‘Fun Home’ brings graphic novel to stage

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By An­drew J. Frieden­thal Spe­cial to the Amer­i­can-States­man

Adap­ta­tion from one medium to an­other is never easy, and adap­ta­tions from the comic book page to the Broad­way stage have al­ways been es­pe­cially tricky. “An­nie” and “You’re A Good Man, Char­lie Brown” are mu­si­cal the­ater clas­sics, sure, but “It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Su­per­man,” “Spi­der-Man: Turn off the Dark” and “Doones­bury” are re­mem­bered a lit­tle less fondly.

“Fun Home,” an adap­ta­tion by Lisa Kron and Jea­nine Te­sori of car­toon­ist Ali­son Bechdel’s ac­claimed 2006 graphic novel mem­oir, is eas­ily among the most ar­tis­ti­cally am­bi­tious adap­ta­tions of any comic book or comic strip into a mu­si­cal, and it is cer­tainly the most suc­cess­ful of re­cent years, gar­ner­ing an ex­tended Broad­way run and the 2015 Tony Award for best mu­si­cal. The show’s na­tional tour be­gan in Oc­to­ber and comes to Austin for a five-show en­gage­ment at the Long Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts on Aug. 11-13.

Early in the graphic novel, Bechdel says, “It’s tempt­ing to sug­gest, in ret­ro­spect, that our fam­ily was a sham. That our house was not a real home at all but the sim­u­lacrum of one, a mu­seum. Yet we re­ally were a fam­ily, and we re­ally did live in those pe­riod rooms.” Kron, who wrote the book and lyrics for the show, and Te­sori, who wrote the mu­sic, were faced with the im­mense chal­lenge of bring­ing these real peo­ple, and those real rooms, to life, but dou­bly sim­u­lated through the lens of both mem­ory and adap­ta­tion.

Kron says the temp­ta­tion was strong to lit­er­ally bring Bechdel’s im­ages of her child­hood home to the stage by pro­ject­ing her draw­ings. How­ever, Kron and her col­lab­o­ra­tors, in­clud­ing Te­sori and direc­tor Sam Gold, soon re­al­ized that this would be a mis­take.

“Part of what makes those im­ages in­ter­est­ing is their scale, it’s their fram­ing, it’s their re­la­tion­ship to each other,” Kron says. “And if you put them on the stage, they’re go­ing to be di­min­ished. That doesn’t serve them, and it doesn’t serve the the­ater.”

In­stead, the cre­ative team

de­cided to “fig­ure out how those tools in the graphic novel were func­tion­ing and then what we could use to achieve that same ef­fect.”

For Kron, this meant ex­plor­ing the way things are jux­ta­posed on the page ver­sus what can be jux­ta­posed on the stage. “Early on I looked at the things she was jux­ta­pos­ing — ob­vi­ously, words and pic­tures,” she says. “Then scale, time pe­ri­ods, kinds of im­ages, etc. And then I went through and made a list of things that can be pow­er­fully jux­ta­posed in the the­ater to think about out how we could get to the same ef­fect but in a dif­fer­ent medium.”

The end re­sult is as pow­er­ful and pointed on the stage as in the graphic novel. In the lat­ter, Bechdel jumps be­tween mul­ti­ple time pe­ri­ods, com­par­ing her own com­ing out story to the se­crets of her fa­ther’s sex­u­al­ity — se­crets that ul­ti­mately led to his sui­cide. The mu­si­cal mim­ics these lay­ers with three dif­fer­ent ac­tresses rep­re­sent­ing three dis­tinct pe­ri­ods in Ali­son’s life, each of whom re­lates uniquely to her fa­ther, serv­ing as a clear through line that cre­ates much of the show’s nar­ra­tive ten­sion.

How­ever, part of the suc­cess of “Fun Home,” in ei­ther for­mat, is the space left be­tween those jux­ta­po­si­tions — the es­sen­tial empti­ness of unan­swered ques­tions and in­de­scrib­able ex­pe­ri­ence. As Kron notes, “Ali­son talks about what drew her to comics. She talks about this space of dis­junc­ture in be­tween what you see and then what the text says. I think that the­ater, but par­tic­u­larly mu­si­cals, are in­ter­ested in that same place of dis­junc­ture and emo­tional mys­tery and emo­tional in­ef­fa­bil­ity. So I think that’s what made it feel like it could be a mu­si­cal. It’s not the story that makes a good mu­si­cal; it’s that qual­ity of in­de­fin­able, in-be­tween emo­tional space.”

To ex­plore that in­be­tween space, though, re­quired a dif­fer­ent set of artis­tic tools than those Bechdel used in her graphic novel. “We wanted it to feel the same, and we wanted it to ask the same ques­tions that Ali­son was ask­ing,” Kron says. “But you have to do it with com­pletely dif­fer­ent tools.”

This gets into the tricky ques­tion of adap­ta­tion it­self, and how to make a work feel the same from one medium to an­other. Kron and Te­sori had to ask them­selves what the pur­pose of any adap­ta­tion is, and what it means to suc­cess­fully adapt a work from one medium to an­other.

Their an­swer, ac­cord­ing to Kron? “A suc­cess­ful adap­ta­tion can’t fol­low from the work be­ing adapted,” she says. “It can’t be an ex­ten­sion of it. It has to have a brand new gen­e­sis, and it has to even­tu­ally live next to it, not af­ter it.”

“Fun Home” the graphic novel is ex­tremely in­ti­mate, in terms of both its story and the way it is re­ceived by an au­di­ence. As a work of art, it was cre­ated in rel­a­tive soli­tude by a sin­gle car­toon­ist, and it is con­sumed in soli­tude by a sin­gle reader at a time. “Fun Home,” the stage mu­si­cal, main­tains that in­ti­mate story but with­out the same level of artist/au­di­ence in­ti­macy that Bechdel’s book re­lies upon.

In­deed, as Kron says, “There’s noth­ing soli­tary about mak­ing a mu­si­cal. It is one of the great col­lec­tive en­deav­ors in the world of art-mak­ing.” Nor is there any­thing soli­tary about watch­ing a show with a large au­di­ence in a crowded the­ater.

The re­mark­able feat of “Fun Home” the mu­si­cal, then, is that it so faith­fully trans­lates the feel­ings of soli­tude and alien­ation in Bechdel’s mem­oir us­ing an en­tirely dif­fer­ent set of artis­tic tools, a true tes­ta­ment to the en­tire cre­ative team be­hind the show. De­spite be­ing very much a mu­si­cal — com­plete with mem­o­rable, show-stop­ping num­bers — “Fun Home” still feels like a per­sonal, in­ti­mate re­flec­tion of one fam­ily’s pow­er­ful story of se­crets, sex­u­al­ity and sim­u­lacra.


The na­tional tour­ing com­pany of “Fun Home,” which comes to the Long Cen­ter on Aug. 11-13. The Broad­way hit about sex­ual iden­tity and fam­ily se­crets won the 2015 Tony Award for best mu­si­cal.

From left, Kate Shin­dle, Abby Cor­ri­gan and Carly Gold por­tray the char­ac­ter of Ali­son at dif­fer­ent ages in “Fun Home.”


Carly Gold as Small Ali­son, Robert Petkoff as Bruce and Kate Shin­dle as Ali­son in “Fun Home.”

Kate Shin­dle and Robert Petkoff star in “Fun Home.”

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