could have been staged in various ways and housed in any of the differently configured theater spaces available in the Public Theater building. The result of this staging in the Newman, however, is that looking into the stage frame from any point in the audience is much like looking into the panel frames of the graphic narrative. Thus, it turns out that the literal visual framing of the scene is one aspect of the adaptation that could be seamlessly transferred from the medium of comics into the medium of the specific stage on which the show premiered. At the Newman, there is even a near-literal gutter separating the audience from the action, as the musicians are in a pit immediately in front of the stage. With that framing, much of the visual rhetoric of the graphic memoir can be evoked, as the frame stays static and actors on or off the stage can, for instance, emphasize closeness and distance.
The framing of the theatrical performance facilitates an emphasis on both kinds of artifice
In his comparison between the versions of the production, Betancourt notes that in the Newman, “the stage design suggested tableaux vivants with every furniture piece evoking more a museum than a house.” While this description is evocative of the era Bruce Bechdel tried to emulate with his own home design, it also echoes Warhol’s description of the panel in the graphic memoir wherein Bruce and Alison look out at the sunset together. Bechdel and Kron and Tesori each use the framed form of their chosen medium to emphasize the importance of posing figures and framing them in their narratives.
At the Public, the intricate, multilayered narrative form is honed for the stage and still presented in a tidy package. The actors in their 1970s browns and corduroys appear warm, close, and smiling in comparison to the pinched, haggard faces in Bechdel’s drawings.2 The character of her father, especially, the looming specter of the graphic memoir, becomes much more sympathetic when played by a smiling, sometimes pleading, Michael Cerveris on stage.
Cerveris, who won a Lucille Lortel award for his portrayal of Bruce Bechdel at the Public and a Tony for the role when it moved to Broadway, plays Bechdel’s father as though he is trying to be a good guy. He smiles. Sure, he still seems to be performing his role rather than living it, but, to a certain extent, so does everyone on the stage. The idea that Bruce was arranging his home, his family, and his life to present a tableau for onlookers is discussed by scholars as a feature of the graphic memoir. Fantasia notes, “In one panel, Bruce Bechdel’s silhouette is foregrounded as he watches his children gathered around the family Christmas tree, his magisterial posture resembling an artist contemplating his creation from a distance” (92). Thus, Bechdel presents us, in the graphic memoir, with medium-specific commentary on her father’s artifice. In the particular panel Fantasia addresses, the reader looks into the frame of the panel, placed by Bechdel, over the shoulder of her father, who is similarly framing his family to record their posed images for posterity. Similarly, in the musical, the way this family presents itself to an unseen, but felt, audience framed by the proscenium arch of the stage, and the way Bruce’s character cheats out to show the audience his best side, are appropriate. In an interview with Alysia Abbott for The Atlantic, Bechdel notes, “In earlier versions they had him being more overtly angry on stage in a way that just didn’t work” (qtd. in Abbott). They then moved a lot of his angry moments off stage, and Bechdel comments, “That was a brilliant solution on their part. Because of course, that’s often how I experienced it too” (ibid). The idea of a man who engages with his family in one way when onstage and another way off fits with the overall characterization of Bruce as a man with secrets, with a double life. The audience shares with the character of Alison the unsettling fragmentation of her father’s whole person, aware that many of his most important experiences are happening elsewhere unseen. Regardless of the way they shape the meaning of Alison’s life, Bruce’s experiences that happen in this way can only be guessed at, or recreated by artifice.
When the show moves to Broadway, it loses its physical and rhetorical framing
Fun Home at the Public won multiple Lucille Lortel awards in 2014 for Outstanding Musical and for Cerveris in the role of Bruce Bechdel, and multiple Obies for Sam Gold’s directing, for Kron and Tesori as writer and composer, and for Sydney Lucas, then ten years old, in her role as Small Alison. She made news as the youngest Obie winner in history. After a sold-out, extended run at the Public, the production moved to Broadway, where it won five Tonys in 2015, including upgrades of the accolades it had already received off-Broadway, as the winner of Best Musical, Best Direction, Best Original Score, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Performance by Michael Cerveris. Notably, Kron and Tesori were the first all-female team to win Tonys in these composition categories. The show’s critical success was matched by a financially successful run, and the string of wins was generally talked about with a number of “firsts” built in. The show itself, remarkably, was the first Broadway show to ever have a lesbian protagonist.
These particular ways in which the show was trailblazing could be used to market the show to some demographics, of course, but were carefully repackaged to market it to others. When the show moved to a larger, sleeker performance space on Broadway, it needed to appeal to larger audiences, willing to pay more for tickets. A new, savvy ad campaign that played up the universalizing aspects of the story was part of the way the show was adapted to its new site.
In its new Broadway venue at Circle in the Square, the stage musical Fun Home had a number of changes to accommodate both the switch to theater in the round and the switch to the expectations of a Broadway audience. The performance space of Circle in the Square, though still small and intimate by Broadway standards, is still significantly larger than the narrow rectangle of the Newman. Circle in the Square has a seating capacity of 6233 and they have a thrust stage that for this production is used entirely in the round, which places the audience on all sides of the acting space. Betancourt’s formulation implies that the Broadway version of the production is the “real” adult, mature, complete one, but the trajectory is not wholly one of growth. While the Broadway version is indeed bigger and it does stand alone in a way the production did not in the space at the Newman, as an adaptation of a graphic memoir, something of the interesting interplay between the two media is lost with the loss of the proscenium arch.
The Circle in the Square version of the production breaks out of its role as an adaptation of the graphic memoir and stands more firmly on its own. Fun Home on Broadway thrived as a hit because it was “a musical about a family that is nothing like yours … and exactly like yours” (qtd. in Mattila), according to the new ad campaign for the Broadway show, rather than because it was an experimental adaptation of a challenging graphic memoir, which elite patrons of the Public would support.
Many changes of staging, choreography, sets, and lighting were required to shift the production from a proscenium arch to one in the round. Along with these changes come the loss of inherent framing that had seemed so central to the show in its proscenium arch at the Public, and, therefore, a shift in tone. The Broadway version of the production feels overall more populated. In the Newman, an audience member might notice the backs of darkened heads of other people in the audience, but the attention would nonetheless always be on the brightly lit rectangle at the front of the house, and the musicians, as I have mentioned, were in a pit, heard but not seen. At Circle in the Square, by contrast, the musicians are constantly visible as part of the theatrical focus, and furthermore, the faces of the audience themselves are always visible to other audience members, since theater in the round positions the audience on all sides. There are no “wings” other than the aisles of the audience for actors to enter from or leave to. In the staging for this version of the production, the actors even deliver some lines from the aisles between audience members. The audience becomes part of the setting, part of the backdrop, of the show, surrounded and infiltrated by the action. The proscenium arch that had framed the action and separated the audience from it disappeared.
Theater in the round allows new focus on fragmentation and on closeness and distance
The shift in focus between versions of this production echoes performance theorists’ ideas about the difference between the history of the “theater” and the “playhouse” in Western performance tradition. While the proscenium arch of the theater tradition allows the audience to see a stage set as “the world in false perspective” in “a single frame for encasing the perspective scene” (Longman 32), the experience of seeing theater in the round participates in the playhouse tradition, because it allows the show to “engage the audience’s imagination to create the virtual places of the action. It [any playhouse with a thrust stage, let alone one in the round] is indeed a play-house in which we play a part. There is a kind of creative combustion as actors and audience create the world of the play” (30, italics ibid). This is why theater in the round is generally considered to be more immersive and participatory, aspects of this setup which are emphasized and celebrated in the Broadway version of Fun Home.
The production is more polished, slicker.4 The actors have new hairstyles and new costumes: still in their 1970s browns and corduroys, but tidier, subtly better fitting. Because of the multiplicity of audience views, staging changes. Lower, simpler furniture allow more sightlines. While most of the action of the play still does occur on the stage area in the center, even that is changed because it is not oriented toward viewers on one side only. For example, one particularly poignant scene in the musical occurs when Alison comes home from college for a weekend and her mother tells her about her father’s deteriorating mental health. At the Public, this is a scene in which Alison and her mother are seated at the dining table together, facing each other. It is intimate, and the audience watches them feeling confined together. When the show moved to Broadway, however, this scene is played differently. The two actors do not face each other, and in fact play the scene standing up, far apart on the stage. The mood has changed from one of confinement and being in the same box together to one of being unable to connect. Of course, both these moods are appropriate for this scene and this story overall, but the shift in focus is palpable. The individual audience member no longer shares a gaze and perspective with the rest of the audience, separated from the actors by an arch and pit, but rather shares the space, and has a unique physical place within that space, with the actors and the action.
Instead of a consistent perspective, looking into a frame, the audience is immersed in constantly swirling and shifting interactions between characters in the Broadway version, as adult Alison circles and seems to explore what is in her own mind. Betancourt, who celebrates this version of the show as its culmination, writes that being produced in the round “allowed the Fun Home and Alison’s office to become one; not fighting for space as in the Newman, but constantly reshuffling and making room for one another, as if both spaces knew they couldn’t exist without the other.” This version of the production is like being dipped headfirst into the cartoonist narrator’s swirling memories, an effect that was clearly intentional, as even before the show’s transfer to Circle in the Square was complete, the decision to stage it in the round was being analyzed thusly: “The show is not chronological—the stories of the Alisons, their father (Michael Cerveris) and their mother (Judy Kuhn) are interwoven—and on Broadway it will be staged in the round, suggesting visually that the unfolding events are memories swirling around the cartoonist” (Paulson in the NYT). In the round, the coherence of the characters’ movement relies even more on the figure of adult Alison in her narrator role. She is still essential for providing verbal cues about what is happening and when, but the role expands to require physical cues as well, navigating and shaping the space she narrates to create different settings in the stage space at the center of the theater. In the round, the adult cartoonist Alison is more than just a framing device helping the audience navigate the story; the adult narrator becomes the focus and the protagonist. She orchestrates the order of memories swirling around her, steps in and out of them adroitly, and makes it clear that it is her own mind we all populate in this version of the show. Like the disappearance of the frame, this focus on the cartoonist figure, who is not even visibly present in the graphic memoir, emphasizes the way that this version of the show separates from its role as an adaptation of a printed book.
Different versions of Fun Home can reach different audiences
Compared to an off-Broadway venue such as the Public, Broadway shows cost more to attend, and they require more seats to be sold. Thus, the increases in polish and decrease in a feeling of raw newness are joined by a savvy marketing campaign for the show when the production makes the move. In an article for The Atlantic, Kalle Oskari Mattila argues that:
“the way [Fun Home] has been marketed has undergone a calculated shift to ensure it reaches the broadest audience possible. And that has naturally meant downplaying the more controversial elements, such as queerness and suicide. In its year-long run as a musical, Fun Home has offered a timely case study for how producers and marketers successfully tap into the universal aspects of potentially polarizing stories—but at the risk of perpetuating the idea that LGBT issues still don’t belong out in the open.”
Notably, the show itself does not downplay any of these elements. If anything, the Broadway version engages them even more than the version at the Public did, both by increasing the importance of the adult narrating Alison as the central figure and by removing the distancing qualities of the proscenium arch and orchestra pit. For instance, Bruce’s “angry” lines that had been relegated to offstage at the Public were on Broadway delivered from between audience members. “Offstage” is no longer safely farther away, or out of sight. The audience, as part of the same space, is privy to knowledge and proximity that were not available to the Alison of the book, or to the audience of the show performed in the Newman Theater. Again, closeness and distance are dynamically problematized, but in different ways, appropriate to the new site.
It is only the marketing for the show, encouraging tourists and groups alike to buy tickets, that glosses over these elements. Inherent in these marketing choices is an assumption about what a Broadway audience will expect and want to see in a show. The chief strategy officer and co-founder of the marketing company promoting Fun Home’s Broadway run and tour, Tom Greenwald, “said that, ultimately, no Broadway show—especially a Tony-winning musical like Fun Home—can limit itself to only one kind of audience, because it will fail to address people of all backgrounds” (Mattila). This circular bit of explanation (if you limit your audience, your audience will be limited) addresses the marketing company’s attempt to universalize the appeal of the show with the tagline “a musical about a family that is nothing like yours … and exactly like yours” (qtd. in Mattila). The message in this marketing is that everyone will find something that resonates and something unique about the content of this musical. The advertising campaign, however, cannot be divorced from the content of the show as it is experienced by audiences. That is, if a person decides to see the show based on the advertising campaign, experiencing that paratextual material will shape how the person reacts as an audience member. Even knowing before seeing it that it is a multiple-award-winning hit will shape the viewing experience. As the show is promoted beyond its role as an adaptation, it also grows beyond that role.
In “Play Therapy,” which Bechdel wrote on the occasion of the musical’s move to Broadway, the author notes that “another dissonant thing about the musical has been trying to understand my relationship to it. It’s not mine. I didn’t make it. But it’s my life.” The marketing campaign is paratextual material that “frames” the experience of seeing the show. Thus, as the stage version gets slicker and more marketed, it breaks more thoroughly away from the medium specificity of its source material by releasing it from its role as an adaptation more thoroughly, just as removing the frame of the proscenium arch also does. On Broadway, an intimate show in the round invites people into the adult cartoonist’s Alison’s mind, rather than into an audience seat offering a shared perspective into a framed rectangle, and onto a well-respected book.
Fun Home is stronger for existing in multiple versions and forms
Fun Home engages the interplay between the construction of environment and the construction of identity in its grappling with the construction of artifice and art. In the graphic memoir, Bechdel’s narrative captions assert that she felt that “escape was impossible” (12) from her childhood setting. As the touring production erects its own environment in different theaters in different cities and towns, will it still be believable that Small Alison feels so stuck in her father’s ornate showy home? Will the audience feel immersed in her mind? Will the dry laugh lines enjoyed by Broadway audiences carry through to regional ones? Whenever shows go on tour, they need to reposition themselves for a specific audience and context in each new place, and the expectations of regional audiences for a Broadway tour can be just as different as the expectations of audiences for seeing a show at the Public versus seeing one at Circle in the Square. In fact, just as the audience needed to widen to draw people to the more expensively ticketed, larger house of the Broadway show as compared to its run at the Public, so, too, does the audience need to widen to include people in different cities seeing a touring production.
Thinking about Bechdel’s subject matter, and her methods of producing her drawings, it makes sense that the graphic memoir feels so intimate. And since her family kept so many secrets, it makes sense that it also feels so distant. Regardless of venue, and regardless of the aggressively universalizing marketing strategies used to get people to that venue, the theme of being too distant and too close at once must still be felt by the audience for the production to be effective, just as these themes must be felt by the reader of the graphic memoir for it to be effective. Furthermore, that change is going to keep happening, as the production tours, as new actors get cast, and as costume and set pieces are mended and replaced. The “Tour” page of the Fun Home Broadway website now says, “Additional cities to be announced soon!” and a banner at the top of the page proclaims, “Now licensing across the country!” When the show gets revived in the future, or with each local licensed production in a small town, that version will of course be even more different.
In the Atlantic interview with Abbott, Bechdel says that this very aspect of the theater influenced her to agree to a stage musical adaptation of her work. While she would resist something inherently mass produced, such as a movie that would exist in many copies and be shown in many theaters throughout the nation and perhaps the world simultaneously, she did not have the same kind of anxiety about a stage musical adaptation. This is because stage productions are inherently ephemeral. Bechdel thought that a theatrical production was less risky, because “if it were bad, not many people would see it. It wouldn’t go on existing in the world like a movie would” (qtd. in Abbott). As it turns out, the musical will certainly go on existing in the world, but as an evolving form, rather than a static one, “like a movie would.”
The graphic memoir, however, will stay the same—the original mobile Fun Home. Just as Bechdel would have worried about a movie version staying in the world, so, too, the book, as an inherently mass produced object, can always be revisitable in its original, intended form. As Bechdel notes when she addresses the difference in composition, interaction with a book is more individual, revisitable, self-paceable, and as linear as the reader wants it to be. This is a fundamental difference of medium: a reader’s interactivity with a graphic narrative can be self-determined, whereas with a live performance, groups of people need to work together to create an ephemeral experience. Bechdel recognizes this and remarks in the Rolling Stone interview, “The amazing risk involved in live theater? I could not bear that. You just count on so many people to get things right. You’re working with this giant team, from the prop manager to the actors, and they all go out on that tightrope every night together” (qtd. in Collins). Similarly, in the Atlantic interview, Bechdel says, “I think that Lisa [Kron] and Jeanine [Tesori] drew something out of my book that I was not able to get to, a really potent, cathartic feeling” (qtd in Abbott). The book, by contrast, provides a different kind of catharsis. It is the intended form of the art as Bechdel created it, meant to be experienced in a copy of its mass-produced form, individually. And anyone can have it. The experience of it will be more individualized than that of a stage performance, but the access to it is more universal. No matter how long the musical Fun Home tours, and no matter how far it goes, the book can always go there too, and it will be the same book I read in New York City before the musical premiered, and it is the same book I have next to me right now.
Of course, it is not entirely universal. Language and culture barriers might make it unintelligible to some; the graphic medium is not accessible to everyone with eyesight problems, for instance. And though portable, the book is not welcome everywhere. This graphic memoir, so celebrated, has been challenged and banned in various places around the country, sometimes for depicting sex at all and sometimes for “promoting the gay and lesbian lifestyle,” as Representative Garry Smith chastised when he removed funding for a South Carolina college’s summer reading program that had included Fun Home (Fleischaker). This particular instance, however, led to a felicitous demonstration of how a stage production enacted by people can also be mobilized.
Where the book is not allowed, the stage version can protest. When Smith’s punitive budget cutting occurred, Bechdel herself “accompanied the cast to South Carolina, for a performance to protest that State Legislature’s decision to cut funding to the College of Charleston because it included ‘Fun Home’ on a reading list, offending lawmakers who objected to the book’s positive portrayal of lesbianism” (Paulson in NYT). In the Washington Post, Michael Cavna elaborates that Bechdel:
“spoke in Charleston, S.C., and attended two special performances of “Fun Home” — just months after the Public Theater show closed in New York. The performers reconvened from across the country to support the College of Charleston in response to controversial budget cuts, which came because the institution was teaching “Fun Home” to incoming freshmen” (Cavna).
This means that before the show even actually opened on Broadway, and well before it won Tonys and was to go on tour, students in South Carolina got a sneak preview of how the show could provide group solidarity and catharsis for its audiences, because their oppressive government attempted to deny them the experience of reading the book individually. The Public, so well-known for bringing world-class theater to populations that are often denied access to it through Shakespeare in the Park and their Mobile Unit, employed that expertise for Fun Home as well.
I have mentioned the many awards the Public and the Broadway versions of the stage production adaptation received; both Bechdel and the graphic memoir Fun Home have also won numerous major awards, including a GLAAD award, a Stonewall book award, an Eisner for Fun Home, the MacArthur “genius grant” in 2014, and the Bill Whitehead Award for lifetime achievement in 2012 for Bechdel, among other awards too numerous to list here. All this cultural cache, existing in multiple forms and being embodied, has its uses.
The rhetorical power of the universalizing marketing campaign, which sells Fun Home as a stage musical by asserting how it will resonate with everyone at the same time as registering as original and unique, joins the many awards for Bechdel, her graphic memoir, and the versions of the musical adapted from it at the Public and on Broadway in order to help make “Fun Home,” whether on page or on stage, a useful object. It is indeed a classic; it is indeed a hit; it is indeed a universal, quintessentially American, heartrending story of coming to terms with one’s flawed parent; and it is indeed championing gay and lesbian people’s rights to their own identities. Thanks to its successful employment of medium and site specificity of its many versions, Fun Home is more flexible, more accessible, and more portable for existing in multiplicity.
 Similarly, actual content has been streamlined as well. At the Public, when her father insists she wear a dress to a fancy event, Small Alison had procrastinated by singing a song about a fantasy in which she has a fast car in Paris and helps a beautiful French lady. That song, unnecessary to the overall show and weirdly different in tone from the other fantasy songs I’ve discussed, has been removed for the Broadway version, and instead the scene of Bruce insisting Small Alison wear a dress is intercut with a scene of college Alison writing the letter in which she comes out to her parents.
As another example of updates to the content, Betancourt noted about the Public premiere in the Newman that “the few piano keys that lead to Middle Alison’s ‘What happened last night?’ opening line (especially compared to the bolder strings that accompany the same intro on the Broadway version) exemplify the sparse minimalism of Gold’s production as well as the intricate lyrical beauty of Kron and Tesori’s collaboration.” He considers the Broadway version of the production to be the grownup one: bolder and more self-assured. But it is clear that even in his celebration of the Broadway version of Fun Home as the fully realized version, he is aware that something is lost in that transfer and emboldening. Sparse minimalism and intricate lyrical beauty are replaced with slick, polished boldness.
Abbott, Alysia. “’We Just Sat and Held Each Other’: How It Feels to Watch Your Life Story Onstage.” (interview with Alison Bechdel) The Atlantic. Nov 12, 2013.
Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Houghton Mifflin, 2006.
—. “Fun Home! The Musical!” Seven Days Vermont. July 2, 2014.
—. “Play Therapy” New York Magazine. Apr 6, 2015.
Betancourt, Manuel. “From The Public to Broadway: Fun Home’s Growing Pains.” Howlround. Oct. 22, 2015.
Cavna, Michael. “Tony Awards: Alison Bechdel revels in ‘Fun Home’s’ hard-won rise to stage greatness.” The Washington Post. June 8, 2015.
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