In School of Drama’s ‘Fun Home,’ a woman discovers herself
“Fun Home,” the School of Drama’s current production, isn’t a straightforward musical. It tells the twin stories of a daughter and her father, who are both grappling with being gay in rural Pennsylvania in the 1970s. It deals with sex and suicide. But despite its sensitive subject matter and complex narrative, it has met with broad critical and commercial success. The show’s initial off-Broadway run was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in drama, and after transferring to Broadway in 2014, it won five Tony Awards.
The first musical on Broadway to feature a lesbian protagonist, “Fun Home” is based on Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel of the same name, which chronicles the author’s experience of coming out as gay. While busy navigating her own sexuality as a college student, Alison learns that her father, Bruce, is also gay. A few days after they discuss the matter, Bruce commits suicide.
In the novel, published in 2006, Alison comes to terms with her own story through a free-associative style that mimics the unpredictability of memory. Adapting the story for the stage was a gargantuan task for Jeanine Tesori (music) and Lisa Kron (book and lyrics), who spent years whittling the sprawling memoir down to 27 scenes with brief transitions.
To simulate memory, they split Alison into three characters representing different times in her life: Small Alison (9, growing up in Beech Creek, Pennsylvania), Medium Alison (19, a college freshman), and Alison (43, a cartoonist working on her memoir). Even though the three Alisons are played by different actors (and occasionally appear on stage together) they don’t interact. Each is isolated in her own narrative, and all three narratives only move forward.
School of Drama directing student Danilo Gambini ’20 chose “Fun Home” as his thesis show because of its complexities and challenges. It’s both the biggest budget and the biggest stage he’s had during his three years at the school. “I wanted to push my boundaries hard,” he said.
Before coming to Yale, the 33-year-old Gambini had a theater career in his native Brazil. Deciding to put his career on hold and go back to school meant he had to make the move count, he said, explaining, “When I got [to Yale], my goal was to do things I didn’t know how to do.”
To bring “Fun Home” to life, Gambini collaborated with a team of drama school designers, and the production utilizes a number of innovative theatrical devices. There’s a two-story “minimalist” house, video projections, over 120 individual props, puppetry, and extensive choreography. With “Fun Home,” said Gambini, “I’m really out of my comfort zone, in a good way.”
Jill Brunelle, the show’s music director, said Tesori’s score helps tell Alison’s story. “Music augments [this] story and makes it more emotionally direct for an audience,” she explained, adding that it communicates all the complexity words can’t.
Brunelle brought her opera background to bear by encouraging a sensitivity to textual and sonic devices within the score. Ultimately, she said, there is little difference between opera and musical theater. “At the end of the day, we’re all telling stories, [which] are augmented by the composer’s vision of how people move through their worlds.”
Gambini said “Fun Home” is one of his favorite musicals. He first saw the show on Broadway in 2015 after visiting Yale and its School of Drama for the first time. Though he knew little about the show going in, he was mesmerized, and decided to produce it in Brazil as soon as the rights became available.
Getting the rights, however, took months, and around the same time he got permission to buy them, Gambini was admitted to Yale School of Drama. He left “Fun Home” behind when he started school, so he said he is delighted to have the chance to bring it to Yale.
For the third-year directing student, one song in particular highlights the musical’s poignancy. Small Alison sings “Ring of Keys” while out to lunch with her father, where she sees what she describes as an “old school butch” — a woman with cropped hair dressed in men’s clothes. While singing, however, she “loses her words, lacking access to the sexual vocabulary she needs to express herself,” said Gambini.
The way the musical “exists for people grabs my heart,” Gambini continued, explaining that Alison’s journey is so potent because “seeing yourself outside of yourself, you are suddenly given the gift of your own existence and you can understand yourself better. That fits the aim of a thesis show because it should be a statement of what my — our — art is.”
“Fun Home” runs through Dec. 20 at the University Theatre, 222 York St. For tickets and more information visit the production’s website or call 203-432-1234.