Out cartoonist Alison Bechdel never thought a musical could be made out of her tragicomic memoir ‘Fun Home.’ Her evolution from neophyte to true believer
For all her newfound commercial clout, it might seem strange that Alison Bechdel recently returned to her less-mainstream roots. Even though her self-described tragicomic novel Fun Home has become a Tony Award-winning smash musical — it just began a national tour, and will arrive in Houston in the spring (with more dates being added all the time) — Bechdel couldn’t ignore her despair when Donald Trump was elected president. Attempting to process the startling outcome, the Vermont-based graphic novelist sat down to draw the iconic characters from her popular Dykes to Watch Out For, which was first published in 1983 in a feminist newspaper, WomaNews, before being widely syndicated to outlets across the U.S. Bechdel hadn’t revisited her popular strip’s lesbian clan in eight years, during which time she released two graphic novels (2006’s Fun Home, about her father’s gay secret and her coming out, and its 2012 companion piece, Are You My Mother?) as well as seeing the musical adaptation take flight. In 2014, Bechdel was the recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant. Recently, the 56-year-old artist talked about getting back to the lesbian characters that first endeared her to LGBT audiences decades ago. Moreover, she discussed her initial doubts about Fun Home becoming a Broadway musical (“I’ll take your option money, but good luck!”), the next-level catharsis she experienced when it did, and the pressures of critical and commercial success. — Chris Azzopardi
Dallas Voice: Are you a fan of musicals? Bechdel: Honestly, I really have not been. I didn’t quite understand the whole culture around musicals, and there are just people who are so passionate about musicals. That was not me. You know, I sort of thought of musicals as Guys and Dolls and people bursting into song inexplicably, but I also understood that there are beautiful musicals out there. I was a big fan of Sondheim, but somehow didn’t think of Sondheim stuff as musicals in the traditional sense.
Do you have a new appreciation for musicals now that Fun Home is one? Absolutely, yeah. It’s an amazing form, or it can be in the right hands. I’m just thinking about the sort of stock Broadway musical where there’s a conflict, but things end up all happy. That’s not so interesting. But the amazing emotional depth you can get in a musical is really interesting to me, and I was excited to see that happen with Fun Home.
What was your first thought when you heard Fun Home was getting the musical treatment? My first thought, honestly, was, “That’s impossible. Yes, I’ll take your option money, but good luck.” I did not know much about musicals or the stage at all, and it just seemed like a crazy, complex book. Of course, they left out large parts of the book as one has to do, but in the early days, I just couldn’t imagine how that would be put on a stage. Also, because it’s just so dark and so sad, it seemed like the antithesis of a musical. Because of the emotional depth you explored in your book, did you have trepidation about how it might be portrayed on stage? If I had known more about musicals when I said yes to that project, I would’ve had a lot of trepidation, but I didn’t quite know what I was getting into. I also knew that Lisa Kron would be writing the book [for the musical], and I was a great admirer of hers and really trusted her to get it right as much as she could. Were you consulted during its evolution? I had pretty much zero to do with what you see on stage, and didn’t have any official involvement in making that show. How difficult was giving up control of your source material? It was a leap of faith. I trusted Lisa, and [composer] Jeanine Tesori came on board. I also had trust in her. When I say I wasn’t involved, it wasn’t that they kept me out — I just didn’t have any formal role. But they would meet with me periodically and pick my brain about ideas about the book and my process writing it. So, I felt very connected to them even though I didn’t know what I was doing or what I was telling them. When did you first see it, and what was your initial impression? The whole process took years, but the first thing I saw or heard was at the end of 2010. I got a script in the mail and a CD with music on it from a workshop they had all done that I didn’t see. Up until then, it just seemed like a fantasy that may or may not happen one day. But when I heard those songs, I was just blown away. It was really powerful, and very few of those actually made it through to the final musical. There were so many songs that came and went, but I knew that they had something really magical happening. Do you recall your feelings when first seeing your life onstage? That, too, went through an amazing transition. At one point the stage set was an exact replica of my home studio, where I spend all my time, and that was really freaky. It was like I was looking in the window at myself working. But that got abandoned at one point and the set became a much more stripped down, sort of imaginary space. But it was pretty freaky all around, watching this musical about me and my family.
Do you have a favorite song from the show? It’s really hard to pick. I know that sounds corny, but I love all of the songs. Of course “Ring of Keys” is just incredible. You know, I’m not really a big song person. Some people just don’t have that part of their brain, and I think I’m one of them. It’s funny to me to see how that song has caught on in the culture, to see just how it’s gripped people, especially young people. Children just love that song. I mean, little kids who don’t even know what it means are singing it on YouTube — it’s crazy.
How do you process the mainstream appeal of Fun Home? I guess it’s just really a picture of what’s been going on in the culture, and my story and the play came along at this particular juncture when people were finally open to hearing a queer story that’s also a human story. There was finally space for that. I think if the play had come out a little sooner, if the book had come out a little sooner, it might not have caught on the way that it did, but somehow people were ready for it.
What do you think it is about the story that resonates so universally? For one thing, it’s about a family. Everyone’s got a family, of one fashion or another. Also, I think it’s about a family with secrets, and most families have some kind of secret. I think people relate a lot to that, to the catharsis of having a secret brought out in the open. I’ve heard stories of people from all different kinds of permutations — not just gay family members, but all kinds of issues: mental illness, affairs, double lives. I think it’s a great relief for people to see this secret cracked open.
What have been some of the most memorable responses you’ve heard regarding the book over the years? God, you know, it’s hard to hang onto those. Whenever I go to the show — I’ve seen it 15 or so times — people will recognize me in the audience afterwards, and I hear the most incredible stories, and people are sobbing. I get so caught in those exchanges — it’s really intense — that I can’t remember the details. So, I’m sorry I can’t give you a good anecdote, but I’ve had amazingly intimate encounters with audience members.
Of the three characters representing your life at various stages in the musical, do you have a favorite Alison Bechdel? I don’t! To me they all sort of fuse into a whole, and they’re bound up. I couldn’t single one out. I do think it was a really interesting choice to have the adult Alison telling this story because that wasn’t really technically part of the book at all. That was part of Lisa Kron’s genius, and it’s an odd role. She’s just mostly observing the action. The adult is having memories of her childhood and her young adulthood and her family, and they’re playing out before her as she’s trying to write about them, trying to make sense about them. So in a way, she’s kind of a passive observer, but she’s really not; she’s actually very actively engaged with these memories of her former self. I think it really pulls everything together in an amazing way.
Did you worry about how they’d portray your father? I hadn’t considered the ramifications of that, and then in these early versions that I saw — different workshops and stuff — he would go from being a super-negative character to being a little too soft. It was very interesting to see how that got calibrated in the end. It’s a very delicate balance to make him sympathetic enough to care about and also threatening enough for the story to work.
What kind of influence does the mainstream appeal of Fun Home have on your current work? I feel a bit like there are more eyes on me than there used to be. I used to be able to work free of that sense of anyone waiting for my work. So, I feel like there’s a little added pressure now, but I’m trying to use that in a positive way, like to motivate me.
Do you ever plan to revisit the characters from Dykes to Watch Out For? Funny that you should ask that, because right now I’m just so distraught over the election that the only way I could see out of it, the only way I could help myself figure it out, was to start writing a Dykes to Watch Out For strip. I haven’t thought about these characters in eight years, but I’m right in the middle of writing an episode and kind of dragging them all out of storage.
Why did this feel like the right time to revisit these characters? When I wrote the comic strip, I did it in some ways just for myself to figure out what was going on in the world. I always found the world so confusing and baffling, and by using my characters and having to talk through stuff that was happening in the world, I could find my own way. I felt like, I’m so confused at what just happened to our country that I needed to sit down with these characters and figure it out, so that’s what I’m doing.
Will you continue working with these characters? I might not have time, but maybe I’ll have to keep going.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 09, 2016.