Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home may be the best comic I have ever read. The story of her sexual awakening, and the suicide of her closeted father, Bruce, it is not only a sophisticated rendering of a much-denigrated art, but a celebration of novel-reading as well: Alison’s life is framed by the life and art of a series of canonical authors, from Albert Camus and Marcel Proust to James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The pleasures of Fun Home are manifold and the text reveals new ones with each reading.
Little of this can be said of the musical adaptation of Fun Home currently running at the Circle in the Square Theatre. The music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron are pretty standard, with no sense that they have been tailored to the material. Ms. Bechdel’s book begins with Alison playing airplane with her father and ends with Bruce catching her as she jumps into a pool, both completing and subverting the Icarian imagery she establishes early on. Typically, this is translated to the young Alison (an excellent Sydney Lucas) running onto the stage and singing, “I wanna play airplane / I wanna put my arms out and fly / like Superman up in the sky.” The text that had elevated a lowbrow form to high art is pulled back down, and we are once again in the realm of superheroes, who themselves are no longer reduced to such puerile treatment.
Which is a shame, since Fun Home may have made a good play: Ms. Tesori and Ms. Kron interestingly layer Alison’s story, so that, as an adult (Beth Malone), she watches and comments on the action, much like the narration does in the comics. But too often what she is watching is silly musical theater, so that the title (which is not only an ironic reference to the funeral home the Bechdels run but also a nod to fun house mirrors, reflecting an uncanny truth) becomes a cute song-and-dance number with the Bechdel children singing, “Come to the Fun Home / That’s the Bechdel funeral home, baby,” adding generational lingo like “what it is” and “sock it to me.” In the show’s best number, “Changing My Major,” Alison loses her virginity and belts with adolescent enthusiasm, “I’m changing my major to Joan,” before revising, “I’m changing my major to sex with Joan.” While it’s quite endearing, it doesn’t really resemble Ms. Bechdel’s book in any way.
And that’s the main problem with this adaptation. Why make Fun Home into a musical if you are going to strip away what makes it Fun Home? There is some literary name-dropping, but nothing on the intertextual level of Ms. Bechdel’s comic, and obviously the unique graphic element is lost on stage. What was a text about much more than just being gay, then, is here simply a coming out narrative. There’s nothing really wrong with that, I suppose, but, like the fun house mirror, what I know to be a funny, moving, and endlessly smart story is reflected back at me as fairly average Broadway fare. Much attention is given to Icarus’ flight too close to the sun, less to his father Daedalus’ advice not to fly too low, either, lest the sea’s dampness clog his wings. Hubris may be dangerous, but complacency can be as well.