Page to Stage: The Making of Fun Home
By Sabine Decatur, Production Dramaturg
A radical playwright, a Tony-nominated composer, and a lesbian cartoonist walk into a theater...
Fun Home has taken the theater world by storm since its Broadway debut in 2015. It has been lauded across the board for its innovations of the musical theater form, as well as for its all-female writing team and its tender representation of queer stories. But this overnight success certainly didn’t happen overnight; the show came out of a nearly 10-year artistic collaboration between three brilliant artists—Lisa Kron, Jeanine Tesori, and Alison Bechdel. Their long and arduous process spanned time, space, and form as they worked to create the Fun Home that you see today.
Alison Bechdel describes herself as a “careful archivist of my own life,” and true to that characterization, she spent seven years making sure that each detail she wrote down in her memoir was just right. In Fun Home—the graphic novel—she recreates photos and furniture, transcribes books and letters, and painstakingly recalls every moment of her interactions with her family. “A number of people have pointed out to me that the compulsive attention I paid the house while I was doing the book was exactly what my dad had done,” she says. “If my details were accurate enough, and true enough, and I had worked hard enough, then my readers could enter my world without reservation, could trust that I was telling them as much truth as possible.”
The resulting book is a complex and dense memoir told through detailed illustrations, poetic language, and a winding journey towards Alison’s and her father’s truths. Obviously, the work paid off: when it came out in 2006, Fun Home made top rankings across a range of publications and was even named “Book of the Year” by Time.
Bechdel never suspected that Fun Home could have a life beyond the page. Even after she started getting commercial interest, it wasn’t until acclaimed playwright-performer Lisa Kron and Tony-nominated composer Jeanine Tesori approached her that she even considered an adaptation:
It seemed harmless enough. I had turned down a movie on the grounds that if it wasn’t good it would be awful to have it out there in the world, this terrible version of my most intimate history. But a musical? I was naïve. I thought: if it’s a bad musical, it will just disappear.
Part of Bechdel’s initial hesitation was also about the representation of lesbians in the arts. Historically lesbians, and in particular butch lesbians, have been reduced to objects of ridicule in popular culture. But Lisa Kron’s long history of writing and performing roles for queer women, including as co-founder of the landmark Five Lesbian Brothers theater company, was reassuring to Bechdel.
From the get-go, we had conversations about butch representation, and how impossible that has been historically. When you would see lesbians in a play or a movie they would be played by a straight actress who didn’t get it, who couldn’t quite go there. So we knew that was going to be an issue. And I knew that Lisa would be the person to make that happen, if anyone could.
And thus with Bechdel’s blessing, in 2009, Fun Home started its five year journey to Broadway. “It was nothing but problems,” Kron said of the adaptation process. Bechdel’s novel is not the obvious choice for musical theater; its nonlinear structure, its visual and literary focus, and its highly sensitive subject matter make it an unlikely candidate. But Kron and Tesori saw its theatrical potential and the too-rare opportunity to use musical theater to tell a queer story, and they elected to take the risk. From the Ojai Playwrights Conference in California to the Sundance Institute’s Theater Lab in Florida to the Public Theater in New York, Fun Home grew and developed in their capable hands.
Unlike most classic musical theater, Fun Home’s storyline is structured around an emotional journey rather than a chronological one. “The graphic novel is filled with thousands of cells that tell stories within themselves,” Tesori points out. “How is it going to be in a long arc instead of in these little bits and pieces? And how are we going to tell that in a theatrical way? It took the full five years to really figure that out.” Over the years, they used maps, charts, and index cards to test out different story structures, working to pare down the plot into something that could be performed by one cast and consumed in one sitting. “With a novel you can pick it up and put it down, but with live theater the demands of that form are based on the fact that you are holding people’s attention hostage,” Kron says. “You are responsible for their consciousness.” In the process, scenes were melded together, characters were combined or omitted, and details of chronology were smudged—until all that was left was one concise and cohesive act of theater.
Kron and Tesori also wrestled with how to portray the complex and subtext-filled emotional lives of Bechdel’s characters. Bechdel’s caption commentary gives us the subtext, but the creative duo was left to fill in the actual text of the scene. In fact, Lisa Kron says:
There are no scenes in the book of Fun Home. There are moments in time. There’s a frame where a kid is eating a bowl of cereal and a parent is leaving and then you have Alison’s narrative voice…That’s not a scene. The story has to be told through the actions of characters who are unaware of the defining moment of what’s going to happen in the future. What do they do? What do they talk about? So material had to be generated.
Even just the fact of putting bodies onstage required a deeper dive into the characters. Helen, who works well as a supporting character in the book, needed more material in order to come to life theatrically. Bruce, whose fits of anger are balanced by stretches of vulnerability in the novel, became disproportionately cruel when his violence was experienced live. Alison, whose queer identity is clear in the novel, necessitated an exploration of what it means to represent a butch lesbian experience.
Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori met these adaptation challenges head-on; even after a long developmental process, they attended every preview during the Off-Broadway run, making edits right up until opening night. Now, as productions of Fun Home echo across the country, conversations like these continue through every directing, design, and dramaturgical choice.
When Bechdel agreed to the musical, she removed herself from the process, ceding any creative control. She had actually nearly forgotten about it until she received a script and CD in the mail. Luckily, she was pleasantly surprised by the end result. “That first moment of hearing it: I just felt it was this great gift. I felt seen,” she says in an interview. “I think there should be a kind of therapy where people hire playwrights and composers to make musical theater of their sad childhoods.”
In some ways, comics and musicals feel like a perfect match, Bechdel reflects: “I wonder if it is because of the way two registers collide. In a musical, you have drama and music. In comics, writing and pictures. They operate differently, but with the same power.” The emotional honesty in her captions is reflected in the rawness of music, the heightened imagery of the drawings comes through in fantastical sequences, and the complex subtext manifests in the contrast between music and text. From here, it looks like Fun Home the musical was meant to be.
“I think there should be a kind of therapy where people hire playwrights and composers to make musical theater of their sad childhoods.”
In a review of Fun Home in its graphic novel form, writer Sean Wilsey comments that “the true memoirist's mission, like the novelist's, is not so much establishing factuality as getting to the heart and truth of something.” Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori took this sentiment to heart in their Fun Home; the script is full of details from Bechdel’s memoir, but their music and lyrics allow the emotional truth to take center stage. And anyway, as Bechdel says, “even the things they made up feel true to me.”