One of the most exciting moments of my youth was seeing Carol Channing in “Hello Dolly” on Broadway. I adored Channing, the music, dancing and costumes. Yet, at age 11, I sensed that the stories of girls like me, who felt a mysterious attraction to other girls, wouldn’t be told on the Great White Way. Seeing girls with no make-up and who hated wearing dresses, sing or dance, let alone be the main story in a Broadway musical was as likely as watching pigs fly. Until now. “Fun Home,” the first musical with a lesbian lead character, opened on Broadway on April 19. Incredible as it may seem, lesbians, once relegated to dingy dives and pulp fiction, are now as mainstream as Playbill or Sardi’s caricatures.
“Fun Home,” which has received glowing reviews and 12 Tony nominations, is based on Alison Bechdel’s 2006 brilliant, best-selling graphic memoir “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.” Bechdel, 54, a lesbian writer and cartoonist, has been beloved for years by legions of lesbian and indie fans for her long-running comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For.” Anyone with a sense of humor can’t help but love the characters in “Dykes” from Mo, who used to work at the now-defunct Madwimmin Books and whose “Impending Doom Alert Level” is orange to Sydney, Mo’s partner, a tenured college professor and credit card debtor with a “penchant for the theoretical and disdain for knee-jerk liberalism.” At a time when lesbian lives were rarely authentically reflected in the culture at large, we could see our community, with its joys, pain and quirks in “Dykes to Watch Out For.”
Bechdel, who received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award last year, is perhaps, best known for the “Bechdel test” (for assessing movies). The idea for the test, Bechdel has said, was developed by a friend of hers, Liz Wallace. In 1985, a “Dykes” character said that a movie passes the “test” when it has two women characters who talk to each other about something other than a man.
“Fun Home,” as memoir and Broadway show, aces the Bechdel test! It’s often said that comedy and tragedy are intertwined. Bechdel’s work shows that this is an essential truth about life – not an empty trope. If asked to read a memoir or see a show about a family who ran a funeral home with a closeted queer father who kills himself, you might well take a pass. But not if the family is Alison Bechdel’s clan.
Bechdel’s father Bruce, a closeted gay man, ran a funeral parlor out of his family’s home in Beech Creek, Pa. His kids ironically call it the “fun home.” Bruce, who Bechdel calls a “manic-depressive, closeted fag,” also teaches high school English and meticulously restores the Victorian mansion where the family lives. Bruce is killed in a car accident, but Bechdel believes he killed himself because she, while at college at Oberlin, had came out as a lesbian to her parents.
You wouldn’t think that a Broadway musical could be both moving and funny about funerals, death or lesbian love and attraction. But “Fun Home” would prove you wrong. Audiences are laughing and singing along with songs that rhyme “satisfied” with “formaldehyde.”
The musical, a Pulitzer Prize finalist when it played off-Broadway at the Public Theater, was adapted from Bechdel’s by Lisa Kron (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (music).
All of us, whether we want to or not, construct our lives and memories through our families. In “Fun Home,” three actresses play Bechdel at various stages in her life as she seeks to unravel her family’s mysteries: as a 43-year-old using her art to remember her past (Beth Malone), a college student (Emily Skeggs) and a child (Sydney Lucas).
In “Fun Home,” for the first time, a lesbian family is out front and center stage. Let’s give that a standing O!
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.