At one point in the musical “Fun Home” Bruce, father of protagonist Alison and the primary source of conflict in her narrative, boasts to some houseguests that they often attend high-class Broadway theatre instead of just the local shows that Bruce’s wife, Helen, acts in as vocation. This was kind of like my family; when I was a kid my parents took us into the city to see a musical every so often, and I became well-versed in the likes of Andrew Lloyd Weber, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim while many of my classmates had little idea that this medium of performance even existed, or what it looked and sounded like.
Bruce is proud of his family’s imagined elevation of class and culture–proud that his house is the picture of refinement, that the furnishings and decor he works so hard to maintain as a Victorian-era hobbyist (though this is the late 1970s) separate him from the other people he knows–in a way that reminds me of how my mother was always proud of how our family was supposedly a cut above everybody else. My mother still protests with anxious severity when I wear threadbare clothing, when my brother’s hair is unkempt, when the house is not immaculate for arriving guests. While my mother, though, was and still is worried about being thought of as poor and tasteless, Bruce is covering up for what the audience understands is a far more dangerous secret fear: that his perfect home will be unmasked to reveal the homosexual yearnings of its father figure. Neither of my parents have such secrets yet our family suffered from lighter shades of the intense repression that is central to Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir and to the musical adaptation.
The tension in my own family memory seems mundane compared to what we see in Bechdel’s story. I remember my parents holed up in opposite sides of the house, frustrated at each other, never talking about it. I remember my mother crying in the kitchen while my father watched television in a different room, unaware that she felt ignored and unsupported. I do not mean to paint a portrait of an unhappy marriage–my parents are still together, passionately, after thirty-some-odd loving years. Rather, I’m trying to say that “Fun Home” is not only about the trauma caused by a closeted gay man’s family betrayal. For me this is about all the things we still cannot talk about amongst immediate family, supposedly our tightest structure, because of how those tough, raw, vulnerable conversations are hushed in the broader social arena.
“Fun Home” caused a massive emotional reaction in me, much of which I still can’t articulate. Part of it is the form–all of that early exposure to music and musical theater led to my own creative interest later on, when I began playing piano in, and musical-directing, Broadway-style theater performances in high school, college, and then professionally–so as a result the pairing of music, dance and acting generally strikes in me a deep and tender nerve. But this show is unique in how forcefully and unabashedly it delivers its emotional content–the tragic, the comic, the beautiful. It is a short show without an intermission; it only has nine actors; it is played on a round stage in a small theater. By all means “Fun Home” seems like it should have impact that is modest and compact. We know from the first scene that narrator Alison is a gay cartoonist, and that her father commits suicide. In the ensuing hour and 45 minutes, you tend to think that there won’t be any big surprises. But the play unravels like Shakespearean tragedy in precisely this predestined way–that the characters cannot escape their fates, and that the suffering only piles up–and it is this narrative decision Bechdel makes that seized me up inside and kept circling back with the same devastating realizations.
“Fun Home” is a show that can be particularly instructive for my parents’ generation–most overtly in how it deals with gayness and coming out (which I admit is why at first I felt my parents, and everyone else in their generation still emerging out of a culture of homophobia, had to see it). But, as Hilton Als writes in his New Yorker review, it is too much to ask one little show to teach us everything we need to understand about these issues, and moreover “Fun Home” is not trying to do that. Ultimately the musical’s most remarkable accomplishment is how it shows us, powerfully and yet with great care, the turbulent inner lives of three perfectly relatable, perfectly true people. Thus it is really not just for Baby Boomers but for gen-Xs and millennials and everyone else. It helps people like me further reconcile an inheritance of reticence, self-suppression and saving face that has everything to do with homophobia and heterosexism as well as traditional American masculinity, whiteness and materialism. For a lot of my friends this is all standard fare, but for me it continues to be a necessary vitamin. This show is raw as hell. It is full of heart. A large part of me wishes “Fun Home” were not on Broadway, that it were not $75 for the cheap seats, so that each night a more diverse group of people could see it. But on the other hand, part of me realizes, ironically, that Broadway society are exactly the clientele who need to experience it.