Cartoonist Alison Bechdel and Broadway actress Beth Malone took a break from skiing in Snowmass, CO, to talk about “Fun Home” —Bechdel’s graphic novel that become a Tony Award-winning musical starring Malone.
Years ago, cartoonist Alison Bechdel experienced a pivotal moment during a car ride with her father. Home on break from college, she badly wanted to connect with her long-closeted dad. She had come out as a lesbian and desired to “be seen” by her father, she said. Eventually she broached the topic, but the conversation was strange and filled with awkward silences. It was their last conversation, she said, before he took his life by suicide a few months later.
Bechdel, a MacArthur Fellow, first wrote about this scene in 2006, when her graphic memoir “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic,” was released. She talked about the book onstage in Aspen, Colorado, last month, as part of Aspen Words’ Winter Words series. “Fun Home” is now being performed on Broadway and earned five Tony Awards in 2015, including Best Musical. The groundbreaking production will tour the US starting later this year.
The play “chronicles Ms. Bechdel’s effort to better understand her coming-of-age as a lesbian and her father’s suicide,” summarized Michael Paulson of the New York Times. Bechdel is revealed on stage at three different ages. Throughout the play, she experiences memories of her dysfunctional small-town Pennsylvania family. In one scene, she and her brothers are playing in the casket showroom of her father’s funeral home. In Aspen, Bechdel joked, “Lisa Kron, who wrote the book of the play, likes to say, ‘A butch lesbian, a closeted gay man, a suicide, a funeral home — what about this doesn’t scream musical comedy?’”
Actress Beth Malone, left, with “Fun Home” author Alison Bechdel at Aspen Words (Photo Credit: Tony Cannistra).
At the Aspen Words event, Bechdel and actress Beth Malone spoke lightheartedly about the play. Malone lives part time in the Aspen area and plays the adult Bechdel in the Broadway production. Malone explained how it was strange to perform the role of a person who is currently living. “You realize the person whose life you’re playing is sitting right there,” she said. “It’s a revelation. These are not easy things to talk about and they are not easy to rehash and they’re definitely not easy to excavate in front of that person.” She said playing someone who is alive makes the piece “relentlessly honest.”
In her research for the play, Malone and some of the cast members went to the house where Bechdel was raised, and where many of the play’s scenes take place. “It was like this exercise for you guys,” Bechdel told Malone, “to really immerse yourselves in the realness of the story.” She said the play — with music by Jeanine Tesori, direction by Sam Gold, and lyrics by Kron — gets to the “emotional core” of the story in a different way than the book.
Marci Krivonen is associate editor and producer of public programs for the Aspen Ideas Festival.