Remember the comics that used to live in the back of alt-weeklies? The black and white islands that were 180 degrees opposite from the daily strips, full of real, jagged characters and modern life? They died out with the rise of the Internet, but some of the artists couldn’t be stopped.
For years, Alison Bechdel’s strip Dykes to Watch Out For (which coined the phrase “the Bechdel Test,” now common shorthand to evaluate the well-roundedness of female characters in media) was a fixture in those pages. But when the market for those strips started dying, Bechdel began expanding—she released a graphic novel memoir entitled Fun Home, chronicling the saga of growing up in a funeral home with her dysfunctional family and coming to grips with her own sexuality (Bechdel came out as a lesbian in college) and that of her closeted father. The book got turned into an Off-Broadway musical, and then a Tony-winning Broadway musical and now a touring musical playing the Smith Center January 3-8.
Bechdel’s work was always simple but detailed, with a controlled line and defined, realistic (if offbeat) characters. The musical, adapted by Jeanine Tesori (music) and Lisa Kron (book and lyrics) works in a similar register, with clear, soaring melodies full of joy and heartache, and characters that are recognizable, human and all too flawed. The main character is Bechdel herself, at three stages in her life: as a child at home, living with the confusion and turbulence of family secrets; as a young woman coming into an understanding of herself at college; and as “present day” Bechdel, narrating the story of her life.
For a show that won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book and Best Score, the music in Fun Home still seems underappreciated—that’s how good it is. Songs range from a Jackson 5-esque tune (“Come to the Fun Home”) extolling the virtues of the funeral home (sample lyrics “You know our mourners/So satisfied/They like, they like, they like/Our formaldehyde”) to “Changing My Major”—a song charged with sex and the giddy thrill of first love—to the desperate “Telephone Wire,” which neatly captures the tension and fear of talking about truth after a lifetime of denial. Fun Home is an exhilarating testament to the power of a musical to tell stories—stories that are jagged, clear, and more real than what you normally get in a musical, just like Bechdel’s original comic.
Fun Home January 3-8, times vary, $29-$127. The Smith Center’s Reynolds Hall, 702-749-2000.