One night, my collaborator and I checked in with each other.
He: Just saw BIG FISH. It made me misty. Also very antsy.
Me: We just saw a grown child’s investigation of father’s myth musical, too
He: A DIFFERENT one?
He: Wow. Was it called “Medium Sized Parakeet?”
Me: No, silly: Title is two words; first is three letters, second, four
He: FAT PANTS?
Me: Now THERE’S one I want to see.
‘Tis the season, I guess, for emotionally searing journeys of discovery involving a father’s infidelities, and when, if ever, he told the truth. You’d think this sort of thing would be right up my alley, but Fun Home, while very well-wrought, managed to leave me cold. I was similarly dissatisfied by Big Fish, and wrote about it some weeks ago. The composers (Jeanine Tesori and Andrew Lippa, respectively) are both pushing fifty, have ample experience, and tend to be highly regarded. In 2000, Lippa had a show called The Wild Party premiere off-Broadway while, at the same time, on Broadway there was another show called The Wild Party, based on the same source. And now I can’t get his song, Two of a Kind, out of my head.
But Fun Home is a very different kettle of, er, fish. It avoids trading on sentimental tropes. Big Fish gives us love at first sight, a wedding, a fetus’ first kick, and a character’s death and seems to expect us to be moved because, well, aren’t those always moving things? Fun Home presents a middle class family full of delightful quirks. Both Sam Gold’s staging and the plot (Lisa Kron did book and lyrics based on a graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel) create a world where anything can happen. There are surprises of both the delightful and devastating variety.
I won’t spoil the plot, but there’s something major – both immoral and illegal – and it’s so extraordinary, I expected far more dramatic repercussions from it. A wife stands by her man, understandably angry, but persevering. For our central characters, as dramatized, it doesn’t seem to be such a big deal.
And the biggest shortcoming in Fun Home is similar to a central problem with Big Fish. Those grown children, doing the investigating, do not appear to be all that damaged by the experience of having a difficult father. Both are successful regularly-published writers. If there’s some ill-effect, due to Dad, in their present-day psychological make-up, I couldn’t tell what it is. They do not slog through an emotional arc.
Am I asking too much of these musicals? Am I just thinking about how I’d write the shows differently? It seems to me that if, over the course of an evening, we’re to watch an adult learn more and more about a father and his hidden secrets, than the act of ferreting out clues needs to heal that grown child in some way, to fix a problem they have. Otherwise, it’s investigation for investigation’s sake.
Fun Home uses three actresses to play the daughter – roughly age 10, 20 and 40, allowing the oldest one (Beth Malone) to observe what the younger ones experience. A hoary device, perhaps, but one I found pretty fascinating. The solos the younger girls sing are compelling and prickly. The show’s at its strongest when not dealing with the parents; just watching Alison grow up is riveting enough.
You might take this with a grain of salt, since Jeanine Tesori is an old friend, but Fun Home’s score is terrific, tuneful. I’m reminded that, in her career, she’s consistently worked with lyricist-librettists who’ve never had a musical produced before. And all of their first efforts are so impressive, it’s exciting to have a new and fresh creative force hit the scene. (Two won the Kleban Award for their efforts, Brian Crawley and David Lindsay-Abaire.) The one number that deals with love (and lust) positively – I don’t know the title but it includes the words “changing my major” – is so delightful, I predict it will be done by college-age performers for years to come. In common with Tesori’s Caroline, or Change, there are sudden flights of fancy connected to period kitsch, with appropriate music connected to the pop of a recent decade. It’s an instantly admirable score.
But there’s a difference between admiring and loving, and I can’t say I loved Fun Home. I appreciated that just about everything in it was extremely well-done. The performances were all excellent; the set was a feast for the eyes. Admired all that, but the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts.