Putting the Fun in Funeral Home

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Tuesday January 24, 2017
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Young Alison (Alessandra Baldacchino) has a rare moment<br>of play with her difficult father (Robert Petkoff) in the tour of <i>Fun Home</i><br> now at the Curran Theatre. Photo: Joan Marcus <br><br>
Young Alison (Alessandra Baldacchino) has a rare moment
of play with her difficult father (Robert Petkoff) in the tour of Fun Home
now at the Curran Theatre. Photo: Joan Marcus 

When Fun Home won the Tony Award in 2015 for best musical, it added an unlikely exclamation point to a seven-year journey of writing, workshops, readings, and rewrites before more writing, workshops, readings, and rewrites that finally led to Broadway. If the road there sometimes seemed endless, the start-and-stop process turned out to be a gift to its creators.

"If there is enough time between all of those things, you come back almost like an audience seeing something new," said Jeanine Tesori, who wrote the Fun Home score. "That's what happened to us. I think the danger with workshops is when you do them without time to sleep on it, and then come back too soon."

Tesori was on the phone from New York while author and lyricist Lisa Kron was on the line from her family hometown in Michigan visiting her mother in the hospital. They were on the phone to talk about the post-Broadway Fun Home tour, the inaugural theatrical production in the renovated Curran Theatre, where performances continue through Feb. 19. Carole Shorenstein Hays, who owns and operates the Curran, was one of the musical's producers who helped get it to Broadway.

As Kron and Tesori spent all those years developing Fun Home, they regularly returned to other projects to pay their bills. "I think I made maybe $10,000 from Fun Home during all those years," said Tesori, best-known for her scores to Caroline, or Change and Violet. The material never suggested more than a modest future for the show, let alone a moneymaking Broadway run. Its protagonist is a lesbian cartoonist, and the pivotal moment in her life is when her closeted father commits suicide just weeks after she came out to her family.

Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori were the first female writing team to win a Tony Award for best score at the 2015 ceremonies. Photo: Courtesy CBS/Tony Awards

Kron based her book and lyrics on Alison Bechdel's autobiographical graphic novel, which carried the subtitle "a family tragicomedy." Made up of captioned illustrated panels, it suggested the kind of cinematic storyboard that already framed each scene. "It didn't work out that way at all," said Kron, a member of the Five Lesbian Brothers troupe and author and star of Well, which had a 2005 run at Berkeley Rep. "One of the very deceiving things about the book is that it doesn't have any kind of dramatic narrative. It has a kind of essayistic investigation, and in my previous work I've spent a lot of time thinking about how to dramatize those emotional quests."

In the musical, Alison is looking back on episodes in her life, with actresses playing her at middle-aged, college-aged, and pre-teen. "It's asking a question about her relationship with her father, and it moves through her memories, back and forth in time, the way all of us move through memories," Kron said. "It's not so much telling a story as asking a question."

Despite that question's tragic aspects, the quirks of Alison's family life provide many opportunities for wry humor. Her father runs a funeral parlor, known to young Alison and her siblings as the fun home, and they musically create a mock television commercial extolling its virtue. Their father is also a rabid preservationist, with their house a testament to minute historical details with anything like a pair of casually parked kids' sneakers marring the aesthetic. He is also given to unexplained absences, which his wife knows and his kids begin to suspect are dalliances with young men.

Older Alison (Kate Shindle) tries to sort out her relationship with her father (Robert Petkoff) after coming out as a lesbian in the musical based on Alison Bechdel's graphic novel. Photo: Joan Marcus

Fun Home is Kron's first go at writing lyrics, and her skills developed through trial and error. "I would say I got a little bit faster, but it doesn't come easily to me, and it was never fun," she said. "When people say to me, what is the secret to writing a musical, I say get Jeanine Tesori to collaborate with you and mentor you through learning how to do it." Kron and Tesori's score won a Tony Award, the first female writing team to win that award.

"I would say this about Jeanine's score," Kron said. "There are many different things that happen in it, but I think it's absolutely of a piece. Go through any day of our lives, we're always hitting different worlds. When I hang up this phone, I'm not going to be in an interview about a musical. I'm going to be back in the hospital world. We move like that through life, and Jeanine has written all sorts of figures and themes that are interwoven into a single thing."

A third collaborator throughout the process was director Sam Gold, who at one point cautioned Tesori and Kron that the story was slipping toward becoming a coming-out saga. "He said, 'I think you're after something greater than that.' I'm so grateful he said that," Tesori said, "because when you're in the mess of it, it's hard to see when you're trying to manage all these threads, which was maddening but now it's thrilling when I look back on it."

Tesori described herself as "super straight," and joked that she was brought in to diversify the creative team. "Lisa and I talked about it a lot, and she brings her experience as a gay woman of not being able to hold hands with someone in high school. I bring the experience of someone who had no pushback from holding hands with my boyfriend in high school. And we talked about my relationship with my father, which had nothing to do with coming out but about a young woman coming of age. Our experiences were so necessary, straight and gay, as two storytellers chasing after the same thing."

 

Fun Home will run through Feb. 19 at the Curran Theatre. Tickets are $29-$185. Go to sfcurran.com.