A Musical About Compromises, Which Bears the Marks of Compromises
A Consideration by Robert Gulack
FUN HOME, now arriving on Broadway after its Public Theater premiere, is a remarkable show about the compromises people make; and then, finally, cannot make anymore. But the show itself, for all the obvious talent on display, has also made its compromises.
What follows is not a review of FUN HOME, but some notes on the differences between Alison Bechdel’s hilarious and heart-breaking graphic novel, and the current hilarious and heart-breaking musical version with book and lyrics adapted from Bechdel by Lisa Kron (and lovely music by Jeanine Tesori). Indeed, what follows contains a great many spoilers. So buy your tickets now for the musical, and read the graphic novel while you’re waiting to see the Broadway show. And then – when it can’t spoil your fun or interfere with the intensity of the emotions you will experience – read this essay. (If, by the way, this actually were a review you’re now reading, you would know it at once because I would be going on and on about the great performance delivered in this show by one of our most talented actor/singers, Michael Cerveris.)
Dialing Down the Violence
There are three outstanding areas in which the musical differs from the original graphic novel. The first is that the novel makes clear that the father was physically abusive to his children. He was constantly striking them in unpredictable rages that had little or nothing to do with anything they’d actually done. The musical cleans this up, minimizing the abuse down to the level where we see the father threatening physical punishment, but we don’t actually see him inflicting it. (And, of course, the father’s threat is that the child will be punished for a very specific offense, if it occurs, not that the child will be slapped and struck at random.)
It is easy to understand that, in a musical which is daring to center on very tragic events involving the father, it would have been very risky to show just how harshly and randomly punitive the father was. The audience could easily have responded by dismissing the father as unworthy of any sympathy. (Indeed, given how wonderfully cute and charming the children are in the stage version, and how intimate the theater-in-the-round staging is, the audience might very well have leapt on stage to stop the father from smacking the kids, much like the legendary cowboy who drew his six-gun and ordered Othello to “leave the lady alone.”) Still, this begs the question, do we have a performing arts medium in which you would actually dare to ask the audience to rise to the moral level of having sympathy even for a child abuser? Would FUN HOME have to be an opera before it would have the courage to be that serious?
Reaching Out to the Straight Male
Another aspect of FUN HOME that involves a considerable amount of courage, in commercial terms, is that it is joyously pro-lesbian. (Indeed, one of the best musical numbers, “I’m Changing My Major to Joan,” centers on the wonders of woman-on-woman lovemaking for a young lesbian who is allowing herself to express her actual sexual needs for the very first time.) In the graphic novel, however, it is made clear that both Alison Bechdel and her first sapphic love were both on the short-haired side.
This, too, is softened in the musical. Bechdel’s first woman lover has just the sort of long hair that would appeal to whatever fantasies the straight men in the audience would have about feminine-appearing lesbians making love. This casting comprises a very serious compromise with one of the most important moral commitments of the evening. The commonsense attitude has to be that lesbians are making love because they wish to make love with each other, not because they wish to foment sex fantasies in straight men. (Just as a lesbian bookstore might justifiably seek to dissuade straight men in search of thrills from thumbing through its pornography section, so it’s a little off-center for a lesbian-liberation musical to compromise by making Alison’s first lover so heteromale-friendly.) Still, all the other women in the show are either children too young, or married women too abused and down-trodden, to serve as the objects of wild male heterosexual fantasy. If you want any woman in the show to be attractive to whatever straight men happened to have wandered in, it has to be Alison’s first lover. And so the show makes that choice.
Going Easy on Child Labor
It is less clear why the musical minimizes the extent to which the father forced his children to spend their childhoods restoring antique furnishings in the family’s period home. The graphic novel makes it clear that the children spent a great deal of time in very hard labor. Dad was working very hard at it, too, but it was Dad who was going to win the architectural awards for the results, not his kids. And Dad had entered into the whole project voluntarily, which makes all the difference.
The musical does begin with the children doing an emergency neatening of the house before the unexpected arrival of a prestigious visitor interested in restored homes – but it is one thing to be roped into a one-time straightening-up and quite another to be forced to spend years on the same project. In the musical, we hear the father complaining that no one ever helps him with the restoration work, and claiming that he basically did it himself. It should be more clear than it is that the father’s complaints and claims are totally off-base.
This alteration is little harder to understand. What could be more natural than a musical number for the whole family about the labor of communally cleaning and polishing? Perhaps the creators of the show felt this would be a bit repetitious of the opening – but the show is, after all, called FUN HOME, which announces that the house itself will be a major player in what we are about to see. It would certainly not be a waste of time for the audience to see how much credit the kids can take for bringing this outrageous museum of a home into existence — how much of their lives were dragooned into fulfilling their father’s fantasies.
A Rare Level of Achievement
FUN HOME, from start to finish, delivers a wonderful feeling of freshness and realism. Even when the characters are singing — indeed, especially when the characters are singing — the audience feels that they are actually in the actual home with this family, and the tragic weight of the family’s situation left me sitting after the show, crying quietly. So don’t miss this one. But think, too, about the forces that lead even the most highly principled artists to compromise now and then.
ROBERT GULACK holds an MFA in Playwriting from the Yale School of Drama, where he studied with Mamet and Kopit. He is the author of numerous plays seen in NYC, including CHURCHILL IN ATHENS, SIX HUSBANDS OF ELIZABETH THE QUEEN, and the award-winning ONE THOUSAND AND ONE.