Sometimes looking back is an active journey forward.
The cast of the Tony-winning musical Fun Home, which opens at the Santa Fe Playhouse on Thursday, June 13, takes that journey with cartoonist Alison Bechdel. The show deconstructs linear time, as the adult Alison recalls milestones in her life, and begins to look for the truth around a period in college that changed her life. Why did her closeted father, who was arrested for giving alcohol to an underage boy, apparently kill himself only four months after she came out as gay in a letter to her parents?
I don’t trust memory.
Now I’m the one who’s 43 and stuck.
I can’t find my way through. Just like you.
Am I just like you?
The show, which premiered off-Broadway in September 2013, was adapted by Lisa Kron (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (music) from Bechdel’s lauded 2006 graphic novel of the same name. It moved to Broadway in 2015. There, it won multiple awards, and was nominated for 12 Tony Awards, winning five, including Best Musical and Best Original Score — the first to go to a female writing team.
“Fun Home finds a shining clarity that lights up the night,” New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote. “[It] isn’t just a coming out story or a coming-of-age story. Its universality comes from its awareness of how we never fully know even those closest to us, and of the undercurrent of grown-up secrets, intuited by children, that exists to some degree in every family.”
Suicide, homosexuality, and kids. That’s Fun Home.
“No one wants cotton candy all the time,” said director Vaughn Irving, who became artistic director of the Santa Fe Playhouse in 2015, and has been changing the kinds of plays being presented there. “I’ve been talking a lot to audiences since I took the job here. People want to be challenged. I feel a responsibility to the city to present work of a certain quality.”
Fun Home is seamless and nuanced, with complex relationships and characters, which is not a given in the world of musical comedy, Irving said, adding that it’s also the first Broadway musical to be told through the lens of a lesbian character. Musically, the show’s style is reminiscent of the work of Stephen Sondheim, who’s known for densely composed musicals like Company, A Little Night Music, Into the Woods, and others. Fun Home, however, may have more in common with Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. Like Fun Home’s Bechdel, Sondheim’s real-life painter George Seurat is trying to make sense of life through art.
“The music is fantastic,” Irving said of the work, which won a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album. “It has hooks and melodies, but it’s very conversational. The melodies are about what is happening in the moment.”
“Ring of Keys” is sung by Small Alison, age 9 (13-year-old middle school student Charlotte Carter). It describes her first encounter with a lesbian at a coffee shop.
Your swagger and your bearing
And the just-right clothes you’re wearing
Your short hair and your dungarees and your lace up boots
and your keys, oh, your ring of keys
do you feel my heart saying hi?
After her first gay sexual experience in college, Medium Alison (played by Nadine Pineda) sings to her sleeping lover, Joan.
Let’s never leave this room
How ’bout we stay here ’till finals
I’ll go to school forever
I’ll take out a dementedly huge high-interest loan
’Cause I’m changing
MJ Sea plays the grown-up Alison. For her, being in a musical that features a love story between two women is personally meaningful. She has studied music extensively, composes, plays multiple instruments, and works in the film industry locally. Although the score may be technically challenging — for instance, switching meters mid-song — and features melodies that overlap and clash as the characters do in the drama, her secret is to connect to each song emotionally. “Feel it, don’t count it. It’s like a piece of fabric. All the pieces fit. You don’t need to pay attention to each individual strand of thread.”
Alison’s dad, Bruce, is played by Brent Black, a veteran actor who has appeared in Mamma Mia! over a 14-year run on Broadway; toured as the lead in The Who’s Tommy; played Jud in Oklahoma and Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar in regional theaters. “It’s nice to do something a little dark. It’s where I sit most comfortably. Once my dad came down to see me in a production of Grand Hotel in Florida. It was a great role, full of darkness as well as light. ... I asked my stepmom afterwards, ‘Didn’t Dad like me in the show?’ She said, ‘You have to understand, it really upsets him when you die in shows. You’ve died in the last 10 shows.’ ”
School-age performers play the two younger Alisons, as well as her two brothers at six and ten. “I brought chocolate to the first rehearsal,” Black said. “I didn’t want the kids in the show to think of me as ‘that man.’ The important thing for me is that when he has human moments, they need to be clear.”
His stage time is mostly played in the distant past, in family scenes with the young version of the protagonist. “I have hardly any time with Middle Alison, until the very end.” That’s the scene where Bruce takes his daughter, who’s home from college for the weekend, out for a drive. She has come out to him. He has been arrested. They engage in chitchat. He offers to take her to a gay bar he knows about, and she reminds him that she’s underage. This is the last time Bruce and Alison — the gay father and lesbian daughter — are ever alone together in the play. The adult Alison steps into the scene.
There’s a moment I’m forgetting where you tell me you see me
Say something, talk to me!
Say something, anything!
“I feel like this show digs deep into the contrast between what you knew your parents as, and who they really are,” Black said. “Everybody has to face that sometime. I did. I first thought of the show as a coming out story, but it’s not. It’s more coming to terms with who you are and where you came from.” ◀
▼ Fun Home
▼ 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday; June 13 through June 30.
▼ Santa Fe Playhouse, 142 E. De Vargas St.
▼ $15-$30; 505-955-0765, santafeplayhouse.org