Being gay is an important part of the narrative of the musical Fun Home, which is based on Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir of the same name and opened on Broadway this month. The protagonist, the adult Alison, announces: "My Dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town and he was gay and I was gay and he killed himself and I," she pauses, "became a lesbian cartoonist." Throughout the musical, the adult Alison (Beth Malone) revisits two younger versions of herself to try to better understand her relationship with her closeted, inscrutable father (Michael Cerveris). The show's queer identity is one of the reasons it will have a place in the Broadway history books: While lesbians have appeared in Broadway musicals previously, this is a show that puts a lesbian in a leading role.
Broadway has hosted a number of musicals about LGBT characters featuring men in leading roles. La Cage aux Folles opened in 1983 and has been revived twice since. Hugh Jackman won a Tony in 2004 for playing Peter Allen in The Boy from Oz. Last year, a production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch starring Neil Patrick Harris opened to great acclaim. That production and 2013's Kinky Boots, about a drag queen who helps a British shoe factory, are still running.
But fewer plays and musicals have dealt with lesbian characters. As Karman Kregloe explained on the website AfterEllen.com in 2007: "[T]he history of lesbians in musical theater (unlike that of gay men) is sparse and inconsistent." Kregloe notes "prominent—but not central—lesbian relationship[s]" in Rent and The Color Purple, which is getting a new production on Broadway soon, while also pointing out shows that "delight in rehashing the oldest and most persistent lesbian stereotypes," like Hairspray and Legally Blonde. When Fun Home was about to open at the Public Theater in 2013 June Thomas at Slate asked: "Is America ready for a musical about a middle-aged, butch lesbian?" Back then, the show had not received its Broadway run, and playwright Lisa Kron wondered to Thomas: "Are people willing to go there with people who are always on the outskirts, particularly of this form?" In August, David Levesley at Mic wrote that the show "will entirely change the way we talk about lesbians on stage," calling it "most daring, relentless analysis of homosexual identity on the New York stage right now."
LGBT representation on Broadway can conjure up thoughts of anthems like "I Am What I Am" from La Cage aux Folles, "the first Broadway musical ever to give center stage to a homosexual love affair," as Frank Rich wrote in his 1983 review of the show for The New York Times. The importance of La Cage should not be understated, nor should the honest romance at its center, but it is a story about a triumph over homophobia, which Rich deemed "sometimes as shamelessly calculating as a candidate for public office." While this isn't how every Broadway musical focusing on LGBT characters operates—take Falsettos, being revived next year, a story of a family during the AIDS crisis; or Hedwig and the Angry Inch, currently running—it’s a formula that was revived as recently as 2013 when Kinky Boots won the Tony for best new musical. (Kinky Boots and La Cage share a book writer, Harvey Fierstein.) The intention is uplift, with a simple message of acceptance.
Fun Home has no dance-in-the-aisles anthem of pride, but the inherent quality of Alison's identity is what makes the show "radical and amazing," according to Stacy Wolf, a Princeton University professor, who studies queerness in theater. In the song "Ring of Keys"—which dramatizes a moment in Bechdel's book when the young Alison sees and admires a butch woman in a luncheonette—Kron wrote from the perspective of Small Alison (Sydney Lucas). "Because butch women have been such a reflexive target of ridicule, like an automatic, easy laugh … there were so many descriptions and words and phrases that I felt like I couldn't use because I felt like they tapped into those stereotypes in popular culture," she said. "I just really tried to picture what she looked like to that girl."
Fun Home's songs—composed by Jeanine Tesori—about Alison's sexuality occur at the moments when she makes discoveries about herself. Medium Alison (Emily Skeggs) sings about her emotional growth in "Changing My Major," during which she chronicles an infatuation following her first sexual encounter with her girlfriend Joan. That song in particular, however, is paralleled with the tragic "Edges of the World," in which her father, Bruce, oscillates between anticipation and doom. In "Changing My Major," Allison sings: "Overnight everything changed, I am not prepared/ I’m dizzy I’m nauseous I’m shaky I’m scared/ Am I falling into nothingness or flying into something so sublime?" She concludes she doesn't know, but she is still "changing [her] major to Joan." In "Edges of the World," Bruce sings to his daughter: "I had a life I thought I understood./ I took it and I squeezed out every bit of life I could./ But the edges of the world that held me up have gone away/ and I'm falling into nothingness or flying into something so sublime." Though Bruce echoes Alison's words, he's not asking a question like she is. Instead he declares, "I'm a man I don't know." His song ends with a flash of headlights, as he steps in front of the truck that will signal his demise.
Fun Home isn't about Alison's search to figure out her own desires—those come pretty naturally—it's about her search to comprehend how the persona that came naturally to her relates to the one her father hid. But Bruce is inscrutable, even to himself. "Edges of the World" ends as Bruce asks, "Why am I standing here?"
"[Alison's] way of dealing with her sexuality is the opposite of her father's. To me that's celebratory. It's not expressed in conventional musical theater terms, but in some ways it is because we have three Alison's who sing," Wolf said.
For Kron, Fun Home's success on Broadway is not a question of whether audiences will be drawn to a lesbian character in a leading role; it's about whether they want to go to a musical that has "darkness to it." "The commercial viability question actually it seems to me has nothing to do with the gay or lesbian content," said Kron. "It only has to do with whether a quote-unquote serious musical can survive on Broadway."
The fact that Fun Home is a first in its central celebration of a lesbian protagonist, doesn't, ultimately, define the show. It's not a show about a need for inclusion from a group that may not welcome it; it's an interior-looking work about two characters bonded by the sexuality that one of them is developing and the other has suppressed. "Both Alison and I have spent our entire careers forging a work in which it is assumed that a protagonist and a point of view of a piece can be from the point of view of a lesbian," said Kron. The show is "a very self-assured train that's moving at full speed. It's presumed that the audience will have no trouble getting on that ride and seeing the world from that perspective."