I saw Fun Home at the Victory Gardens Theater. It was an incredible production. They invited cartoonists and visual artists to show their work before the show. I appreciated the interactive wall for audience members to draw pictures associated with their own memories. Prompts included drawing your home, your first love and other sentimental topics. Through these activities, audience members were engaging authentically with the work from the moment they walked in the doors of the theater. I thought this was a smart way to connect audience members emotionally to the content of the musical.
The musical is adapted from Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel of the same name. I’m interested in the adaptation of a graphic novel into a stage musical. What elements are retained? I’m also curious about how the coming of age story of a queer artist is treated. I’d like to explore the musical with these considerations in mind.
Lisa Kron, who adapted the graphic novel to the musical, developed the idea of having three Alisons on stage (small Alison, college-aged medium Alison, and present day Alison). Kron talks more about the process, which she call painstaking in this interview. With the oldest Alison creating the graphic novel on stage, the creative process seems more present than in reading the novel. She describes her choices, how she is uses objects to conjure her memories.
In the graphic novel, the literary references are much more prominent and run throughout. One of my favorite themes in the novel is how she connects her relationship to her father to the inverse to the story of Icarus and Daedalus. In the graphic novel, she is explicit about the connection to the myth from the start and end of the story with the game of airplane to Alison’s desire to enjoying reading Ulysses (with Stephen Dedalus) like her father, and the drawing of maps from a bird’s eye view. Journey and distance are evoked through literary references. Also, like Joyce’s Ulysses, the chapters evoke stylistic elements of English literature. Bechdel’s chapter titles harken back to famous English works of literature.
The references are intricate and consistent throughout the graphic novel. For example, the first scene shows the airplane scene with the book Anna Karenina on the floor beside her father. The book seems to foreshadow his suicide and calls forth the famous first sentence of the novel “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” and Anna Karenina’s step in front of a train. Throughout the whole story, it’s as if we see the truck coming to hit her father.
Although the musical shows that books are important in Alison’s relationship with her and in her coming-out, it minimizes the references in favor of capturing emotion. It seems fitting that the literary references should stay in print and emotions come alive on stage because this is generally what we associate with each medium. The airplane scene in the musical gets its own song rather than its own book. Musical themes are repeated in emotional moments and give depth to what the characters may be feeling.
In some ways, a graphic novel is particularly poised to transition to the stage. The panels can make up scenes complete with dialogue. Music helps us hear the many voices sounding at once. I think that is another reason why the three Alisons is all the more genius. We can hear her perspective concurrently at all three phases of her life. We also get a chance to hear a song by Alison’s father who we don’t have access to his inner thought process in the graphic novel. The staging allows deeper access to the internal thought process of more characters.
The show feels closer, the emotions more reckless than in the graphic novel. The characters are right in front of us proclaiming how they feel through song, whereas in the graphic novel, the starkness of conversation in an east coast family leaves the emotions more implied and distant.
These different emotional registers make each interpretation effective in its own way. Both are playing with the idea of distance. The emotional distance differing in each, makes the themes of motion and physical distance even more prominent.
Both start and end with playing airplane. This game brings Alison and her father close physically, while an airplane implies travel or increasing distance. She says it is one of the rare moments they make physical contact, but it is through a game that imagines her soaring away.
Throughout both interpretations, we hear about trips, maps, and cars. In the musical, Alison’s coming out is phrased as she “leapt out of the closet.” The motion is all tarnished with Bruce’s suicide, stepping in front of a moving vehicle as she immediately adds. “I leapt out of the closet and four months later my father killed himself by stepping in front of a truck.” Motion is exciting, motion is painful. This is summizes in the perfect last line of the graphic novel “…he was there to catch me when I leapt”
Throughout the graphic novel, we see Alison’s journey, like the Odyssey and Ulysses, twisting with her dad. Moments of motion are are emphasized with this mock-hero’s journey framework. Her coming out is navigating through Scylla and Charybdis, her exploring Joan’s body is “landing on a new shore” and the last “hurtling into the sea.” Traversing distance is a metaphor for the oscillating emotional distance between Alison and her father.
Ultimately, the graphic novel adds a layer of complexity to the prominence of distance metaphors through the hero’s journey that is missing in the musical. On the other hand, the musical gives greater access to the emotions of the characters to the audience. Motion and distance are essential to both portrayals and the way they are presented gives us an idea about what is different between the two mediums of storytelling.