Ellie Wilson and Emily Zinkin review the graphic novel and musical of Fun Home, Alison Bechdel’s widely acclaimed autobiography
There are several reasons why you have probably heard the name Alison Bechdel. She invented the Bechdel test, which gauges the feminist credentials of a piece of media on whether two women characters talk to each other about something that isn’t a man. You might think that’s a low bar (it deliberately is) but it’s astonishing the number of things that still don’t pass.
She also wrote and illustrated the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For from 1983 to 2008. Dykes to Watch Out For features a diverse cast, most of whom are lesbians, as they go about their lives and react to current public affairs. It has a cult following.
Her much-acclaimed autobiography, Fun Home, is a graphic novel exploring her childhood and her relationship with her father who, she discovers just having come out herself in college, has been having affairs with men. It was turned into a musical by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori which was first performed in the USA in 2013, picking up five Tony Awards in 2015. This year it finally transferred to London and runs at the Young Vic until 1 September.
Both the graphic novel and the musical are loved for their own merits, but how does consuming one before the other affect how both are viewed? Emily Zinkin read the graphic novel before seeing the Young Vic production and Ellie Wilson saw the musical before reading the graphic novel. They compare their experiences below.
Ellie Wilson’s response:
I haven’t read Fun Home the graphic novel before I see Fun Home the musical, but neither have I done much of any other background reading. I know who Alison Bechdel is and that the musical cleaned up at the Tony Awards several years ago. I’ve also been thoroughly impressed by a YouTube video of its best-known number, ‘Ring of Keys’, in which a young Alison sees her first butch lesbian and feels an immediate pull she doesn’t yet have words for.
A month before I see the show, I come out as bisexual; Fun Home becomes part of my post-coming out immersion into queer pop culture and I’m curious to see if I’ll relate to Alison’s experience.
Directed by Sam Gold, the Young Vic production is restrained and intimate as musicals go, with an onstage cast of just 11. The set, for most of the show, is minimal and versatile. Although I’ve stuffed toilet paper in my pockets in readiness, I don’t cry; for a show about not having closure, a lot of it is reassuring.
I am particularly blown away by Zubin Varla as Alison’s father Bruce, swinging between intellectual, patriarchal, brusque, desperate and childish. You can absolutely feel the magnetic effect that such a mercurial nature has on his daughter – the pull of a toxic relationship, the devastation, the walking on eggshells, all for the hope that the good times will come back.
While I am hyped for ‘Ring of Keys’, and Brooke Haynes as Small Alison does indeed knock it out of the park, the show’s standout number for me is Jenna Russell as Alison’s mother Helen confessing how much she’s lost to Bruce’s self-destructive behaviour in ‘Days and Days’. A powerful singer, she masterfully combines raw anguish with the authority of a woman who’s spent two decades as a mother.
I am not entirely convinced by the two peppiest numbers, although they break up a show that’s otherwise pretty heavy. ‘Come to the Fun Home’ is a sweet and funny way to illustrate the weirdness of growing up around a funeral home, but it goes on a little too long. ‘Raincoat of Love’, a surreal, glittery imagination sequence, feels disconnected and doesn’t add as much as it could.
In comparison, Fun Home the graphic novel is intellectual and detached, like the classical literature that Alison and her father are constantly reading. Written Alison as narrator echoes her father much more closely than Alison onstage, to the point of critiquing herself mid-page for using too florid a metaphor for a fraught event in her childhood. In her drawn depiction of herself, Alison rarely smiles; onstage, she’s full of childish joie de vivre or the enthusiasm of an 18-year-old.
I know Bechdel fully supports the musical, but I can’t help feeling that in her shoes I’d find it embarrassing to see my memoir injected with drama in this way – especially when it’s clear that Bechdel went to great lengths to be accurate, right down to the kind of popcorn maker her family had when she was a child.
Like the musical, the novel flits between anecdotes and time periods in a conversational way, but it’s much more grounded in its temporal setting of the 1960s and 1970s. I see more of myself in the musical, possibly because it’s been intentionally written for a modern queer audience.
What the show does capture is the book’s raw honesty. The graphic novel deals intimately with Bechdel’s obsessive compulsions, her first period, masturbation experiments and sexual experiences; it doesn’t dodge a naked corpse, Bruce’s bad behaviour and possible suicide, awkward family dynamics or any other kind of dirty laundry. The result is that Fun Home onstage is fresh and real in a way that musicals sometimes are not.
Musicals – Hamilton notwithstanding – still have a reputation, at least with me, as contrived, glitzy celebrations of white patriarchy. Fun Home doesn’t just give Broadway its first lesbian protagonist; it shows her in bed with a woman – and in this production it is a black woman, Cherrelle Skeete, who plays Joan with a swagger and tenderness that has every queer lady in the audience swooning. When Alison jumps excitedly up and down in her underwear after having sex for the first time, there isn’t a hint of objectification. It is refreshing and authentic and honestly, so lovely.
So, which version first? I may be biased, but I like the way I do it. I get to enjoy the musical for itself rather than as an adaptation and appreciate its heightened emotions without comparing it to the book’s extreme detachment. This way, reading the book is a way to explore the story further and think a little deeper. Either way, this is a story that will pull things out of you that you didn’t know were there.
Emily Zinkin’s response:
I loved the graphic novel of Fun Home when I read it. Despite its blue-grey wash and the measured tone of the narrator, it’s a lush and rich exploration of many themes both personal and familial. The graphic novel is a long read, and took Bechdel seven years to complete, with many internal references and thematic threads. I have a hard time understanding how the Young Vic will translate it to stage, but they do it and do it brilliantly.
The first thing I notice is the sheer life in the characters on stage; Bechdel drew her characters with quite neutral expressions, whether out of stylistic choice or to show the monotone quality of her family life that made it all seem very normal at the time. There is a scene when her brother and her smile at each other after their father’s death which comes across as quite ghoulish compared to the rest of the book’s mostly flat facial expressions. I’ve been slightly worried the musical will come off quite Brechtian with any similar avoidance of facial expressions, but instead it is quite jarring at first to see all the characters of Bechdel’s family come across as so alive and so colourful.
Bechdel takes quite a musing tone of voice when narrating her graphic novel, making connections between memories almost as if she’s sorting out the threads herself, whereas the stage production brings us directly into the narrative from the opening number. Both have very different effects on the viewer. As a reader of the graphic novel there is a distance from events, as Bechdel is processing things that happened years before and is making the connections and commentary in hindsight. In the stage production the events viscerally happen right in front of the audience, from the abuse to the affection, without the more neutral quality.
This immediacy is wonderful for bringing parts of the story, like the primal joy of Bechdel’s relationship with her first girlfriend Joan, to life – the character’s unencumbered leaping with glee in ‘I’m Changing My Major (To Joan)’ is elating to watch – and also means instances only mentioned in the graphic novel are made much more real to the audience.
In the show, adult Alison Bechdel is a visible narrator, standing before us creating Fun Home. It is strange to see this version of Bechdel, only text commentary in the graphic novel, turned into part of the narrative. It is slightly uncomfortable, as it adds her imagined angst when creating it to the story. It is very well done – when the father in the past addresses adult Alison and they share a car ride through the song ‘Telephone Wires’ I am tearing up – and shows that the emotional implications of what happened extend well into adulthood. But it also makes a real person into a character and I feel like it takes the power of her narrative away from Bechdel.
The other part of the graphic novel I am curious to see translated from page to stage is the circling narrative, which moves from childhood to college and back again, revisiting moments, making connections and drawing threads between different memories. It’s a very in-depth quality that means a reader can find something new every time they read the graphic novel, but could have been quite confusing on stage.
Instead, the production takes three threads and interweaves them; Small Alison (played by Brooke Haynes and Harriet Turnbull), Medium Alison (played by Eleanor Kane) and the Alison Bechdel in the process of creating Fun Home, (played by Kaisa Hammarlund).
This gives a more linear approach to the story, making it easier to process and come together more neatly. However, some of the meandering quality of the graphic novel is lost and inevitably some things are left out. The shocking revelation that Bechdel’s father is gay and that he killed himself comes early on in both, but the graphic novel looks at the incident and what happened afterwards, whereas the play leads the audience to the death itself as the concluding event.
It is also nice to see a slightly less white cast on the stage than in the graphic novel, but by changing up the casting of both Bruce’s various male love interests (played by Ashley Samuels) and Joan, it does mean all the black characters are sexualised. Another choice in the musical that makes me slightly uncomfortable is having college Alison not want to be gay. The graphic novel has one of the few coming-out narratives I’ve read that doesn’t involve denial and terror, so this choice seems to detract from that. Clearly a greater variety of queer stories is needed.
Finally, by showing us Bechdel’s parents without Bechdel’s lens, the audience gets more of a look into their internal lives. Helen’s silence and struggle come out beautifully and ‘Days and Days’ is a tour de force way to finish the character’s narrative. Bruce’s final song before dying is the last real narrative event. Rather than just Bechdel’s speculation and memory, they are brought to life in front of the audience, but that does mean adding things. It is done brilliantly, but as with any dramatisation of a real person’s life, the ethical implications are always up for debate.
Both the graphic novel and Young Vic production of Fun Home are excellent. Despite both being the same story, the two forms bring it to life very differently. The graphic novel is an exploration of memory and an attempt to make sense and connect past experiences; the stage production brings the characters and events to bright, colourful life in front of you.
Both images are copyright Marc Brenner, courtesy of the Young Vic and show Fun Home the musical.
Image one shows Brooke Haynes as Small Alison balancing on the upturned feet of Zubin Varla as her father who is lying on the floor. Her arms are held out sideways as if she is impersonating an aeroplane. To their right is Kaisa Hammarlund as Alison Bechdel holding a sketchbook under her arm and addressing the audience. Behind them we can see some domestic furniture and the rest of the stage is in darkness.
Image two is of Eleanor Kane as Medium Alison and Cherrelle Skeete as Joan. They stand facing each other. Most of the stage behind them is in darkness but a lamp on a table can just be seen to the left of them and the top edge of a bed in front. Kane on the left wears blue jeans and a red and white striped polo shirt; she has short brown hair. Skeete on the right has a green patterned cardigan and black jeans; her dark hair is swept up into a ‘faux hawk’.