The writer of Tony-winning musical Fun Home tells the BBC how the show’s lengthy gestation worked in its favour.
When it opened in New York in 2013, Fun Home seemed a radical departure – a musical whose sympathetic central character was a lesbian.
Playwright Lisa Kron adapted the story from Alison Bechdel’s acclaimed graphic memoir, which drew on her growing up in rural Pennsylvania.
Five years on, Kron thinks audiences are far more relaxed about the show’s subject matter.
Winner of five Tony awards in 2015, the musical is now receiving its UK premiere at the Young Vic in London.
Kron says she may now realistically count among the veterans of America’s lesbian theatre scene. But the performer and playwright believes it is a scene that has changed profoundly, and at speed.
“I started work making theatre in a lesbian theatre collective in the East Village in New York City in the 1980s,” she explains.
“I didn’t expect to have any sort of commercial success, or even a professional career. It just seemed those doors weren’t open to me then, or to other lesbian theatre-makers.
“In a sense I’ve been lucky. Being born in the 1960s has been the perfect timing for the trajectory of my career. Those doors opened just as I was acquiring the skills appropriate to a bigger stage.
“Working on Fun Home with Alison Bechdel, who wrote the wonderful original book, and with the composer Jeanine Tesori was a very long process,” Kron continues.
“It took seven years before we opened at the Public Theater in Manhattan. Then it went to Broadway. But only a few years earlier, I’m sure mainstream audiences would never have reacted to a complex lesbian love story in the same way.”
Fun Home started life in 2006 as an autobiographical book told in graphic form.
Bechdel was already known for her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, which ran from 1983. Her book focused mainly on her relationship with her father Bruce, who died in 1980 aged 44.
The Bechdels lived in Beech Creek, a tiny town in Pennsylvania, where Bruce was a teacher. He also did up old houses and ran a funeral parlour. (Fun Home is partly a joke on funeral home.)
The show begins with Alison, played by three performers at different stages of her life, remembering growing up.
She recalls coming out as a lesbian to her parents in a letter while she was away at college. And she remembers the dramas which followed as she learned her father had also had gay encounters, which her mother had known about.
Four months after Alison comes out, her father steps in front of a truck and is killed.
“I think this show is great for the LGBTQ community,” says Swedish actress Kaisa Hammarlund, who plays the grown-up Alison in London. “It’s a very now story being told at exactly the right time.
“I happened to see it on Broadway and I remember watching through a curtain of tears – it grabbed me from the moment it started.
“In 2018, it’s very important we have an amazing, fiery team of women writers telling this story.
“Jeanine Tesori’s music has such energy and life there’s no risk of being preachy. There’s far more warmth and humour in the storytelling than you might expect.”
Kron has thought a lot about why Fun Home has had such success. “After Broadway, it toured America for about a year,” she recalls.
“I would never have expected that, but culture is context and there’s a culture that’s been built by LGBT art-makers and activists for decades.
“I think the big thing that’s now changed – in America at least – is that increasingly on TV, lesbians have been seen in comedies or as talk show hosts. Partly it’s simply that more women have been making television.
“So by the time our show made it to Broadway, audiences could come to a lesbian story with an open mind and make legible for themselves what they were seeing on stage. They could embrace it.”
Kron admits she had no expectation of such deep social change when she first started out. “I had no picture of what my career might become at all,” she says.
“For me theatre was always a vocation: It calls you. So when something comes along like Fun Home which genuinely touches the audiences you feared you’d never reach, that’s an experience.
“After all the years of working on the show and then getting it to Broadway and now to London. I can see that in fact something very basic makes the show work. The story is full of yearning. And the greatest musicals are often driven by a sense of unquenchable yearning.
“There’s a mystery at the centre of the story. There are unanswerable questions about Bruce Bechdel who is the elusive, unknowable love object. The whole family is striving to please this father, but ultimately what he wants isn’t located in the family and they don’t know it.”
Kron doesn’t want audiences to think what she, Tesori and Bechdel created is heavy or grim. “We want to beguile you and entertain and move you,” she insists.
“We want to draw an audience in and enact human experiences that cannot be described in any other way. It’s what theatre does.
The playwright says it is significant that, during the show’s run in New York, gay marriage was legalised across America. She thinks that helped legitimise the play’s characters in the minds of the audience.
“The audience would find the world being revealed to them,” she explains. “Bit by bit, their notion was changing of who is fully human.
“But beside all that I should say something else. If done well, musicals can be the most potent theatrical form there is. We wanna make you laugh! We wanna make you cry!”
Fun Home is at the Young Vic in London until 1 September.