It’s currently one of the most talked-about new shows on Broadway, and it’s front-runner to take home the Tony award for Best Musical in June.

It’s a show the New York Times’ chief theatre critic, Ben Brantley, described as an “extraordinary musical, which pumps oxygenating fresh air into the cultural recycling center that is Broadway”.

And it’s based on a graphic novel by American writer, Alison Bechdel, a book that, at one point, was removed from several library bookshelves because of objections to some of its content.

If you’re not aware of Fun Home yet, it’s likely to be a title you won’t forget once the June Radio City Music Hall ceremony has aired. In a season that, like many others, has seen some spectacularly early closings (see Bill Russell and Henry Krieger’s Side Show and Sting’s The Last Ship) and some spectacularly critically-slated works (see the Harvey Weinstein-backed Finding Neverland and Doctor Zhivago), Fun Home is certainly the critic’s darling of this season.

The show tells the story of Bechdel’s life at three stages: firstly, we’re given an insight into Bechdel’s life at the age of eight, living in the family-run funeral home. Secondly, we see Bechdel at age 19, and witness some of her ‘coming of age’ experiences at college. And then there’s 43-year-old Bechdel, who serves as narrator of the piece. Bechdel is a lesbian and, after Bruce, her father’s, death (believed to be a suicide), she learns that he was also gay. Much of the musical is focused on their relationship and Bruce’s own struggles with his identity.

The three Alison Bechdels of ‘Fun Home’ (from left: Sydney Lucas, Beth Malone and Emily Skeggs)
Production image from Broadway.com

 

Award-winning playwright Lisa Kron is responsible for Fun Home’s book and lyrics. It represents her first foray into musical theatre. On the other hand, music for this was contributed by seasoned Broadway composer, Jeanine Tesori. Tesori is best known in musical theatre for her scores for Caroline , or Change, Shrek The Musical and Violet. Direction is from accomplished and highly-awarded director, Sam Gold.

Like most shows that end up in big Broadway houses, Fun Home had its world premiere elsewhere, though, in this case, it was just a little further downtown at New York’s Public Theater. It began in September 2013 to great critical acclaim and extended its run several times. It won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Musical, the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Musical and, in 2014, it was a finalist for the Pulitzer prize for drama.

After its closing, much talk circulated about a potential transfer to Broadway before, finally, late in 2014, it was confirmed that Fun Home would open at the Circle in the Square Theatre in April. Most of the original off-Broadway cast members signed on to reprise their roles.

Fun Home arrives on Broadway with a US$5million budget (AU$6.3million), a modest spend for a typical NYC airing (certainly a stark contrast to The Last Ship’s apparently US$18million budget) It’s staging has had to be completely re-imagined, given the Circle in the Square Theatre’s in-the-round stage set-up. But reports say a supremely good job has been done of making Fun Home work in its new Broadway setting. On April 19, it opened to uniformly positive reviews. In addition to the comments to which I made reference in my intro, Ben Brantley described Fun Home as a show “directed with vivid precision and haunting emotional ambiguity…” High praise indeed! And it’s no minor achievement for Fun Home to have secured the critical accolades it has done, given the notoriously nasty and vicious coven of New York critics, who too often appear to take too great a joy in tearing works to pieces.

Fun home - stage photo

Fun Home ‘in the round’ at Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre
Production image from Broadway.com

Having had the fortune of seeing Fun Home in its Off-Broadway run, I will attest to the fact that this is a beautifully-directed and performed work, accompanied by what would have to be Tesori’s best score to date. Whether it will find the audience it needs for an extended run on Broadway remains to be seen. But on artistic merit, this is a show that certainly deserves it. Its edgier subject matter is a nice contrast from that of most commercial works that tend to draw crowds on the Great White Way. Perhaps 2015 will prove to be precisely the right time and climate for Alison Bechdel’s memoir to take the Broadway stage.

One thing’s for sure. It will win the Tony. You can hold me to that on June 7!

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