CW: sexual assault, child abuse, suicide, homophobia.
2015 was a great year in the history of musical theatre, possibly the greatest year of this century for the genre. Why, you ask? Because that was the year that Fun Home first opened on Broadway. (Oh, and a little thing called Hamilton opened that year too).
As much as I love Hamilton, there is a part of me that feels that Fun Home achieves something that Lin Manuel Miranda’s magnum opus never quite can. Every time I listen to it, the musical connects with me on the rawest and most visceral level, leaving me both uplifted and emotionally devastated by the end. The musical won five Tony Awards, including ‘best new musical’, so is hardly bereft of critical acclaim. But I want to ask the question of what makes it so great. Does it resonate with me personally because of my own journey with my sexuality, or are its explorations of queer desire and coming out in fact more universal?
The musical, written by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, is adapted from Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir. Indeed, it is the first Broadway musical with a lesbian protagonist. It tells a true story in a non-linear and comic-book-style fashion about Bechdel’s closeted father killing himself due to his sexuality at roughly the same time Bechdel herself came out as gay.
It doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, yet the musical’s greatest strength is how it is always able to see the light in the darkness. Songs like ‘Come to the Fun Home’, performed by the child actors in the production, is a comic tour-de-force that cannot help but put a smile on your face. The title itself encapsulates the tonal complexity of the production. ‘Fun Home’ is a euphemism for a funeral parlour, but the show’s creators Jeanine Tesori and List Krone’s never lost sight of the ‘fun’.
In fact, it does something which happens so infrequently in terms of media representation of gay characters— it portrays coming-out as ultimately a rewarding and positive experience. Shows like Angels in America or the new BBC drama It’s a Sin are brilliant depictions of the AIDS crisis and should be essential viewing for everyone to understand the struggles that the LGBT community went through, don’t get me wrong. On the other end of the spectrum, films like Love, Simon (although a major milestone in terms of major motion pictures including gay characters as protagonists) exploit the coming-out narrative in attempt to artificially add melodrama to an almost non-existent plot. But people who identify as LGBTQIA+ need narratives that show us it does get better. We don’t need to live forever in shame like Bruce (Alison’s father); we will find love and acceptance, and it is often at the points in our lives that we are least expecting to find it.
The show’s masterpiece of a song, ‘Changing My Major’, best illustrates the point. At this point in the show, Alison has just had her first sexual encounter at college with a woman called Joan; the song begins with witty lyrics such as ‘We don’t need any food / We’ll live on sex alone / Sex with Joan!’ before shifting into a different region altogether: ‘Am I falling into nothingness or flying into something so sublime?’. Indeed, the line is repeated later on in the show in Bruce’s song ‘Edges of the World’, just moments before he steps in front of the truck. While he cannot save himself from ‘falling into nothingness’, it is the imagery of flying that dominates the musical. The show opens with a child Alison flying her toy airplanes around the house and being lifted into the sky balancing on her father’s legs, singing ‘I want to fly airplane’. Alison’s queer identity for her, and indeed the audience, becomes ‘sublime’. She doesn’t sink; she soars.
Fun Home therefore contrasts her dad’s inability to accept himself and his resulting suicide, with Alsion’s coming out experience as something exciting that ultimately gives her a sense of meaning in life. If Bruce hadn’t been so ashamed of himself, life could have got much better for him, just as it does for Alison. Yet Bruce’s shame is not only to do with the fact that he is gay — and it is here where the nuance lies. There is an implication throughout the show that he has sex with underage males. His ‘fall into nothingness’ is a mixture of his guilt about his sexual abuse of minors and his marital infidelity as well as his inability to accept his sexuality. The show doesn’t try to simplify the moral complexities of the issues it deals with. Alison achieves a sense of catharsis through her plunge into her memories. She both learns to forgive her father and sympathise with him, despite all the problematic aspects of his character, and his tendency to bully his daughter— and we, as an audience, are encouraged to do the same.
The most upsetting part of the show in many ways is the scene in which Bruce forces his daughter (at this point still a child) to wear a dress rather than the trousers she wants to wear to a children’s party. Bruce inflicts all his pent-up years of shame and internalised homophobia onto his daughter. By trying to save her from being teased by other children, he actually damages her emotionally in ways that will take years for Alison to truly realise and process. Internalised homophobia begins far earlier than most realise, at an age where many children don’t even know what being ‘gay’ actually is— all the more reason why LGBT-inclusive curriculums in primary schools are especially important.
I first listened to the musical at a low point in my own life. Rewind back to May last year, we were all still learning how to cope with the demands of self-isolation. But what was weighing on my mind more was that I was still not out to my family. And I was very lucky: they’ve all been very accepting and supportive of me. Fun Home shows us that all families inevitably have secrets— both parents keeping secrets from their children and children keeping secrets from their parents and, arguably, this is why Fun Home is a universal story. Everyone can see something in Alison’s story, even if they personally don’t have to go through the process of coming out in their lifetime.
Image Credit: Marc Brenner.