Every once in a while, a musical comes along that restores my faith in the art form. Fun Home, the shattering new musical now playing an extended engagement at The Public Theater, is one of those musicals. I'll elaborate as to why below, but suffice to say, if you haven't already seen Fun Home, you should. And if you have seen Fun Home, you should go again, which is exactly what I did.
Seriously, go get your tickets now. I'll wait.
OK, so you've got your tickets, and now you're back. Cool. Now, here's the thing about Fun Home. It shouldn't be nearly as enjoyable as it is, at least based on the subject matter. It's about a young lesbian who grows up in a funeral home, and whose father, a closeted gay man, commits suicide by stepping in front of a Mack truck. (We learn this at the very top of the show, so it's not really a spoiler.) I mean, talk about your "bad ideas for a musical," right?
Thankfully, librettist Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori have found just the right balance of humor and pathos to bring vivid life to Alison Bechdel's intensely moving graphic novel, also called Fun Home. (The title represents the family's jocular twist on "funeral home.") Kron's book features some slight changes from the graphic novel: while the musical is unequivocal that the father committed suicide, the novel ruminates on this point and never really comes to a resolution.
The production is directed with both subtlety and bite by Sam Gold, and features an outstanding cast of newcomers and New York regulars alike. (More on these folks later.) The show starts with a slow burn, then builds into a shattering climax, culminating in a series of solos at the end for the three main characters: the father, the mother, and Alison (played at three different ages by three separate actresses). Gold includes some marvelously apt touches, including a final graphic taken directly from Bechdel's book that provides the heartfelt piece of punctuation to bring the production to a close.
Fun Home, the book and the musical, is all about character study, and Tesori and Kron provide an abundant assortment of character numbers, which just seem to get richer and deeper as the story progresses. The show begins with a number in which the mother, Helen, played with quiet intensity by the always remarkable Judy Kuhn, feverishly exhorts her three children to get the family's museum-like house in shape for a visit from a woman from a preservation society. Here, we not only learn about Helen's frantic desire to please, we also get a strong sense of the father's sharp, exacting nature. And he's not even on stage. That's dramatic efficiency.
What follows are many rich and flavorful character numbers: the youngest version of Alison sings touchingly about a butch delivery woman - and her fascinating ring of keys - who has just entered the diner where Alison and her father are eating. The middle Alison has a wonderfully funny solo about having sex for the first time while she's away at college, proclaiming, "I'm changing my major to 'Sex with Joan.'" And the score, as well as the show, just keeps getting better.
In fact the show ends with a trio of numbers that almost seem like an embarrassment of riches. The oldest Alison gets her own thrilling set piece during a car ride with her reticent father. The father, played with an almost nerve-wracking sense of palpable conflict by Michael Cerveris, ends the show with nervous breakdown of a song in which the new house that he's restoring becomes a heartrending metaphor for his shattered life. Tesori includes some achingly deft uses of leitmotif here, in which the father picks up some of the very same observations that the middle Alison employs during her sex-with-Joan song, but turns her empowering sense of discovery into a nightmare of fragmented regrets.
But my favorite moment of the show, the one that knocked the wind out of me both times I saw it, came when Helen, the mother, is sitting at the kitchen table talking to her daughter (middle Alison), telling Alison that she's known about the father's affairs with men all along. "I don't know how you did it," Alison says. At which point the mother starts into a number that is so raw, so emotionally honest, and ultimately so moving that I can quite easily rank it among my favorite moments in a lifetime of theater. Seriously. Tesori again employs leitmotif to stunning effect, this time quoting the opening number -- "Welcome to our house on Maple Avenue." The phrase becomes here an ironic rumination, and at the end of the song a discordant crash of loss and resignation.
OK, now, one final note, on a personal level. I have a special connection to the subject matter here, partly because I grew up in the 1970s, as Bechdel did, and many of her cultural signposts -- The Partridge Family, The Jackson Five, "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" -- brought smiles of wistful nostalgia to my face. Also, I grew up in a funeral home. No, really, I did. Like Bechdel, I grew up playing around the caskets, helping my father arrange the flowers, even occasionally helping him with "removals," a euphemistic term for picking up and transporting a body to a funeral home. Fun Home features a scene in which young Alison is called into the embalming room by her father so that she can hand him a pair of scissors from a tray that he is unable to reach. Her sense of both fascination and revulsion brought back a flood of memories that added to the already rich tapestry Fun Home represents.
Clearly, you don't have to have grown up in a funeral home to derive intense pleasure from Fun Home. (But, hey, all the better if you did.) You just need an open mind and a desire to experience what, in my humble opinion, is the best damn musical to hit New York City in 2013. Hands down.