A Woman’s World: “Ambition, Adventure and Exploration” Brings Fun Home to Broadway… And Defies the Odds

Originally published on Playbill.com
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While writing Fun Home, the new musical now in previews at Broadway’s Circle in the Square, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron found themselves digging into their own personal histories.

“There were times when writing this story… [made us examine] our relationships with our parents,” Tesori said. “You can’t write this story without doing some digging, putting your own potted plants in this story. No way.”

Tesori’s mother, an 83-year-old woman who was raised in a convent, came to see a performance of Fun Home and found herself deeply moved by the production; the shared experience deepened the relationship between the mother and daughter.

“My mom doesn’t come to see a lot of my work. She’s older. But she got on this ride,” Tesori said over breakfast during rehearsals. “And she said, ‘People are always coming out. Because most of what they’re afraid of is to be themselves. To be authentic.’ And she said, ‘I feel like that woman. I don’t look like that woman. But inside… I don’t know why. She’s after something I’m after.'”It was interesting… she didn’t go to the woman she should have gone to, which is the woman who sang ‘Days and Days and Days,'” Tesori added. “My mom’s asking, ‘Where’d you get the idea for that story? How did you know how to write that song?’… She said, ‘I’ve never seen anything like that in my entire life. I’ve never laughed so hard. I’ve never cried so hard.’ I think it was a real passage for me and my mom.”

Complicated family relationships are nothing new to Tesori or Kron, the playwright and star of Well, an autobiographical play about her relationship with her own hypochondriac mother. Together, the two wrote the music, lyrics and book for Fun Home, a musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel memoir that chronicles her own coming out as well as the coming out and subsequent death of her father.

A finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize, Fun Home received its world premiere in October 2013 at the Public Theater, where its run was extended through January 2014. Its Broadway bow marks the first time a musical with a lesbian protagonist plays Broadway and one of the very few that has featured book, music and lyrics by women.

Fun Home‘s Broadway opening comes in a season with many more works written by and about women than the previous one. Musicals also include Doctor Zhivago, with music by Lucy Simon, lyrics by Amy Powers and Michael Korie  and a book by Michael Weller; It Shoulda Been You, with a book by Hargrove, music by Barbara Anselmi and lyrics by Jill Abramovitz, Brian Hargrove, Carla Rose Fisher, Michael Cooper, Ernie Lijoi and Will Randall,; and Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Gigi, which features a revised book by Heidi Thomas.

 

The previous season featured two dramas by women, and both were revivals: Machinal, by Sophie Treadwell; and A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry, as well as the new musical The Bridges of Madison County, which featured a book by Marsha Norman alongside Jason Robert Brown’s music and lyrics. Additionally, Lynn Ahrens contributed lyrics to the musical Rocky with her frequent writing partner Stephen Flaherty, who wrote the music.

In response to the lack of gender diversity on Broadway, the activist group The Kilroys released the first annual List, which features plays by women ready for production, and recently partnered with the Lilly Awards to present several of them in readings.

Both Tesori and Kron found it difficult to comment on the trend, due to the numerous and complex aspects of the issue, which include economic and political as well as social factors, but one of the areas they did expand on is the necessity to try and sometimes fail.

“Men are often given opportunities based on their potential, and women are given opportunities based on their accomplishments,” Kron said. “The only way to learn how to do theatre is to do theatre. And, if you don’t give young women chances, if you don’t let women develop their work…””Failures are not celebrated the way they should be,” Tesori added. “And we know that failure, not in context, is ‘They failed’ instead of ‘What are they after? What are they going for? What in their careers have they been searchin

To some, producing Fun Home on Broadway may seem a risky venture, as some audience members may be alienated by a musical that features a lesbian protagonist. Neither Tesori nor Kron is concerned with that; they said they only care about producing a quality work of art that is unapologetically true to itself.

Kron, who frequently performed at the East Village’s WOW Café, a hotbed of lesbian performance art, added, “At the WOW Café I was in this world — this artistic world — it was a lesbian world. It was taken for granted. Then we went on and made all this theatre based on that. We didn’t have to keep coming out or explaining or justifying.”

Feeling forced to explain or justify leads to compromise, Tesori said, which can then lead to further concessions and bargaining that affect the creation of art.

“A life of compromise works through a generation, especially for women who raise compromised girls who won’t admit they don’t know how to feed themselves to work. Ambition, adventure, exploration. They hold that and wait,” Tesori said. “And you can’t harvest and wait. You must hunger and you must admit that you hunger. You admit that you take up size in the room and you’re not filled with shame when you feel like you’ve talked too much. As my father would say, ‘Everyone lower their voices one octave or I’m going to leave this room.’ He raised four girls, and he couldn’t stand our shrill voices… You shouldn’t have to shape shift yourself in order to be digestible for others so you’re not too much for others.”

Compromise is not a part of Fun Home, something both Kron and Tesori made an effort to communicate. Instead, Alison, as a child, college student and adult lesbian, is not the Other. Kron said she sees some works that contain an unconscious shame or undercurrent of asking how to fit into a heteronormative world. But Fun Home, she said, does not contain that.

“The characters are dealing with coming out, but the show is comfortable in its skin,” Kron said. “And I think it’s hard for people who have these issues around coming out. It’s hard for women dealing with ambition who think one thing as being feminine and one thing as being masculine. I see women who can’t even picture that they don’t need to become men to be artists. There is a holistic way of women being integrated. The show has built into its DNA that sense of integration.”If there are people who are only comfortable seeing what they’ve seen before, they’re like, ‘This is in the round. I heard the word lesbian. I’m freaked out’ — there’s nothing we can do about that,” she continued. “We’re not doing something that looks like other things. That being said, this has traditional theatre values and bones. This works as a piece of theatre. That’s what we’re interested in.”

Fun Home opens on Broadway a few days before the United States Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on April 28 on whether states can ban gay marriage. The timeliness of the artistic accomplishment alongside social justice issues is especially meaningful to Tesori, who said, “That’s universal design. You feel like you just got folded into something that’s part of the national conversation, and that’s not usually what musicals are. That’s very important to me.”

The two women behind one of the most anticipated musicals to play Broadway this spring shared additional thoughts on bringing more diverse voices to Broadway.

“If someone wanted to change [it], they could change it. They would bring more vibrance into the theatre. I’m also not interested in the argument in terms of fairness. I’m interested in why it’s important in terms of the quality of art and what theatre is about. I think theatre is not actually about looking at people who are like you. Theatre is about what happens when people unlike each other [collide] — that’s what happens on a stage. That’s what drama is made of — when people unlike you reach across that divide. And when that can happen on the stage, the play is better. When that can happen in the audience, the experience of the theatre is better,” Kron said.

“You have to reward someone, anyone for their potential,” Tesori said. “And if we feel as a community that it’s not happening, then that’s where the change is going to come. Not just asking the question but activating the answers.”

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