We interrupt our normally scheduled programming (aka the chronological order of the shows I’ve seen) to first talk about Fun Home because it’s too important. I’ve been waiting for this show all season. I know this might sound a little over-the-top, but I can’t help myself: it’s flawless. End of story. A musical like this only comes around once in a while (you can see highlights here). Consider me officially obsessed.
Some backstory: Fun Home is based on the graphic novel “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” by cartoonist Alison Bechdel about her relationship with her closeted father. The name Bechdel might ring a bell if you’re familiar with the Bechdel test or the comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For.” Nevertheless, you’re about to get to know Alison and her family very well as she looks back on her childhood and teenage years, building a timeline and attempting to unlock (and draw) the mystery of her father. We meet her at three different stages: Young Alison is nine or so, Medium Alison a freshman in college, and current-day 43-year-old Alison.
Present-day Alison doesn’t quite narrate; rather she excavates her past with the audience in tow. As she sifts through her dad’s old things, she pieces together memories to literally draw from them and make a cartoon. And then she captions the different moments, casting a new light or interpretation on them whenever possible. “Caption: Dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town. And he was gay, and I was gay.” Through her eyes, we quickly fall into this world of memories. It’s additionally effective because the production is performed in the round; company and audience, we’re all in this together. The set pieces spin and shift and disappear through the floor as we move through time. Like the recent production of The Glass Menagerie, the design does an excellent job of creating a memory piece (shout-out to Associate Scenic Designer Tim McMath who designed our gorgeous Summertime set).
And within the in-the-round theatre, we meet fully developed, three-dimensional characters, and the fact that they’re based on a real family makes the experience all the more visceral. Each performance is more fantastic than the last. The chillingly good Tony-nominated Michael Cerveris loses himself in Bruce, Alison’s father – his inner pain radiating from every move, every smile or outburst, every awkward attempt to connect or push people away. The same goes for Tony-nominated Judy Kuhn’s poignant, understated performance as Alison’s mother, Helen. And the three Tony-nominated women who play Alison each bring something unique and beautiful to the role. Eleven-year-old Sydney Lucas plays Young Alison, and all I want to know is where did this girl come from?! She’s stellar and changes everything when she sings THIS (it will also be the Tony performance on Sunday). Emily Skeggs brings an infectious, wide-eyed joy to Medium Alison as she discovers her sexuality. And Beth Malone as adult Alison is the center of this show, keeping everyone and everything grounded. From the moment she starts speaking, you know you’re in good hands.
Here is one of my theories about musicals. If it has a bad score, it dies, it’s forgotten. If it has a great score and not the strongest book, it’s forgiven. As long as it’s got that score, people let the bad, typically contrived, book slide. So when a musical comes along with a book that’s just as strong as the score, if not stronger, it leaves a mark. Shows that meet this criteria stand out (think Sweeney Todd, Next to Normal). So bless you Lisa Kron for this book and lyrics, and Jeanine Tesori – whose music doesn’t always click with me – for writing a beautiful score that I’ve been listening to nonstop since Monday evening. The story weaves seamlessly in and out of song and spoken word (hear the nominee hopefuls discuss the music and lyrics here).
And just a quick word about the subject matter and gay characters. I won’t delve into this too much because I fear I’m not eloquent enough to discuss how important and enormous it is to have a lesbian character be the lead of a musical. It’s unheard of. So instead I’m going to quote an LA Times interview I just read with Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director at the Public Theater where Fun Home began Off-Broadway:
Fun Home, Eustis believes, has the potential to do for lesbians what Angels in America did for gay men: “Take a marginalized group and say, ‘No, you are actually center stage.’ The art form…depends on empathy. It has been magical watching Broadway audiences at Fun Home. No one is thinking, ‘Oh, I know a lesbian.’ They are identifying themselves with the story, and that changes you. Once you’ve identified with someone, you can’t think of them as the other anymore.”
As for Sunday’s awards, there are legit races this year with no clear frontrunner in multiple categories. And as far as Best Musical goes, Fun Home wins in my book, hands-down, but An American in Paris (truly gorgeous, review to come) may have the edge. We’ll have to tune in to find out how the chips fall. Regardless of who wins, this is an intimate, heart-wrenching, funny, true-to-life story of love, self-denial, self-discovery, and above all, family.
Caption: Get your tickets, and come on home.
Music by Jeanine Tesori, Book and Lyrics by Lisa Kron, Based on the Graphic Novel by Alison Bechdel, Directed by Sam Gold
Circle in the Square Theatre, Open-ended
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus and Jenny Anderson
Pictured: Sydney Lucas, Beth Malone, Emily Skeggs, and the Cast of Fun Home
If you went to high school with me, then you know I fell in love with Ewan McGregor when I was 17-years-old, saw “Moulin Rouge” for the first time, and my young mind exploded. You also know that I had a Seth Green phase earlier in high school, but let’s move past that for the moment. After I proceeded to watch as many of Ewan’s films as I could the following year, I eagerly awaited the moment to see him in a live play (since I tried and subsequently failed to see him in Guys and Dolls when I was studying abroad in England). So yes, I admit, Ewan was the primary reason I wanted to attend the newest revival of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing.
Henry (Ewan McGregor) is a playwright. His current play is about a woman who cheats on her husband, starring his wife Charlotte (Cynthia Nixon) and an actor named Max (Josh Hamilton). In real life, Max is married to Annie (Maggie Gyllenhaal). When we learn that Henry and Annie are actually having an affair, art begins to imitate life. Or is it the other way around?
Sadly, this production left me wanting in many ways. I wasn’t invested in these characters, emotionally or intellectually. They don’t need to be sympathetic (which they aren’t) for me to be invested, but I still have to want to go on a journey with them. Instead I felt left behind. This was in part due to the story itself being confusing at times (intentionally), and it can be hard to follow because the language is so dense. But that aside, I couldn’t connect to the style itself. It was very presentational and plotted out. Rather than discovering on the line, all of the words seemed planned. If a character had a big speech, it was performed like he or she had memorized it and had reached the appropriate time to recite it. It did not feel spontaneous.
Matt and I were discussing that maybe this was because of the slightly heightened, highly intellectual language, but on the other hand, Shakespeare is heightened and poetic. Even if you don’t catch all of the metaphors, subtext, and meanings in the first hear-through, you are still with the characters. You’re discovering things together, in the moment, no matter the density of the words. For example, when I saw the revival of Stoppard’s Arcadia a few years back, I went in blind, and while I was desperately confused at times (lots of math talk in that play), I still felt like I was there with the characters, going through something with them, trying to figure it out together.
The Real Thing won a Tony Award for Best Play in 1982 and Best Revival of a Play in 2000. It took home the Drama Desk, and the leads won Tony Awards in both productions. I mean, it makes sense! Stoppard is one of our most popular playwrights, known for his intense, philosophical, beautiful dialogue and topics. And I love all four of these actors in their other works. I think the root may be a direction/style choice. I’m curious what the previous productions did differently that made them so successful.
This play is about love, marriage, and in/fidelity. It’s about the feelings that are left unsaid, acting the opposite, playing it cool. We find out rather quickly that the first scene is a performance, a play within a play, but come the second scene in “reality,” it still feels like a performance. This might have been the point, as it partly represents the lack of honesty being shared among the characters, but then again, there needs to be a contrast. There are only a couple of moments with that kind of truth sprinkled in (Ewan has a touching moment alone onstage in the second act that I appreciated). I don’t mean that the characters need to show this truth to each other, but the vulnerability could be shared with us. Someone should be honest with the audience and make that connection, if only for a moment, because we want, we need the real thing.
The Real Thing
Written by Tom Stoppard, Directed by Sam Gold
American Airlines Theatre, Closing January 4, 2015
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ewan McGregor