6 Questions with “Fun Home” Composer Jeanine Tesori

When Jeanine Tesori was approached by playwright Lisa Kron about musicalizing Alison Bechdel’s 2006 autobiographical graphic novel, Fun Home, the Tony-nominated composer said she didn’t know how to do it, but she wanted to give it a try. After years of development, 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. Tesori talks about the difficulties of writing a nonlinear musical and why ignoring advice from a theater industry bigwig helped make Fun Home what it is today.

Q: Lisa recalled that when she first met with you about adapting Alison’s book, you said, “I can’t picture how this will become a musical.” Even though you ultimately signed on, while reading it, did you ever think, I just can’t do this?

A: Absolutely not. One of the gifts of getting older is that I know what goes into a “yes.” I know how many years a musical takes. When working on a piece, I live with it every day. I wake up with it and I think about it when I’m having dinner, it’s everything for years and years. That’s what a “yes” means. I always knew that I wanted to do Fun Home. I would not have had the skill to write it even five years ago. It met me at the right time. Just like Alison had to wait until the right time to write her graphic novel. She got up the perspective and the need and the courage.

Q: You’ve worked on other shows about children navigating complicated relationships with their parents, notably Caroline, or Change and Violet. In an interview about the latter, you said, “My own relationship with my dad was very complicated, and I keep trying to figure it out by writing stories about it.” Is Fun Home part of your ongoing catharsis? 

A: For sure, I think that’s part of why I said yes to it. My dad died many years ago when my daughter was just 18-months-old. I think we stay in relationships with people who pass away. The dynamic changes, of course, since they’re no longer around. But the memory of them and our relationship to them keeps changing. I think that grappling led to Fun Home. It’s a sort of cousin of what happened to Alison with writing the book, the burden just gets lighter because you release some of it by examining it. We spend so much of our time as daughters or sons thinking of our needs. It takes time and some humility to turn it around and think, well, what was their experience? Hopefully that gives us some compassion for what they were going through and leads to some sort of forgiveness and understanding.

Q: Since Fun Home is based on a nonlinear graphic novel, adapting it for the stage wasn’t straightforward. Did you have a lot of input into the structure?

A: I don’t do any shows where I just write the songs. I don’t think you own it if you don’t have some insight into what the song’s reason for being is. In musical theater, songs are all about context. A great example is “Gee, Officer Krupke” in West Side Story. When it comes in the first act, like in the movie, it’s just a comedy song. But in the show it’s in the second act when things are most dire, so it does this heavy lifting of relief from the tragedy. I have to understand why a song should be where it is or I can’t write it. The thing about Fun Home that was so unbelievably frustrating was I couldn’t easily figure out why certain songs needed to be where they were. For a long time, there was no rhyme or reason for where things would go and that was driving me crazy! There were 20 years when nothing happened in the Bechdel family and then Alison wrote this coming out letter and four months later her father was dead. Where do you start a show like that? We wrote all these songs and were like, where do they go? Well hell if I know! It was a lot of hit or miss and made me feel like a complete idiot. I was supposed to be the one who knew musicals and I kept saying to Lisa, “I don’t know this! So don’t look at me like I’m the sage because I’m not.” When it came to this book, there’s no definitive beginning, so we had to make one. Just talking about it now makes me want to go back to bed!

Q: What creative problems did you and Lisa solve while at the Sundance Theatre Lab?

A: The show was very modular for a long time before we figured out what came next because it had to come next. There was this one day at Sundance when we had put up these fucking index cards and we just looked at each other and started literally climbing the walls because that’s how it felt! We were trying to write songs and then pull back — that’s why we had the wall so we could literally step back and see the show. I’m not interested in writing a show that follows the structure of a labyrinth because I don’t want it to be so hard to follow that it doesn’t hit people directly in the heart. Our job is to clarify to the point where it’s accessible emotionally and the plot and story are clear so that we’re just ahead of the audience, not behind them and not with them, like a conductor. At first we didn’t know how to do that because the source material was so dense and so good and had its own world. We had to figure out our own way. We didn’t even know whether there were going to be two or three Alisons at different ages for a couple of years.

Q: Why did you finally settle on three Alisons, small, medium and grown?

A: We almost didn’t! At one point, a very famous and smart person in the theater said to me, “The show will fail if you keep that middle-aged character in. I know it will fail.” That’s very hard to hear when you’re in the middle of it, you’re so vulnerable. It really spun me around. But the beauty of comments like that is they become an opportunity to look at a choice and think, are we going to do this? Sam [Gold, the director] said, “Of course you can get rid of her, but that would be so easy wouldn’t it? Go for the hard thing. I will help you and I will be there every step of the way.” And we never looked back. As disorientating as it was, it became completely orienting. It gave us a compass and I thought, fuck it, if we fail, we fail. (In the end, the person who made the original comment came to see the show at the Public and admitted to having been wrong.)

Q: The opening notes of the show are so haunting. They really set a simultaneously somber and playful tone, and keep recurring throughout. How did you come up with that?

A: It’s just a major chord and a minor chord and a major chord turning side by side. I wrote that right when we started working on the show but we put it at the very beginning late in the development process. It wasn’t until then that I looked back and realized what I was doing. They’re very close together, a major and a minor, and to me it’s about coexistence, how you can have both things in one, a mixture of sweet and not so sweet battling back and forth. They chase each other in a sort of fugue state. Lisa even said to me, “There’s something about that figure that reminds me of the reason that we’re writing this show.”

Read the interview with Alison Bechdel, creator of the graphic novel Fun Home on which the musical is based.

Tickets are now available for Fun Home on Broadway.