Alison Bechdel on 'Fun Home''s Tony-Award Triumph

Award-winning cartoonist reflects on "super bizarre surrealness" of Broadway success

Alison Bechdel, center, whose memoir 'Fun Home' is now a Broadway musical, with the actresses playing her at various ages, from left: Sydney Lucas, Emily Skeggs and Beth Malone, in New York City on March 27th, 2015. Credit: Richard Perry/NYTimes/Redux

When Fun Home won Best Musical at last week's Tony Awards ceremony, four Alison Bechdels took the stage to accept it. There was the original article, the 54-year-old cartoonist who chronicled her troubled relationship with her closeted gay father in the bestselling 2006 graphic memoir of the same name — and then there were the three Tony-nominated actresses who played her in the theatrical adaptation. Any way you look at it, Alison Bechdel is the star of the show.

The writer-artist's multilayered memoir centered on two pivotal, parallel events — her coming-out as a lesbian during her freshman year of college, and her father's suicide a short time later. Combining deceptively simple cartooning with a dazzling, self-taught command of literary history, the book took her true story of a family in a perpetual cold war to the top of multiple Best of the Year lists.

For Fun Home the musical to repeat the feat and win the Tony — despite the fact that it's a far cry from the Great White Way's usual fare — is nothing short of shocking. Eschewing the original's tightly woven tapestry of literary references for soaringly emotional songs, the show's Broadway incarnation — staged in the round at the intimate Circle in the Square Theatre  —  cleaned up at last week's awards ceremony. In addition to the Best Musical win, it brought home statuettes for writer-lyricist Lisa Kron, composer Jeanine Tesori, director Sam Gold, and actor Michael Ceveris (The Who's Tommy), whose turn as Alison's conflicted father Bruce is one for the ages. 

It's an experience that has left Bechdel, who mostly watched from the sidelines as the project took off, equal parts delighted and dazed. "I kind of can't figure out why the musical is so powerful," she laughs, "but I have a lot of different theories." She shared a few of the more persuasive ones below.

How has post-Tony life been treating you?
It's crazy. I'm getting tons of emails from people, and it takes a long time to go through and answer all of it, but I feel really happy. It's. . .unnerving. I'm not used to such good things happening.

In reading your work, you don't come a cross as a person who'd be able to enjoy it. I hope that's not insulting.
No, no, it's totally true. I know I'm actually happy, but it's hard to really feel that way. Strong emotions are difficult for me, whether positive of negative.

But they're the stock in trade of musicals, aren't they?
I know! Ever since I listened to the first version of this musical I've been stunned by how it cut to the heart of the emotional story of the book in a way that I wasn't really able to.

Were you uncomfortable with addressing the emotional content so nakedly in the book, or is it more a question of different mediums with different needs?
I think a large part of it is just the different mediums. Adding music and live action makes it much more intense and immediate. The book is more go-on-your-own-pace. You're able to go off on a lot of different digressions. It's a different experience. But maybe I'm a person who writes graphic narratives and not musicals because I am uncomfortable with that kind of direct emotional power.

Staging it in the round makes it such an immersive experience.
Yep. The show was very good when it was done in a traditional proscenium setup at the Public Theatre, but something crazy happened in the round. It's just much more immersive. You're in it.

What is it like for you to walk into that theater? It's like being in your living room.
It's overwhelming. I haven't found a way to express the super bizarre surrealness of seeing my life on the stage and watching it play out multiple times. It's a very strange ontological position to occupy. It both is and isn't my life. I don't really understand my relationship to the play. I'm still trying to figure that out. 

The book received a lot of attention and acclaim as well, but with the musical, there are warm bodies on stage and in the audience. Does that make the enthusiastic reception of the show feel different?
That's definitely part of it. The amazing risk involved in live theater? I could not bear that. You just count on so many people to get things right. You're working with this giant team, from the prop manager to the actors, and they all go out on that tightrope every night together. That's a very intense experience for the audience.

But also, a musical is something designed to have broad appeal. There's a lot of money invested in this thing. It's very difficult to get a show produced. What's amazing to me is that this very weird, very particular, very risky story that's not conventional Broadway fodder by any means has made it on Broadway! I feel like there's always a trade-off between the size of your message and the size of your audience — they're in inverse proportion. But in this case, there's no skimping on the message. It's not airbrushed in any way. It's kind of just gritty and real. And it's reaching these big Broadway audiences.

"I haven't found a way to express the super bizarre surrealness of seeing my life on the stage and watching it play out multiple times."

Did the sheer size of the collaborative effort involved seems a world away from sitting at your drawing table?
I was struck with that all along. Lisa and Jeanine had to be open to so many people's input. That would have driven me absolutely nuts, but that's part of what they love about it. Comics is about as far on the other end of the continuum as you can go. I do all my own set design and costumes. I do all the acting. That's all me, and that's the way I like it.

So much of cartooning is communicated in things that are basically impossible to reproduce in any kind of live action adaptation, from how you draw faces right down to the look of the lines on the page.
Ah, I like how you put that. Yeah, just the quality of the line can bring so much into a cartoon story. In earlier versions of the show, there were some drawings incorporated, and that gradually fell away. At first I felt sorry to see them go, but then I realized there was nothing lost. Jeanine and Lisa and the director, Sam, found moments in the book that they could see were pivotal, and they preserved those. There's a moment when I find out that my dad had this affair with our babysitter, and I'm lying on the floor in fetal position. Sam said "We have to capture that panel. We have to do that." In the play, Emily [Skeggs, who plays] Medium Alison, is on the phone with her mother, and she's standing in one of those projected panel outlines, and you see her just sink to the floor in this really beautiful way. They treated this book with such respect that I think somehow it created this parallel structure that had equal, if not greater, resonance. 

Lesbians have virtually no history of representation in musical theater. That must have been important to you to get right if this was going to make the jump from the comic to the stage.
There are a lot of perils and pitfalls there. The reason it worked is because Lisa Kron knew what she was doing. I knew she was going to be writing the book from the get-go, and that made me feel like I was in very good hands. I knew her work and trusted her because she gets the lesbian thing.

I dunno. Lesbians just aren't sexy! [Laughs] Not in the conventional theatrical or popular-cultural sense. Lesbians go against every traditional notion of romance. How to make that character appealing to people who aren't lesbians was a challenge.

While there is a romantic component, it's just one of several experiences the Alison character goes through. The show as a whole is not "a romance."
It's not the usual chemistry. What drives the story is the relationship between the father and the daughter. Maybe that's allowed to happen because the fact that they're both gay strips away a lot of the incest-taboo stuff. You can really get into that without worrying about it. [But] I think we're all really hungry to see the father-daughter relationship explored. You don't see a lot of that anywhere, in a way that's not sort of quasi-romantic, you know? Like Father of the Bride or something [laughs].

Fun Home often mentioned the same breath as Art Spiegelman's Maus. Both of them achieved a level of mainstream recognition that's virtually unheard of even now. Is Fun Home's place in the pantheon something you think about?
Oh, no. I feel very unnerved whenever I hear people talking about Maus and Fun Home. Art's book has been around for 30 years! It changed the landscape. If, in 30 years, people are still talking about Fun Home, then yeah, maybe. It's fine if people need to make comparisons, but it makes me a little anxious.

But you don't seem anxious about how well the play has done. Does not being directly involved make it easier for you?
Yeah. I mean, I didn't win a Tony — the play based on my book won a Tony. I take some comfort in the fact that I'm distanced from it a little bit. But also, it's just so cool! It's a really big deal. Maybe next week I'll feel differently, but right now I'm still basking in it.