I can understand why musicals aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. For some hardcore realist it becomes an insurmountable task to abandon their distaste for sporadic musical outbursts. They often feel the tropes of musical theater inherently lack credible fervor. Communicating internal struggles of the human condition through song and dance strikes some as artifice so false it only serves to disconnect or block them from any universal truth found in the stories. People don’t do that in real life, exclaims the critic. I can imagine this is the same reason why some people solely read non-fiction books or only watch documentaries—there is something remarkable about a factual account of extraordinary events. The “wow” of the story is really a “wow” because the people actually went through it. Whatever message is gleaned from it is based in truth—meaning the storytellers have earned the audiences’ compassion and empathetic response.
But what happens when a musical is stripped bare of stereotypical conventions? The subject: based on a true story—a best-selling memoir that explores provocative themes and fractured family dynamics. The music and lyrics: deeply poignant and rooted in sincere emotion as well as humor. The acting: honest and grounded. Do these modern, topically relevant musicals get a pass? Does the magic of their realism count for legitimate storytelling?
In the case of the musical Fun Home there is no denying its triumph in defying stereotypical conventions nor its exceptionalism. The 2015 Tony winner for Best Musical just opened last Wednesday at the Ahmanson Theater in downtown Los Angeles. Adapted from Cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s critically acclaimed graphic memoir, Fun Home examines her life and upbringing at three different ages. Alessandra Baldacchino (child) Abby Corrigan (young adult) and Kate Shindle (adult) each take turns illuminating pieces of the sorted puzzle of Bechdel’s childhood. Thematically the musical explores patriarchal family dynamics, discovering one’s sexuality, and the depravity dutiful obligation causes when one isn’t living an authentic life. Jeanine Tesori (music) and Lisa Korn (book and lyrics) have created a musical that confronts the moment when one realizes their parents are imperfect human beings without all the answers—capable of making mistakes that hurt both them and us—riddled with desires and frustrations—wounded with regrets. There is a cost for not being bravely honest with oneself in life—a cost that eventually leads to a reckoning or an unraveling.
The Fun Home cast is absolutely stellar devoid of any weak links. As someone who ordinarily shies away from kid-centric musicals, I was ingratiated by the charm of the younger cast members and found their numbers to be really entertaining. I was impressed with Miss Baldacchino portrayal of the youngest Alison. Clearly wise beyond her years, she offered a precocious depth of sincerity to the role. As the narrator, Ms. Shindle’s voice soared over the audience while her comedic dry delivery of adult Alison’s exposition lines cut through the b.s. we were witnessing on stage in the most appropriate way. But it was Ms. Corrigan that stole the show for me. Not only does she have the voice of a siren; she embodied that awkward, insecure young adult phase of discovering one’s individuality and quest to distinguish oneself from where they came from. There is a beautiful moment towards the end when all three ladies are singing together—all representing their specific singularity of Alison that sent chills up my spine.
Songs like “Changing My Major,” hilariously toy with the general notion of an ingénue’s ballad, while songs like “Telephone Wire,” make the audience squirm anxiously—only because we’ve all been in situations where something delicate needs to be said and the window of opportunity to say it is rapidly closing. Alison’s mother Helen, played by Susan Moniz belts out a powerful song called “Days and Days,” where she attempts to explain to young adult Alison how life’s little bargains and tolerable concessions can come with unforeseen consequences that determine the trajectory of one’s whole life.
Perhaps the most compelling song in the show—the song that I feel fully captures what this particular moment is like for those of us who’ve experienced it, is “Ring of Keys.” For the first time Alison sees a woman living her authentic life and immediately recognizes something she can’t describe. There is something reflected back to her that is familiar, affirming and resoundingly positive. For any of us who’ve felt alone in the world, especially when we’ve grown up in isolation, those moments are like spotting Bigfoot. They help us to know that we’re not alone—that maybe we’ll be okay too—that one day we too can freely be ourselves unapologetically. As I briefly looked around the audience during this song and watched other people smiling and nodding, I couldn’t help but wonder what that moment of recognition looked like for them. Which man or woman with whatever haircut, or sore-thumb outfit signaled to them that it was okay to be themselves? It’s awful to imagine what the world would be like without those moments of seeing and being seen.
Fun Home is the exception to the rule—the musical that has the power to make the “take it or leave it” crowd exclaim “wow” instead of “why.” Now at the Ahmanson until April 1, 2017, there is plenty of time to go see what all the hype is about for yourself—and I strongly encourage you to do so.