Small and Big, Close and Far, Same and Different

The award winning Broadway musical Fun Home, based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir of the same name, is now on tour. By the time this goes to press, the production will most likely be in Schenectady. Or Providence. And somewhere else after that. Whenever shows go on tour, they need to re-position themselves for a specific audience and context in each new place. With Fun Home, of course, the musical has already done that. First, the creators adapted Alison Bechdel’s work for the stage, and then, when the production moved to Broadway, it changed again.

Fun Home at the Public Theater won three Lucille Lortel awards; Fun Home on Broadway won five Tonys. Each version of the production has been site-specific, and each emphasized different things, through different means, the difficulties of simultaneously being too close and too far, too alike and too different.

Bechdel’s approach to her own childhood and her father’s death in the graphic memoir are at once incredibly personal and very, very intellectualized. Bechdel illustrates in her short comic “Play Therapy that she was initially dubious that Fun Home could work as a musical and was amazed by how well it adapted. She states that when she listened to the demo she expected it to be light and fluffy, but rather, she found her own “distant, repressed family, brought close.” When Bechdel saw the production at the Public, she was amazed again. The musical created by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori succeeded so wildly not only because of the good songs and well-paced interactions between actors, but also because of the staging at the Public Theater.

A scene from the graphic memoir in which young Alison visits New York City.

The Public is a downtown New York institution. Not only was it the original home of Hair in 1967 and Hamilton a few years ago (among other amazing shows that moved to Broadway), but it is also the theater that puts on world-class free Shakespeare in the Park every summer in Central Park, and the home of the Mobile Unit, which brings productions of Shakespeare plays to populations that would otherwise have difficulty reaching them. The theater’s history and political orientation shapes what plays are produced there, how they are produced there, and audience expectations about what they’ll see there. An audience at the Public would be primed to see a difficult, unlikely musical succeed.

At The Public, the three actors who portray Alison at different ages, as well as a projection of an image from Bechdel’s graphic memoir (Photo from DigitalSpy)

Working on a larger project about adaptations of texts into and out of the comics form, I recently went to the Theater On Film and Tape Archive of the New York Public Library and watched a recording of Fun Home as it was produced at the Public. Immediately following that, I typed “I’m ready for the next recording, please!” into a dialogue box and watched Fun Home recorded during its run at the Circle in the Square theater on Broadway. Watching them back to back like that, many changes became starkly apparent.

As I watched the recording of the production at the Public, I was concentrating on how much warmer this embodied, brightly lit stage adaptation feels, as compared to the experience of reading the graphic memoir. Bechdel famously draws from references, objects and photographs, sometimes even photos of herself posed in the position she wants a character to appear in. This gives her work a quality of precision and technical fidelity that of course isn’t going to be an issue in a stage production with real people and real objects. You can watch highlights from the show on Playbill and see just how comparatively warm, close and smiling the actors appear in comparison with the pinched, haggard faces in Bechdel’s drawings. The character of her father, especially, the looming spectre of the graphic memoir, becomes much more sympathetic when played by a smiling, sometimes pleading, Michael Cerveris on stage.

The stage adaptation draws explicitly on the figure of Alison Bechdel as cartoonist. An actress playing “Alison” narrates the story, talking about her family and the difficulty of creating a comic about them. She says “caption” when narrating and sometimes drafts different ideas for captioning scenes in which younger versions of herself interact with her family or college girlfriend.

The production at the Public was on their Newman stage, which offers the traditional setup of a wide room of seats narrowing to the stage, on which all the action is presented in a rectangular box. It seats about 268. A look at the Public’s various stages makes it clear that this was a conscious choice. The show could have been housed in differently configured theater spaces available at the Public. The result of this staging in the Newman, however, is that looking into the stage frame from any point in the audience is much like looking into the panel frames of the graphic narrative. Figures are interacting in a rectangle for you, and there is even a near-literal gutter as the musicians are in a pit immediately in front of the stage (visible in the first photo here).

When I switched over the recording from the production at the Public to the one that had been recorded when Fun Home moved to a Broadway theater, I realized how many of the choices I had considered merely indicative of adapting a graphic narrative to theater were, in fact, site specific. Circle in the Square, though still a small and intimate space for a Broadway theater, felt airy and open compared to the narrow rectangle in the Newman.

The setup at Circle in the Square (Photo from TickPickBlog)

Circle in the Square has a seating capacity of 623 and they have a thrust stage, which places the audience on three or four sides of the acting space. For perspective, the Richard Rodgers theater, where Hamilton moved after it premiered at the Public, seats 1,319.

Another change that makes this version of the production feel different is the audience. For one thing, with a thrust stage, the audience is always visible to the audience. There is no feeling of a “fourth wall” for the actors to break, but rather each scene happens against a backdrop of onlookers. Furthermore, as is often the case with Broadway audiences, this audience is much more ready to respond to many lines as laugh lines. This is still a respectful, engaged audience, but it is one that is seeing a successful show at a Broadway theater, that got a lot of buzz, and has already won awards, rather than an audience ready for something experimental and progressive downtown at the Public.

The set dressings and props were changed to accommodate an audience on three sides. Lower, simpler furniture allow more sight lines, and of course the staging itself changes. One particularly poignant scene in the musical occurs when Alison comes home from college for a weekend and her mother tells her about her father’s deteriorating mental health. At the Public, this is a scene in which Alison and her mother are seated at the dining table together, facing each other. It is intimate, and the audience watches them feeling confined together. When the show moved to a thrust stage on Broadway, however, this scene was played differently. The two actors don’t face each other, and in fact play the scene standing up, far apart on the stage. The mood has changed from one of confinement and being in the same box together to one of being unable to connect. Of course both these moods are appropriate for this scene, and this story over all, but the shift in focus is palpable. Overall, this production feels less intimate than the one at the Public, more spread out.

Thinking about Bechdel’s subject matter, and her methods of producing her drawings, it makes sense that the graphic memoir feels so intimate—and since her family kept so many secrets it makes sense that it feels so distant. Seeing recordings of these productions back to back made it clear to me that in any successful adaptation, Fun Home needs to tell a story about feeling very close and feeling very removed, all at once. Adaptation may change how that happens, but it should not change that it happens: any stage production, especially one with an ensemble cast, is going to change both the way that Fun Home feels intimate, and the way that it feels distant. If that inherent contradiction of distance and intimacy were not present, it would not feel like Fun Home.

While the production of the the musical will likely keep evolving as new actors get cast and as new venues present themselves, even though this is the “same” production, it will continue to change. If it stops touring and this production ends, when the show gets revived in the future, that version will of course be even more different. The graphic memoir, however, will stay the same. No matter how long the musical Fun Home tours, and no matter how far it goes, the book can always go there too. And it will be the same book I read in New York City before the musical premiered, and it’s the same book I have in front of me right now. More than any other version, the original book can achieve distance and closeness for individual readers.