The book is always better, right? Yes and no. The Tony voters went wild this year for Fun Home, book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, music by Jeannine Tesori. For my money it fell way short of Alison Bechdel's graphic novel (graphic in more ways than one), which I had read ahead of time. Bad timing. The worst.
Tracing art back to its sources--Quellenforschung, Germans call it. What fun it can be, and what a buzzkill.
As you will have heard, the narrative paints the double portrait of the artist as a budding lesbian and her closeted gay father, Bruce, funeral director and English teacher, whose house of cards is blowing away just as her brave new world is solidifying into reality. Is his death by delivery truck a suicide? It looks that way, but the case is circumstantial. At any rate, the scene is set for a lifetime of incestuous obsession, possibly rooted in undeserved survivor's guilt.
The show has its felicities, no question. Alison appears, sometimes simultaneously, in three avatars: as the grown-up narrator; as Small Alison, whose life is altered by the ephiphany of an (I quote) "old-school butch" with her dangling key ring; and as the college-age Medium Alison, who in the score's most quotable line is "changing her major to Joan." And there's the scenery I wish I could whistle. Working in the round, the designer David Finn spirits us in and out of the claustrophobic Victorian funeral home ("fun home," in the inhabitants' familial parlance) with a fluidity far beyond the cinematic. Chandeliers drop in from the flies as doorways and furniture rise through the floor, locking into place like the jaws of a bear trap. Then the spell plays back in reverse, and we are where? Lost in Alison's dim limbo of erotic and existential possibility.
These enhancements honor the spirit of the book. Omissions that seem almost incidental, I think, betray it. And it's Bruce who pays the price.
Viewed through his daughter's unforgiving prism, Dad is quite the cobra: charismatic but cutting, self-preoccupied, elitist, judgmental, cold—all this even before her discovery of his lies and his fixation on boys the wrong side of eighteen. The more she shows her colors, the more he pressures her to conform. (Dress like a girl! Read Hemingway! Draw the way I do! Don't draw cartoons!) When she comes out, by letter, he pretends he never got the memo.
Small Alison and Medium Alison have ample cause to hate this man. But Alison? Maybe the arc of history really does bend towards justice, as Martin Luther King believed, or maybe there is simply greater safety in growing numbers. Either way, the love that for good reason dared not speak its name in Bruce's generation no longer had much call to hide in Alison's. As his daughter she could anticipate victories where as her father could hardly afford to imagine a battle.
The past, in the fine image of L.P. Hartley, is a foreign country. They do things differently there.
Bechdel knows these things. As the captions of Fun Home, the graphic novel, unwittingly or deliberately suggest, in the end her exorcism of her father is only partial. Most revealing on this score are her references to his literary gods. In passing, she drops in commentary on Proust and Joyce that is invariably sharp, accurate, and to the point of the saga of her family as she is spinning it. Her tolerance for the mandarin convolutions of the modernist masters may be low, but their lessons on life and art have left their mark. In these passages and perhaps only in these, Bechdel allows herself to be her father's daughter, sharing some of his susceptibilities and some of his crosses.
Kron and Tesori make no room for these subliminal flickers of empathy, nor, apparently, have they sought theatrical devices to induce catharsis by other means. What remains is Alison's ruthless vivisection of her father and never-ending song of herself, overflowing in the self-pity, self-dramatization, and self-congratulation that are the hallmarks of identity politics.