Inside the new design of Broadway's Fun Home
"I think it's so much more emotionally powerful than the Off-Broadway version."
When the floor starts collapsing, we barely notice. It's only afterward, when all the trap doors have silently slid open, that we realize this family's house has become a gaping maw. One foot wrong, and someone could disappear into darkness.
In that moment, the set of Fun Home
, the new Broadway musical now at Circle in the Square, becomes a physical reflection of what's churning inside the characters.
Specifically, the floor opens when Bruce Bechdel – a 1970s family man tortured by his closeted homosexuality and terrified of his daughter Alison's ability to be openly gay – finally sings about his feelings. His stinging ballad "Edges of the World" clarifies the pitfalls he sees in his life, and as he steps around the voids in the living room, we understanding that his home, his supposed sanctuary, is aggravating his misery.
"Edges of the World" has always been a turning point for Fun Home
, which adapts Alison Bechdel's celebrated graphic novel about coming out as a lesbian at the same time she discovers her father's homosexuality. With music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, the show lets the adult Alison watch younger versions of herself relive her complicated childhood, but even the grown daughter doesn't always comprehend her dad. It's not until he sings his climactic number that we get a clue to what drives him.
In 2013, when the show opened to rave reviews at the Public Theater, that number was sad and beautiful, but the floor wasn't part of the storytelling. That's because the audience was seated directly in front of the stage in a traditional proscenium arrangement, staring into the Bechdel's house from a distance. At Circle in the Square, however, the show is staged in the round, meaning the audience surrounds the performance like spectators at an arena.
The "Fun Home" kids get funky
This has given David Zinn, Fun Home
's set and costume designer, the opportunity to reimagine the production's world. "When we realized we had those traps and we also had the ability to make them be holes, it felt like a way to make a world for 'Edges' that felt more precarious than it did at the Public," he says. "We gained that by accident."
Lighting designer Ben Stanton has also found new ways to make the space support the story. At the Public, for instance, projections of Bechdel's cartoons occasionally helped clarify Alison's emotional arc, but since in-the-round makes it hard to find a projection surface that everyone can see, the drawings have been cut from the Broadway version. Now, as adult Alison remembers things from her past, Stanton places certain scenes in squares of white light, as though the characters are being held inside a panel from a comic book.
"The squares are a way we can use lighting to articulate Alison's frantic attempts to clarify," Stanton says. ''No, wait! I'm remembering this phone call, and I’m going to lock that into a box! I'm going to try to control all these memories!'"
That underscores Stanton's goal for his design. "The inspiration for a lot of the lighting choices I'm making has to do with modern-day Alison's psychology at any given point in the play," he says. "I want to emphasize that the emotional arc of the story is Alison's relationship to the past, to her own narrative."
Now that he's acclimated to Circle in the Square, Stanton is happy to be spinning that narrative in a new space. "I think it's so much more emotionally powerful than the Off-Broadway version," he says. "Not much has changed in the songs and not much has changed in the text. But instead of a large audience looking in on this piece and watching in a more voyeuristic fashion, the audience is there. They're part of it."
Mark Blankenship is the editor-in-chief of TDF Stages
Photos by Joan Marcus. Top photo: An in-the-round view of the Broadway production.