Broadway has had a number of successful plays and musicals with gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters portrayed openly, and with sympathy. Some even grapple with complicated inner lives rather than deliver sanitized, safe entertainment. But nothing as honest, groundbreaking -- and potentially dangerous -- has been staged before for mainstream audiences as Fun Home, about the sexual awakening of a young, butch lesbian.
The story, based on the bestselling graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, follows her coming out to her parents, her closeted gay father's struggles, and his suicide. Adapted by Lisa Kron (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (music), the musical is not only incisive and psychologically nuanced, but it's also a joy to hum along to the zippy numbers.
"[People think] that if they're going to be learning something, it's a very spinach-like delivery system," says Tesori, who wrote the music for Tony Kushner's Caroline, or Change. "But 'serious' is a strange word for me. I can't write more authentically than this. The sole purpose of this is for audiences to recognize themselves in this piece. My hope is that they will look at the world slightly differently."
The conflict centers around an American family struggling with all the secrets left unspoken, the disappointments, and the dissatisfactions.
The musical is also about how terrifying childhood can be, and why sex is so important to self-discovery. After a college-age Bechdel has sex with her girlfriend for the first time, she sings "Ring of Keys," which has the funny, joyful lines: "I'm changing my major to Joan / With a minor in kissing Joan / Foreign study to Joan's inner thighs, a seminar on Joan's ass in her Levi's."
While it's not done for easy titillation, Kron, who co-founded the Five Lesbian Brothers theater company, feels moments like that vital to show female intimacy. "It's easier for people to think lesbians are not sexual," she says. "There was a point where it was Jeanine who was saying, 'They have to kiss!' It tracks her stepping into her true self, and her father not. Her father is having sex, but that moment of her having sex, it's a moment that she's able to own and he's not. It's not about her falling in love, it's about her having sex."
The play is being produced at a pivotal time. Kron admits that the positive reception the musical received during its initial off-Broadway debut at the Public Theater could be attributed to a cultural shift. "It might not have happened a year, certainly a few years, earlier," she says. "Definitely because of gay marriage, but it's the result many people have been doing over many, many years. That's been really satisfying to have arrived at that place."