Theatrical Review: “Fun Home”

Amy Gottlieb, MA, LMFT

2015 Tony Awards for Best Score, Best Book, Best Direction

Based on Alison Bechdel’s best-selling graphic memoir, Music by Jeanine Tesori, Book and Lyrics by Lisa Kron, Directed by Sam Gold

If you are a theatre lover, even living on the entirely opposite coast, you are probably aware of shows on Broadway when they are getting lots of buzz. One of those plays is the musical Fun Home, currently playing at the Circle In The Square theatre on Broadway. While visiting our son in Brooklyn last month, we popped into Manhattan to see a few productions. Fun Home was one of them. We chose Fun Home not only because it won the Tony for Best Musical in 2015, but also because one of my son’s former composition professors from Yale, Jeanine Tesori, wrote the music (my son, Ian, in the picture below).

When I go to see theatre and film, which I do frequently as a trained actor (B.A. Theatre Arts) and a psychotherapist. I love how a background in both of these fields influences my enjoyment of theatrical productions. Both areas of study involve being curious about people, considering what makes them tick, why they make the life choices they do, and how they change. I lose myself in plays and movies, and come to care deeply about the characters in the productions, just as I come to care deeply about my clients. The obstacles we deal with in life, are the same ones the characters in a well-written play or movie deal with. Anything that gets in the way of one’s hopes and dreams, be that of a fictional character or a real one, constitutes an obstacle. Entering the theatre to see a film or play is like walking into a room to see a client. In each case I am going to learn about someone’s struggles, disappointments, preferences and evolution.

With the anticipation and excitement I feel right before seeing any play, I started looking through the program for Fun Home. I saw a short interview with Lisa Kron, the woman who wrote the book and lyrics for the musical. The initial question posed to her in the conversation was:

What led you to believe this book could be a musical?

LK: Needless to say, Jeanine (the composer) and I thought: butch lesbians, a funeral home, closeted gay men, suicide? Obviously, musical comedy.

When I read this, it really piqued my curiosity as to how all of these plot points were going to connect to one another in the play. The old formula for the American Musical typically involved four things: boy wants girl, boy can’t have girl without overcoming obstacles, boy overcomes obstacles, and in the process learns about himself, and finally, boy gets girl in the end. Think of any number of old musicals you love, and you’ll see that formula is somewhere in there: Oklahoma, Guys and Dolls, Little Shop of Horrors, Music Man, Fiddler on The Roof. All have those elements. Of course they are about many other things, but every musical until the last couple of decades has depicted a heterosexual romance with challenges involved in the couple coming together.

And then came along writers of musicals who believed there is a lot more to grapple with in life other than relationships among straight people, even when you’re singing about it! As someone who loves Stephen Sondheim, considered by many as the greatest musical theatre writer of today, I certainly know musicals can be very complex, do not have to be heteronormative, and can deal with very important and relevant subject matter. I was nonetheless curious to see how serious subjects such as sexual identity, and suicide in Fun Home would lend themselves to being sung about.

The story of Fun Home revolves around a character named Alison played by three different actresses from three different time periods in her life. This was executed beautifully. The youngest, Alison, is played by an actress who is 12. She and the other two Alisons, plus the actors that play her parents, her siblings, and her lover, make up a very strong cast of highly talented performers. I don’t want to give away the story except to say it is powerful, poignant, at times very funny, at times very tragic, and always compelling. I am sure the musical will come to the west coast as great plays from Broadway always do, so keep an ear out for it here in Los Angeles, or if you happen to have the good fortune to find yourself in New York anytime soon, go see this play! Wherever you see the play, you will be glad you did, both as a therapist who cares about people and is curious about their stories, and a regular human being who cares about the humanity in people in general.