Originally opening on Broadway in 2015, Fun Home was, and still is, a groundbreaking meta-theatrical musical like no other. On paper, it’s an unlikely candidate for a musical. Based on Alison Bechdel’s bestselling graphic novel, the musical dives deep into Alison’s past for a true story about growing up, coming out and the complexities of family life. It explores a myriad of themes and issues – some which have never been given the musical theatre treatment.
Fun Home not only works, it triumphs. And it is all thanks to the daring and original nonlinear narrative that moves between the past and present and the unique way the story is told. Alison, played by Lucy Maunder, at 43 years old, sifts through her memories and watches them come to life by nine-year-old Small Alison, a role shared by Flora Feldman, Sophie Isaac and Teja Kingi, and 19-year-old Medium Alison, played by Ursula Searle.
When Maunder first read the script she was overwhelmed by how wonderfully it was realised. ‘Knowing Lisa Kron’s book won the Tony Award for Best Script, along with Jeanine Tesori’s score, and that they were the first ever female duo in the history of the Tony’s to win both, it was clear it was a special piece.’
Similarly, Searle also realised how distinct the show is. ‘When I first read the script I was blown away by the complex portrayal of queerness. So often in musicals and plays the queer experience is reduced to just sexuality, but in this we see Alison struggle with gender expression, stereotypes and the intellectual and physical realisation of her sexuality. We're also given so many other aspects of Alison other than her queerness; we're seeing her grow and change and we're also seeing the moment she realised her parents were flawed. As an actor, this script is incredibly exciting.’
The three faces of Alison
Having three different versions of Alison allows Fun Home to be told unlike any other musical. Maunder agrees: ‘I love that adult Alison is looking back on her childhood memories, forming her life choices and sexuality and shaping her later relationship with her father. And then when we meet Medium Alison, we see her flourishing into the adult she becomes.’ By letting the audience see how ‘joyous (and painful it is at times) for Alison to recall these memories through her watching them is innovative and incredibly effective.’
It also allows the audience to truly connect with Alison. ‘By having Alison making commentary throughout the show, it moves the audience into a space where they can look at her as a person,’ says Searle. ‘It helps the story, because as an audience, you can see her making mistakes, and you can see her figuring it out.’ Because 43-year-old Alison is guiding us through her memories and the story, we know it turns out okay. ‘She’s there the whole time and from the beginning she’s already said, “I became a lesbian cartoonist,” and obviously a very successful one,’ reflects Searle. Even though she experiences hardships and difficult events in her life, she still manages to find herself.
That’s not to say the play doesn’t offer up some creative challenges for both Maunder and Searle. In Maunder’s case, she never leaves the stage. ‘It’s challenging but also amazing to be there for every moment through the show, once I walk through the door at the top of the show I don’t leave for one second. I’m watching it all, narrating it and commenting on it and reliving it.’ What's also challenging for Maunder is that she doesn’t get to make eye contact with any of the other actors until right at the end. That’s where the importance of the audience comes in. ‘With an audience it feels like they’re going on the journey through the eyes of older Alison so it feels like they’re my scene partner,' she explains, also adding, ‘Along with my writing desk which I move through the action of the whole show.’
What has proved creatively challenging for Searle, however, is the fact that she is privy to the emotions of older Alison. ‘I find it’s hard to listen to the show when I’m doing it. There are some really intense songs that older Alison sings, but I’m very much in the head of 19-year-old Alison.’ Searle has to remind herself that her version of Alison doesn’t know the same information that older Alison does. ‘I’ve found it challenging to listen to Alison’s pain when she reflects back on moments, and then having to go back on stage and be back in the past. I need to mentally stay in my era.’
Going along on the ride
The transitions from light to dark in the show are another reason why Fun Home is truly unique. ‘Fun Home definitely covers a lot of heavy topics, but it beautifully navigates them, and pulls the audience out of the darkness with moments of joy and humour. The transitions are seamless, and you really just go on the ride,’ says Maunder.
And even though Fun Home is set between the 60s and 80s, its themes are entirely relevant today. According to Searle, this is because the story explores a range of human experiences. ‘The way it delves into not just the queer experience, but also family dynamics and coming of age, is why I think this show will speak to so many people on a personal level, regardless of age or sexual orientation.’
Having performed already in the 2020 Sydney season, Maunder knows this to be true. ‘We were meant to open in Melbourne nearly two years ago, and I know people will feel as strongly about it as the Sydney audiences. You can feel joy, be moved to tears, laugh, and just enjoy a stunning piece of musical theatre writing.’
Fun Home is on stage at Arts Centre Melbourne, Playhouse from 7 February 2022.
Published on 3 February 2022