Sunday, December 22, 2013

Fun Home

Joan Marcus
The composer Jeanine Tesori has a knack for capturing, in her scores, the ebbs and flows of complex, imbalanced relationships. Through recurring motifs, overlapping melodic lines, and a flow of orchestral support that frequently allows characters to segue imperceptibly between aria and recitative, she deftly mimics the voices of people who love one another deeply, fight with one another viciously, try desperately to understand one another, erupt in frustration when they fail. Her ensemble harmonies clash with heartbreaking dissonance when crises occur, and melt luxuriously when there is consolation. Her particular talent for capturing the endless nuances of complicated families--which means all families, I guess--struck me during the first few minutes of Fun Home. Like the brilliant Caroline, or Change, Fun Home focuses largely on the strained domestic life of a child. As far as I'm concerned, Caroline was a landmark work--one that took the musical theater genre in new directions and raised its aesthetic stakes. And damn if Fun Home isn't just as beautiful, moving, and nuanced. Since seeing it, I have come to believe that Tesori is not just a wonderful composer, but one of monumental importance. People who dismiss the musical theater outright with a roll of the eyes and a terse "I HATE musicals"--as if the entire genre can be easily boiled down to a late-run performance by a second-rate touring company of Cats--have clearly never encountered the work of Jeanine Tesori.

Yet in raving as blatheringly as I do about Tesori, I hope not to imply that she is on some kind of creative pedestal, towering above the people with whom she has collaborated. Part of brilliance is knowing how to listen to and work with other brilliant people. Tony Kushner's no slouch, after all, and neither is George Wolfe. And like Caroline, or Change, Fun Home doesn't really have any weak links. I've read a few reviews arguing that Michael Cerveris was miscast, which I think is bullshit. And I've read others that place Judy Kuhn in the "thankless" role of the mother, which I think is a slightly smaller bunch of bullshit, but bullshit nonetheless. Sure, the musical explores, even more intensely than the graphic novel does, the relationship between a father and a daughter, and this kind of gives the mother figure short shrift in some respects--and this is the case even more in the musical than it was in the book. That being said, Kuhn's final number brings the whole show home; it (and, in the role, she) is a carefully controlled masterpiece of sorrow, fury, and frustration.

So, too, really, is the whole musical. It is also funny and honest and enormously patient with its characters, in a way that a lesser work wouldn't know how to be. Adapted, by Lisa Kron and Tesori, from Alison Bechdel's acclaimed 2006 graphic novel, Fun Home is that rare musical that manages to remain true to its source but to simultaneously add warmth and dimension in its transition from the page. Having read the book and seen the show, I can't honestly think about one, now, without referring back to the other. If you know the book (which is densely written and enormously complex), or even the basic subject matter (a young girl wrestles with her sexual identity, as well as her emotionally distant dad's closeted homosexuality and eventual suicide), you'll know that this is no mean feat.

The musical tackles the heavy issues Bechdel wrestles with in her graphic novel, but doesn't shy away from the book's humor or affection. Kron and Tesori apparently developed the musical over a five-year period, and the time and effort have paid off. Characters that could have easily slid into parody or become lodged in one dimension are complicated and sympathetic and real; interpersonal relationships are never one-sided or pat; and musical numbers--like "Changing My Major," the number college-age Alison sings after her first night with her first girlfriend, Joan--manage, with astounding regularity, to be simultaneously hilarious, endearing, heartbreaking, and profound.

It is enormously difficult, at any age, to come to terms with the fact that your parents are not perfect and that you might possibly be stronger than they are. It is enormously difficult, as a parent, to come to terms with the ways you've failed your family or psychically damaged your children. It must have been daunting for the creative team of this show to figure out how to reflect such complicated family dynamics without torturing the characters for the sake of narrative flow, making at least one of them an easy villain; making at least another one of them an easy victim. Fun Home is the rare show that deftly, gracefully analyzes a flawed, if loving, family (and the sum of its parts) with a clear-eyed, analytical gaze. It is a beautiful, riveting musical that has been ingeniously wrought from a beautiful, riveting book. Its run has been extended as many times as it has because it deserves to be seen. If art isn't easy, this must've been like climbing Everest. I am enormously grateful to Tesori, and Kron, and Bechdel, and everyone involved for deciding that this particular mountain needed to be scaled--and for a finished work that makes the journey seem so effortless.


Wendy Caster said...

Love your review, but I still say Michael Cerveris was miscast! :)

lizwollman said...

Was that you?!?!?! Ha! Ok, we can agree to disagree!