6 Questions with “Fun Home” Book Writer and Lyricist Lisa Kron
When performer and playwright Lisa Kron read Alison Bechdel’s 2006 autobiographical graphic novel, Fun Home, about coming out and the suicide of her gay father, she knew she wanted to turn it into a musical — even though she’d never worked on one before. After a lengthy development process with composer Jeanine Tesori, including a fruitful stint at the Sundance Theatre Lab and a critically acclaimed run at New York City’s Public Theater (named “Best Musical of the Year” by the New York Times), the show hits Broadway this month. Kron shares the scoop on why it took so long, the raising of the “lavender ceiling,” and the chasm between memories and the actual past.
Q: You’ve written and performed a few autobiographical shows, including your own unconventional theater memoir, Well, which also transferred from the Public Theater to Broadway. Were there things you learned working on that show that you applied to adapting Fun Home?
A: In a way, Alison and I are both essayists. She figured out how to put an essay into the form of a graphic novel and I learned how to turn it into drama. We are fundamentally interested in the difference between memories and lived events, between stories about the past and what actually happened in the past. But to make Fun Home work onstage, we had to do a lot of things Alison didn’t do in her novel. How do you dramatize the internal psychological experience of long-held grief that transitions through the writing of a book? Because I had worked on dramatizing those kinds of things before, I had some ideas about how to do it. We turned the book’s narrator into a character, and juxtaposed Alison at three stages in her life. [The character of grown Alison] says at the top of the show, “I don’t trust memory,” which is something Alison says in real life, and that’s also a key driver of my work.
Q: I believe you and Alison have some personal similarities, as well?
A: Yes. We’re both the same age and worked in the same late-stage frontier of the creation of lesbian culture. When I started Fun Home, I was waiting for Sam [Gold, the director] and Jeanine [Tesori, the composer] to hit that lavender ceiling, but it never happened. I think that’s because there’s been a critical mass of gay culture, so everyone has enough reference points to be able to enter into this world. That’s thanks to many, many, many artists over decades and decades of work. I always feel it’s important to put Fun Home into that context.
Q: When the show played at the Public Theater in 2013, artistic director Oskar Eustis said that you and Jeanine “went through more iterations and drafts” than he’d ever seen a musical go through. Did it feel that way to you, too?
A: Yes, more than any other development process I’ve experienced. Whatever we wrote, we wouldn’t know whether it would work until we saw it up onstage, and then all we could do was pick out the parts that weren’t dead. So many things that seemed really lively on the page, when we put them onstage, we’d be like, “Oh my god, that’s just horrible!” It was like crawling on our hands and knees every second. We had to be very dogged about it; there was no point when we could just jump to the next thing. I think we have a very high tolerance for not knowing the answer to something. At one point, we were getting a lot of pressure to cut the character of the grown Alison and Sam said, “I’ve thought about that a lot because it would make my life so much easier if we did this in a more straightforward way. But I feel like you two are actually after something much more ambitious. I don’t actually know whether we’ll be able to make this work, but I don’t think you should step away from that goal.” It was like the moment I first met with Jeanine. She had the graphic novel in her hand and she said, “I can’t picture how this will become a musical” and my heart sank. And then she said, “And that’s why I’m interested in doing it.” That is the nature of this collaboration.
Q: What creative problems did you and Jeanine solve while at the Sundance Theatre Lab?
A: We actually did two Sundance things. Jeanine and I went on our own to write and at the end of our time, we acted and sang through the entire musical, just the two of us. And then we went back and did it with a cast. For me, Sundance is the perfect situation. I always get an incredible amount of work done when I’m there, especially with Fun Home, because we had to see it onstage to know what worked. The fact is, for 20 years there was stasis in the Bechdel family. Then there were four months when all this stuff happened: Alison came out, her father committed suicide, and she’s trying to unpack that, asking herself if she was responsible for him killing himself. Was her beginning the cause and catalyst for his end? So she’s going back and looking at these everyday scenes that were innocuous at the time. The only way they have dynamic is if you see the grown Alison standing there. She’s not doing anything, she’s just watching. Every time we tried to give her more language it was dead. At Sundance, we figured that out.
Q: How would you describe your working relationship with Jeanine? What comes first, your lyrics or her melodies?
A: We would talk and talk and talk about the play, what was happening and what was at the core of a scene. Then we would get an idea for a song and Jeanine would say, “Just go write a whole bunch of stuff.” I had never written lyrics before so in the beginning, Jeanine would look at a page and say, “That’s not a lyric, that’s not a lyric, lyrics are not dialog and they’re not exposition.” And then every once in a while she would circle a few lines and say, “That’s a lyric!” And I would ask, “What’s the difference between that and that?!” That really took a long time, but for the most part, that remained our method. I just generated a lot of material and then brought it to her and we started to pull out things that she set to music.
Q: I read that Bechdel gave you complete creative control of the musical, but did you ever check in with her? Did she have any unofficial input?
A: Alison was always available to us and she was a dream in that way. She gave me her work journals from when she wrote Fun Home, and that was enormously helpful. She’s got all this stuff online where she’s in her studio working, just talking to the camera, and I watched and transcribed them. I could email her with questions and within a few hours she’d write back with all this information. She’s been very happy with the experience and the results. Her whole family has seen the show, her brothers and her father’s sister. I think the connection between our world and her real life has gotten very deep. She said to me at one point, “I feel like I should give you my firstborn child.” And there was this little beat and both of us said at the same time, “But you did!” Glad I didn’t kill her baby!