The Coming-Out Memoir That Became a Hit Broadway Musical

In a Democracy Now! special, we look at the acclaimed Broadway musical Fun Home, which swept the Tony Awards last month. Composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist Lisa Kron made history as the first female duo to win a Tony Award for Best Original Score. Fun Home is also the first-ever Broadway musical to feature a lesbian protagonist. The musical is based on the 2006 best-selling graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. The memoir is a poignant exploration of family, memory, first love, coming out and a daughter’s relationship with her father. The title comes from the Bechdels’ nickname for their family business: a funeral parlor. Throughout the memoir, Bechdel – the artist and protagonist – sketches out her hazy memories of growing up in rural Pennsylvania and coming to terms with her sexuality as she tries to make sense of her father’s suicide. Her father was secretly gay and took his life shortly after Bechdel came out as a lesbian. We speak to Bechdel, Kron and Tesori, and air highlights from the Broadway musical.

TRANSCRIPT:

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In a Democracy Now! special, we turn now to the acclaimed Broadway musical Fun Home, which swept the Tony Awards last month. Composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist Lisa Kron made history as the first female duo to win a Tony Award for best musical score. Fun Home is also the first-ever Broadway musical to feature a lesbian protagonist. This is a video montage from the hit performance.

SMALL ALISON: [played by Sydney Lucas, singing] I wanna play airplane
I wanna play airplane
I wanna play airplane
I wanna put my arms out and fly
Like the Red Baron in his Sopwith Camel
No, wait
Like Superman up in the sky
‘Til I can see all of Pennsylvania

ALISON: [played by Beth Malone] Caption –
My dad and I were exactly alike.

SMALL ALISON: I see everything!

ALISON: Caption –
My dad and I were nothing alike.

[singing] Maps show you what is simple and true
Try laying out a bird’s eye view
Not what he told you
Just what you see
What do you know
That’s not your dad’s mythology?

BRUCE: [played by Michael Cerveris, singing] I guess I’m older.
And it’s harder when you’re older to begin
Peeling plaster,
Sagging roof,
Two missing stairs,
A buckled wall.
I’m fired up to do this,
But on my own for it all
So much damage,
Broken windows,
Pipes are [bleep],
Crap veneer.
It’s hours later,
Jesus, I’m still standing here.

SMALL ALISON: [singing] Your swagger and your bearing
and the just right clothes you’re wearing
Your short hair and your dungarees
And your lace up boots.
And your keys oh
Your ring of keys.
I know you
I know you
I know you

AMY GOODMAN: The musical is based on the 2006 best-selling graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. The memoir is a poignant exploration of family, memory, first love, coming out and a daughter’s relationship with her father. The title comes from the Bechdels’ nickname for their family business: a funeral home. Throughout the memoir, Alison Bechdel, the artist and protagonist, sketches out her hazy memories of growing up in rural Pennsylvania and coming to terms with her own sexuality as she tries to make sense of her father’s suicide. Her father was secretly gay and took his life shortly after Alison came out as a lesbian. Incidents are told and retold in light of new information, each panel painstakingly drawn in black line art with a grey-green ink wash. In the musical, Bechdel is depicted by three actresses at different stages of her life. Before Fun Home, Bechdel was best known for her long-running comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For. Last year, she won a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant.”

Well, Nermeen Shaikh and I interviewed Alison Bechdel, along with Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, who adapted the memoir for Broadway. I started by asking Alison Bechdel to talk about her life story as she tells it in Fun Home.

ALISON BECHDEL: It’s my story of my childhood, basically, growing up in Pennsylvania with my dad, my closeted father, and realizing that I was a lesbian, realizing that I was this different kind of kid, growing up. It was a story that felt – I felt like I could not tell that story for a long time, because it was revealing these very intimate family secrets. People didn’t know about my father’s sexuality. People didn’t know that he had killed himself. And actually, no one is absolutely certain it was a suicide; we just – the family sort of feels that’s what it was. He was hit by a truck. So those felt like very problematic things to make public. And I had felt for a long time like this was a story that was somehow important, to me, personally, but just also a culturally important story somehow, because it just – it showed how differently my generation of gay people could go on to live their lives, as opposed to my father’s generation, who – you know, he came of age in the ’50s, on the other side of this great watershed moment of the Stonewall rebellion. And I came of age on the other side, and I got to be out, you know, have a sort of whole, happy life. And my father didn’t get to do that. So it’s kind of a book about those different historical paths.

AMY GOODMAN: When did you understand that your father was gay?

ALISON BECHDEL: Well, that was the strange part, was I didn’t find out until I came out to my family as a lesbian when I was in college. And my mother told me. My father never really had a very direct conversation with me about it. And this all happened in a very condensed little period of time. I came out to my parents in February, and in July my father died. So there was a lot of upheaval in my family, in my personal psyche. And the book is a way of going back and trying to sort out that incredibly confusing time.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: What do you think the different things are, to the extent that you can identify them, that led you to decide to make these things public? I mean, you say, which is true, that it’s culturally a very important story, but the work that preceded this one, to what extent were you preparing yourself to make more and more revelations, as it were, about your private life?

ALISON BECHDEL: Well, yeah, I think that I was, in some sense, preparing to tell this story over the course of two decades of writing my comic strip. I made a decision soon after I got out of college to draw this lesbian comic strip. I liked drawing cartoons. I was coming out as a lesbian, getting very involved in the feminist and lesbian activities and stuff here in New York City. I lived here in New York in the early ’80s. And I started publishing these cartoons about people like me and my friends. And –

AMY GOODMAN: Why did you call it Dykes to Watch Out For?

ALISON BECHDEL: I can’t even remember. It was just a – just something that came off the top of my head. I had this friend in college who I would write letters to and started drawing some of these early prototypes of the comics. She somehow inspired this certain kind of silly mood. And I just labeled one of these crazy lesbians “Dykes to Watch Out For, Plate Number 27,” even though I had – that was the first one I had drawn, and I didn’t have 26 other ones. It just struck me as funny. And, you know, I like it’s got a double meaning. It’s like, oh, look out for them, they’re great, and look out for them, or you’ll get in trouble. You know?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: You also said, in another interview, that in writing Fun Home, you wanted to give your father a, quote, “proper funeral.”

ALISON BECHDEL: Yeah. I mean, when my father died, it was under the cloud of all these misunderstandings. You know, I felt like people didn’t know who he really was, what his life had really been like. And we had this bizarre, very conventional funeral for him in our family funeral home, which felt just wrong to me. I mean, I don’t know. I had grown up in the funeral business, and we would always kind of joke about, I don’t know, just how kind of bizarre American mourning rituals are, that they really are not very helpful.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to a clip from Fun Home, “Come to the Fun Home,” from the musical. You and your brothers perform this.

SMALL ALISON: Fun Home commercial. Take seven million billion thousand.

JOHN: [played by Zell Steele Morrow, singing] Your uncle died
You’re feeling low
You’ve got to bury your momma
but you don’t know where to go
Your papa needs his final rest
You got you got you got to give them the best
Oh

SMALL ALISON AND CHRISTIAN: [played by Sydney Lucas and Oscar Williams, singing] Come to the Fun Home

JOHN: [singing] That’s the Bechdel Funeral Home, baby

SMALL ALISON AND CHRISTIAN: [singing] The Bechdel Fun Home

JOHN: [singing] Next to Baker’s Department Store

THREE KIDS: [singing] In Beech Creek!

SMALL ALISON AND CHRISTIAN: [singing] The Bechdel Fun Home

JOHN: [singing] We take dead bodies ev’ry day of the week so

THREE KIDS: [singing] You’ve got no reason to roam
Use the Bechdel Funeral Home
What it is, what it is
hoo hoo hoo
What it is, what it is now, baby

SMALL ALISON AND CHRISTIAN: [singing] Sock it to me
Sock it to me
Sock it to me

AMY GOODMAN: “Come to the Fun Home.” That’s from the musical, Fun Home, and we’re going to speak with the women who wrote the book, who wrote the music, the lyrics and the music. But right now we’re talking to Alison Bechdel. Now, this – is this very far from what you did? I mean, reading the tragicomic, reading Fun Home, you guys did perform.

ALISON BECHDEL: Well, we certainly played around in the funeral home. I mean, it was this, you know, funny stage set, in a way, like always waiting for a funeral to happen. And we had carts that we’d push around and play with, that the folding chairs went on. And, you know, it was a fun place to play. And when Lisa Kron wrote the play, she focused in on that really fun aspect.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, let’s go to another clip from the song, “It All Comes Back,” from the musical, Fun Home.

ALISON: [played by Beth Malone, singing] There’s you.
And there’s me.
But now I’m the one who’s forty-three
And stuck.
I can’t find my way through.
Just like you.
Am I just like you?

BRUCE: [played by Michael Cerveris, singing] A sign that he was here
And made his work.

ALISON: [singing] I can’t abide romantic notions
Of some vague long ago.

BRUCE AND ALISON: [singing] I want to know what’s true,
Dig deep into who
And what
And why
And when
Until now gives way to then.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was a clip from “It All Comes Back” from the musical, Fun Home.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Alison Bechdel. Now, tell us about your dad. When it comes to his secret gay life, it was more than that. And talk about the young men he’d bring into the house and what you understood.

ALISON BECHDEL: Well, my father – my father was a high school teacher, and I later learned that he was carrying on with some of his underage students, you know, kids in like 11th grade or something. And he’d almost gotten in – he had got arrested once for buying a kid a drink, but really I think it was an issue of him, you know, having some sexual stuff going on with this boy. So there was always this threat that it was going to become public. And what would happen to my family and my mother?

AMY GOODMAN: He was charged?

ALISON BECHDEL: He was charged just with the underage drinking, not with anything else. So my mother was living with this constant anxiety that somehow this was going to become public, and there was just a great deal of strain.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go to the song about your mom. And maybe you can weigh in here before we turn to this. Your mother isn’t a – is not the pre-eminent figure in the play, in the musical, but you ended up writing a book about her, Are You My Mother? It’s not – she’s not the main figure in Fun Home. So before we talk about this really revealing song, which is the highlight for the figure who’s your mother, talk about her.

ALISON BECHDEL: Oh, my mother was an amazing person. I keep thinking, what would it be like for her to see this play? She died two years ago, just before it opened at The Public. And I think it would have been very, very painful for her to see the play. But my mother was also an actress. Like that was – she was a high school teacher by profession, but her passion was for acting. And she would often be doing summer stock as I was growing up. So it’s funny to me that she’s become a character on the stage. You know, I think she would have gotten a big kick out of that, in a way.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask a second part. It’s to do with how your mother related to your father in raising the three of you, because, in a sense, she was a counterforce. She knew there was something wrong.

ALISON BECHDEL: Yeah. Oh, I don’t know. I feel like I could probably write 17 more books about my family and what exactly was going on. But my mother, yeah, she knew about my father’s relationships with these boys and men, and, I think, considered leaving at some point but couldn’t. You know, she had three kids. She consulted with the family doctor, with her priest, and everyone said, “Oh, you’ve got to stay, stay with your husband.” So, she was a very dutiful person, and she did that.

AMY GOODMAN: Though didn’t she tell him she was going to leave him a few weeks before –

ALISON BECHDEL: And finally, part of this crazy constellation of events in this few months between when I came out and when my father died, one of those things was my mother finally decided she had had it, and she asked my father for a divorce. So, that’s part of why we think that he probably intentionally stepped in front of the truck. It’s just suddenly striking me as very unseemly that I’m going around talking about my family like this, even though I’ve written a book and now they’re in a play. But somehow it’s still – you know, it’s very painful, intimate stuff.

AMY GOODMAN: I think that’s why it is so powerful in your book, Fun Home. I mean, the way you convey it in – I mean, and I don’t think you’re insulted by this – in cartoons, in a graphic novel, is so powerful. It changes the whole medium. Speaking of which, even the song, the song about your mom, “Days and Days.” Let’s go to a clip.

HELEN: [played by Judy Kuhn, singing] Days and days and days
That’s how it happens:
Days and days and days
Made of lunches
And car rides
And shirts and socks
And grades
And piano
And no one clocks the day you disappear.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

HELEN: [played by Judy Kuhn, singing] Days and days and days
That’s how it happens:
Days and days and days
Made of posing
And bragging
And fits of rage
And boys – my god, some of them underage!
And, oh, how did it all happen here?

Don’t you come back here.
I didn’t raise you
To give away your days
Like me.