Novel Remains Fun in Stage Adaptation

People are always talking about movie and TV book adaptations. But what about play and musical adaptations? Last night, I saw Fun Home on Broadway, the musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel of the same name. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is one of my favorite books. Bechdel so intimately discusses her dysfunctional family and upbringing. She weaves her story of bursting out of the closet with her father’s battle with his own homosexuality and her complicated childhood. The story is touching, darkly humorous, and complex- just like life. While the musical adaptation of Fun Home received the Tony Award for the Best Musical, alongside four other Tony’s, I was skeptical it would do the graphic memoir justice.

Boy was I wrong.

I saw the musical with my brother and was convinced that since he didn’t read the original, he would be confused and unable to pick up on the nuances. But the musical did such a good job capturing Bechdel’s wit and drama. Contrary to expectation, I was joyously baffled by the portrayal of the family. Michael Cerveris, who plays Bechdel’s father Bruce, took home the Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical Tony (and I can clearly see why). 

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Using the graphic format was an innovative way for Bechdel, an American cartoonist and writer, to create her memoir. Turning a graphic novel into a musical is equally as innovative. Adapting graphic novels into live-action films or plays is interesting- the visuals are already laid out on paper. Graphic memoirs, like Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, puts the reader inside their life, not just with words, but with drawings as well. It would seem then that a live-action adaptation would be easier- you already know what the set should look like, how the character’s dress and what their hairstyles are, etc… But like any adaptation, there’s a thin line between catching the heart and soul of the book and failing completely.  

Fun Home came out in 2006 and was a surprising literary success. Bechdel told NBC OUT that she never dreamed her memoir would be so successful and that, “the reception of the book felt like such a mainstream embrace of a queer story.” With the 2015 Broadway adaptation, that success and embrace got “exponentially larger.” The story revolves heavily around LGBTQ themes and positive feedback to the musical and book continues to feel “like a win for the broader LGBTQ community,” says Bechdel. The theme of family is strong as well; I found myself watching Bechdel and her father and relating to their relationship, with chocked up tears locked in my throat. 

The three musical Alisons, and her art desk.

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Fun Home: The Musical did something great. The space is an arena theater, meaning the audience surrounds the stage and the action can be viewed from anywhere. No matter where you sit, you’re in the center of the action, just like reading the graphic novel. It not just the seating that immerses you deep into the musical; it’s the acting, the set-design, the capturing of Bechdel’s themes (gender roles, emotional abuse, father-daughter relationships, and more), and, of course, the music. The way we interact with stories changes depending on the medium. My reaction to the musical and Bechdel’s written memoir were different, but great in their own ways.

On the stage, when young Alison belts out beautiful lyrics or teenage Alison grapples with falling for a woman for the first time, I was fully immobile, gripping my seat as shivers were sent down my spine. I found Bechdel’s memoir less emotionally riveting; it was more of a darkly humorous look at a very serious subject- and I couldn’t put the book down. Both evoked strong reactions from me (and the crowd). The music draws you in, the characters come to life (I literally felt like the characters jumped out of the book and onto the stage, it was amazing). Both stories made me laugh and cry, and the second the actors took a bow I jumped to my feet. So did everyone else. Hurray for a successful adaptation of one of my personal favorite pieces of literature!

Image courtesy of the Wall Street Journal.