‘Fun Home’ and making art out of queer identity and a tragic childhood
“My dad and I both grew up in the same Pennsylvania town. And he was gay, and I was gay and he killed himself.”
This is the line that sums up the plot of the critically acclaimed graphic memoir and musical “Fun Home,” a riveting story based on the life of cartoonist Alison Bechdel.
I first read Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir “Fun Home” when its musical adaptation was nominated for Best Musical at the 2015 Tony Awards. Discovering “Fun Home” was one of the most interesting and intimate reading experiences I’ve ever had. It is a heartbreaking and truthful and beautiful depiction of a unique experience that has the ability to transcend its specific narrative, making it relatable in a way I would never have expected. Although I don’t identify as a part of the LGBTQ+ community, I never expected a graphic novel about the experience of growing up with a queer identity to speak to me on such a personal level. But just as the queer community is constantly asked to suspend their own disbelief to relate to the hundreds of thousands of straight protagonists in all mainstream literature, it shouldn’t come as a shock that as a straight person, I could relate deeply to the queer narrative Bechdel shares with us through her cartoons.
When the book was published in 2006, “Fun Home” headlined nearly every best of the year book list, but it took a transition into a musical and garnering an immediate popularity in the world of musical theatre to find its way to my bookshelf. Praised for breaking the boundaries of any definition the world previously held of “memoir,” the story follows Bechdel’s childhood in rural Pennsylvania and tells the journey of both her own sexuality and her relationship with her closeted gay father. The memoir is laid out in a series of comics that chronicles her relationships with her parents and grapples with the past and the present — telling the stories of her life before and after her father’s suicide.
The graphic novel is seen as a turning point for the world of graphic novels — after its massive success, more people began to write and share graphic novels. But more importantly, after its publication, the greater theme of queerness became more mainstream in the world of art and literature. The story came at a time where the world was ready to celebrate this narrative and bring it into a dialogue that had been on the precipice for a very long time. The honesty of the novel makes reading it feel like looking directly into the house that Bechdel grew up in, the one described intricate in the memoir.
After being received as a smash hit in both the queer community and society as a whole, talk of a musical based on the memoir began in 2013. “Fun Home” opened on Broadway officially in 2015, and the theatre community — more importantly, the mainstream theatre world that is Broadway — have never been given such a gift.
Historically, musicals and plays that make it to Broadway aren’t always the ones that look to make a statement, but rather those that look to entertain. “Fun Home” was able to do both, creating a beautiful and captivating moment for the world. After falling in love with the novel, I bought tickets to the show when it took home the 2015 Tony for Best Musical, among other accolades. The LGBTQ+ narrative needed to hit center stage Broadway; I sat in the Circle in the Square Theatre in early 2016 and I don’t think I breathed for a full two hours. By the end, I was sobbing with a joint feeling of heartache and awe. The most beautiful and inspiring part of the performance was seeing a queer protagonist not limited to just a coming-out-narrative. The story is about so much more: memory, relationships, connecting with others, growing up, finding yourself and coming to terms with the life that you have been given. All of this is surrounded by and framed in Bechdel’s struggle with her sexuality — both the graphic novel and the musical are unique in that they are multifaceted. I sat in that theatre, right in the center of Bechdel’s pain and ecstasy and was refreshed to see something so needed on a mainstream stage, being shared and celebrated by the queer and non-queer communities alike.
Since its original publication, “Fun Home” has become a cultural phenomenon. It is the gift that the world needed, it is the musical Broadway needed and it is the book my mind and heart and soul needed. Despite closing on Broadway in 2016, the show has completed its first national tour, produced regionally in the United States as well as internationally in the Philippines, with its future sights set on Japan and a second national tour. Its ability to continue to captivate and affect audiences is a great testament to the universality and prominence of the story. It is a beautiful moment for the queer community and the world — one that inspires thoughtful discussions and opens the door to more mainstream art that is rooted deeply in the theme of queer identity.