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A writer shares her personal connection to the Tony-winning musical
You probably don't need me to tell you that Fun Home, which ends its Broadway run on September 10, is an amazing show. After all, it earned rave reviews and won five Tonys, including Best Musical. Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori skillfully transformed Alison Bechdel's moving and masterful graphic memoir into an emotionally charged and intimate theatrical event. But for me, it felt extra personal -- because without Alison Bechdel's brother, Johnny, I wouldn't have met my ex-husband.
I don't actually know Alison Bechdel, but I was introduced to her once. It was a quick hello on the stoop of our mutual friend Avvy's East Village tenement. She shook my hand shyly and didn't make eye contact. She was not famous at the time, though we all knew about her underground comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For.
As for seeing the show: While I usually instigate our theatre adventures, it was John, my current partner in life and love, who scored the seats this time. John, an artist himself, had entered a Facebook ticket contest calling for Fun Home memories. He posted that it was one of his favorites and that he had taught the book in his comic art classes at the Kubert School.
While I also Ioved Fun Home the memoir, which charts both Alison's dawning sexual identity and her closeted father's path to suicide, I wasn't in a rush to go to the show. Yes, it won all those awards and everyone I knew who had seen it raved about it. But I was hesitant. I'd never seen someone I knew in real life portrayed as a character on stage. Plus, this wasn't just anyone; it was someone who'd had a monumental impact on my life. Johnny and Avvy were there when I had my first date with my ex -- a birthday dinner with four friends that turned romantic. It was the point of origin, the beginning of my first big love. Our tumultuous and tragic marriage had long been over, but Johnny was one of the people my ex and I knew back when we were a "we." I was a little scared of what seeing the show would dredge up.
Intellectually I would say Fun Home is about expectations and reality, and the tension between the two. But even though it's a very smart show, it doesn't come off as cerebral. It's emotional. Watching Alison unravel the complicated landscape of her family's dysfunction and her awakening sexuality is incredibly moving. Even though I came to the theatre planning to keep my distance, I was immediately hooked.
The Johnny depicted onstage is a bright-eyed blond boy. He adds a bit of innocence in the family vignettes, but he isn't really integral to the story. Yet I found myself riveted by the scenes he appeared in. Watching the little-boy version of Johnny forced me to recall memories I hadn't thought about in years.
Johnny B, as my ex called him, was there for the hopeful part of our early marriage. He was sweet and wry and kind. He had a pretty impressive Mohawk that was frequently tinted green, which both horrified and fascinated my mother, who famously danced with him at my wedding. It was that time in your life you can never get back. We were young. We were ambitious. We believed that the future we wanted was a done deal.
Of course, things didn't work out the way we imagined or hoped. And in the middle of watching Fun Home, I suddenly found myself back in the very visceral pain of the loss of my marriage, and I began to cry. As the show mourned the suicide of Alison and Johnny B's dad, I sat silently sobbing about the death of my happily ever after. The sorrow shook me, even though I was sitting a hair's breadth from my partner John, to whom I am happily unmarried -- happy in a way that I had desperately wanted to be with my ex-husband.
In retrospect, reading the book Fun Home didn't affect me in the same way as the show. Maybe it was the brilliant songs -- music can instigate all kinds of emotions. Maybe it was the spot-on portrayal of being a kid in the '70s. Maybe it was watching the character of grown-up Alison talk directly to us in the audience, as if we were all her friends and she needed our help to understand what she was going through. And we understood. It didn't matter if we were straight or gay, or our parents were alive or dead, we totally got it.
My oldest son, one of two children I share with my ex-husband, went to see the show on his own a few nights after we did. I told him the story of how he was born in part because of the little blond boy named Johnny. I showed him the famous family photo of Mohawked Johnny dancing with "grandma" at my wedding to his father. My son's eyes lit up and he said eagerly, "So, if I go backstage and tell them I'm your kid, they'll be excited!" I paused for a moment, wondering how best to respond. Finally, I said, "No. I'm not important to their story. But they were to ours."
Top image: The original Broadway cast of Fun Home by Joan Marcus