Jeanine Tesori is running late, and Sam Gold and Lisa Kron want to set the record straight while they can.
“The first thing to say is that Sam and I have done everything, and Jeanine really has been tangential to the process,” Kron jokes with a laugh. “Ask us a musical question! We could really prove it.”
“We schooled her on the musical theatre,” Gold deadpans.
The playwright and director are obviously kidding—as neither had much professional experience writing or directing a musical before they worked on Fun Home, the dramatic tuner based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir. The show premiered at New York’s Public Theater to rave reviews in 2013, was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and will begin Broadway previews at Circle in the Square Theatre on March 27.
The story explores the complicated relationship between parent and child, specifically father and daughter, as lead character Alison finds herself at about the same age her closeted gay father was when he committed suicide, and she reflects on her own coming out and her similarities to him.
Someone suggested the book to Kron as source material for a musical, and having little experience in the form aside from writing some parody lyrics, she immediately shared the idea with Tesori. Kron had seen Tesori’s Caroline, or Change three times and knew the composer’s musical sophistication was right for the piece. However, Tesori couldn’t immediately picture it as a musical, and Kron’s heart sank. But then Tesori said, “And that’s why I want to do it.”
“I knew that it would sing, and the idea to make it a musical was great, but I had no idea how one would get there,” Tesori explains when she arrives. “It’s sort of like standing at base camp. How the fuck do you get up to 15,000 feet? It really is one step at a time.”
Those steps included a visit to California’s Ojai Playwrights Conference in 2009, where Gold was developing a different project and learned about the show from Tesori and Kron who were there with Fun Home. He later joined the team and took the musical to the Sundance Theatre Lab; that development session was followed by Public Lab presentations before the celebrated production opened in 2013.
Sitting around a table at Lincoln Center, the three collaborators speak about Fun Home as if not a second has passed since the curtain fell downtown. And even though Gold and Kron were musical newbies, their seeming lack of experience led to a reinvention of the form.
“I love people who haven’t done all these musicals,” Tesori says. “I get in my own way with ‘it should be this,’ ‘the opening has to be that.’ It’s too much training. It’s been freeing to have collaborators who are so sophisticated but haven’t done a ton of new musicals, because spontaneity is the greatest gift. Otherwise it turns out to be formulaic.”
Gold admits that he treated the songs and the scenes exactly the same way in his directorial approach, even though the numbers range from heartfelt ballads (“Changing My Major,” “Ring of Keys”) to intimate confessions (“Days and Days,” “Telephone Wire”) to upbeat numbers (“Come to the Fun Home”) to even a fantasy sequence (“Raincoat of Love”).
Gold was deliberate about not making the show seem like a “play with music”—he encouraged Tesori to incorporate music throughout, even in the book scenes. Listening to the original cast recording from the Public’s production, one calculates that about 11 out of 25 tracks are purely dialogue backed by musical compositions.
“I don’t have any sense of what the forms are supposed to be, so I’m just responding to what we were making,” says Gold. “So if I asked for more underscoring, it was just the feeling that I didn’t want the music to go away, and felt the world of the play needed more of it. I wouldn’t have had any idea whether that’s more or less than expected—I didn’t care about any other form except the show we were making.”
Tesori’s background in scoring documentaries was useful in creating Fun Home’s lush underscoring and recurring musical motifs. The opening of the show, when young Alison sings, “Daddy, hey Daddy, come here. Okay? I need you,” was one of the first lines Kron and Tesori wrote together, and the melody is one of the many themes used several times.
Tesori also harkens back to her pre-composing career when she spent time producing music in Nashville with her mentor Buryl Red, as well as her training in classical music and as a player in pop ensembles. “I try to keep honing all those skills,” she adds.
Still, Bechdel’s book presented dramatic challenges to the writing team. Her memoir weaves nonchronological narratives together and relies on memory, which is inherently undramatic, according to Kron.
“That’s something that I’m very interested in—the difference between telling a story and dramatic action,” Kron says. “There was this adult character who was doing things that are very difficult to dramatize—making a book, telling the story of her father, remembering something—how do you dramatize that?”
In the beginning, the musical focused heavily on Alison’s book project, and there was even a number called “Draw” that was cut from the show. Earlier versions also incorporated more drawings and cartoons. One of Gold’s fascinations with the project was the idea of translating the graphic novel form to the stage; instead of relying on projections of drawings—save for one in the finale—he wanted the music to serve the purpose that Bechdel’s pictures do in the book.
“We had to find our own parallel storytelling to Alison’s,” Gold says. “We had to have our own originating impulse, and I felt the music needed to be that impulse, not the imagery of the book.”
Tesori also drew inspiration from the cartoons to write her score. “There’s a beauty in the line, and it’s not so dense,” Tesori notes, comparing Bechdel’s drawings to Maurice Sendak’s early work. “There’s a way that the reader completes the line, and that to me is a theatrical experience.”
While Gold relied on music instead of cartoons, he did take inspiration from the graphic novel form. Kron and Tesori came up with the conceit of the three Alisons—three actresses play the main character as a youth, during her college years and in middle age—but the story does not move sequentially.
“In a graphic novel you have several ways of conveying information—the visual information, the frame, and then the thought bubbles inside that frame and the caption below it. The story gets told through juxtaposition,” Gold explains. “This is a musical that happens in three timelines simultaneously, and all three of them have to live at the same time, so we could be bold about conveying dramatic information through the juxtaposition. This event’s happening: What does it mean that this person from a whole other time and place is in relation to it?”
The most explicit example of this idea occurs when college-age Alison comes home with her new girlfriend to visit her family. This is the last time Alison will see her father Bruce before he kills himself by jumping in front of a truck. When her dad asks her to go for a drive, the actress playing adult Alison (Beth Malone) steps into the scene and sings the song “Telephone Wire,” about her last night with her dad.
Adult Alison performs the number because only she knows this will be her last chance to talk with her father and regrets not speaking up during that ride. This was the moment when the two narrative levels—Alison’s memory moving backward on one, and her life moving forward on the other—met for Tesori. Nothing, the composer figures, will ever be as hard as finding the order of this story.
“It was the worst!” Tesori exclaims. “This show cannot be modular. Something has to happen in order for this to happen, and then this and then this. I felt so underprepared for this kind of storytelling, because I couldn’t find my own way of answering the why? There are some parts where I’m like, I don’t know how we found that. We just kept at it.”
Gold, Kron and Tesori were grateful to have many opportunities to work with actors and designers before they reached production. “The only way that this could have been made was on its feet,” Kron explains. “You just never knew with this show until you put it on its feet what was going to have life in it and what was going to be dead, because it is told through those physical juxtapositions.”
Still, even with several readings and workshops, Kron and Tesori were rewriting right up until the very moment they had to freeze the show, and Gold remembers making staging changes until the 11th hour before opening at the Public.
“The day that we were freezing the show, we had rehearsal from 1 to 5, and I was putting so much into the show. At 4:53, I had one thing left on my list, and that was to restage the entirety of ‘Ring of Keys.’ With seven minutes left, working with a 10-year-old, I restaged the song and got it in. You do that in the theatre. Something that’s going to live there for so long was made in a split second.”
But for Broadway, Gold will need to restage the entire show. While the Public’s Newman Theatre is a proscenium, Circle in the Square (as its name suggests) is in the round, and instead of employing the turntable he used Off-Broadway, Gold is reimagining the production for the new space.
One of the most poignant lyrics in the show is Alison’s comment on her father, “I can draw a circle, his whole life fits inside,” and that idea of the cyclical nature of the story led Gold to originally rely on the turntable. When he put the set model from the Newman into Circle in the Square, he realized that the theatre itself could serve a similar purpose.
“If it was written to be done in the round, it probably would have been a slightly easier process somehow,” Gold figures. “There is something very satisfying to me about moving uptown but making it more intimate and simpler. You can’t just make something in a vacuum and stick it anywhere—and we didn’t want the originating impulse to get watered down along the way. So I think, knock on wood, we’re in a really lucky place where we have an opportunity to make it feel like it was organic.”
This is not only Kron’s first musical—it’s also one of the few shows she’s done in which her own autobiography is not the basis for the piece. Her one-woman show 2.5 Minute Ride centers on “the Kron family album,” and her play Well, in which she also appeared on Broadway, is about her mother. Therefore, many have blindly assumed that Fun Home is also her story. “It’s famously Alison Bechdel’s!” she corrects them with a laugh.
“The thing that Alison and I have most in common as artists is that we are interested in the impulse behind the construction of narrative, and how we construct and question those personal narratives,” explains Kron. “Telling this story of her as an artist and what it means to work in that way was a central thing that I was interested in.”
However, Bechdel was not involved in the Fun Home creative process. “She so perfectly and amazingly left us alone with her baby and let us do this other thing,” Kron continues. “She was available if we had questions, and she offered us a lot of extremely helpful material and let us use it in whatever way. It was a remarkable act of trust, and it wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.”
Kron and Tesori drew some from their own youthful experiences and particularly enjoyed obsessing over the minutiae of growing up in the 1970s. Tesori derived a lot of inspiration from the female singer/songwriters who emerged during that time, including Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Melissa Manchester. “I hope to continue the tradition, in a theatrical way, of what those women were doing,” she says.
The fact that there are very few father/daughter narratives portrayed onstage is something Gold finds shocking. Over the course of the piece’s development, he became a father to a daughter, which “completely shifted my emotional connection to the piece.”
“There’s always been this question about Alison’s work—why is it so universally powerful to people?” Gold continues. “She has such an idiosyncratic life story, but she’s tapping into something I hadn’t even thought about—that story of father/daughter love that hasn’t really been brought up in dramatic literature.”
For Tesori, that story and its tensions are the essence of what she has been trying to explore in each of her projects. “You have to work a lot of shit out before you can attempt that kind of story,” she says. “I finally have the craft available to me to be able to examine, with complete authenticity, my family relationships, and other stories that I feel must be universal in the same way. That yearning between parent and child—what happens when it’s unfulfilled, what suicide is like, watching your parent numb out, and so on—you have the rest of your life to figure it out and write stories about it. That’s absolutely my career in a nutshell.”
Then, with a sweeping movement of her hand, she (jokingly?) exclaims, “And now I announce my retirement!”
But Kron is quick to come back. “Not if I have anything to do with it.”