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‘Fun Home’ takes story of family secrets from page to stage

Adaptation from one medium to another is never easy, and adaptations from the comic book page to the Broadway stage have always been especially tricky. “Annie” and “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown” are musical theater classics, sure, but “It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman,” “Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark” and “Doonesbury” are remembered a little less fondly.

“Fun Home,” an adaptation by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori of cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s acclaimed 2006 graphic novel memoir, is easily among the most artistically ambitious adaptations of any comic book or comic strip into a musical, and it is certainly the most successful of recent years, garnering an extended Broadway run and the 2015 Tony Award for best musical. The show’s national tour began in October and comes to Austin for a five-show engagement at the Long Center for the Performing Arts on Aug. 11-13.

Early in the graphic novel, Bechdel says, “It’s tempting to suggest, in retrospect, that our family was a sham. That our house was not a real home at all but the simulacrum of one, a museum. Yet we really were a family, and we really did live in those period rooms.” Kron, who wrote the book and lyrics for the show, and Tesori, who wrote the music, were faced with the immense challenge of bringing these real people, and those real rooms, to life, but doubly simulated through the lens of both memory and adaptation.

Kron says the temptation was strong to literally bring Bechdel’s images of her childhood home to the stage by projecting her drawings. However, Kron and her collaborators, including Tesori and director Sam Gold, soon realized that this would be a mistake.

“Part of what makes those images interesting is their scale, it’s their framing, it’s their relationship to each other,” Kron says. “And if you put them on the stage, they’re going to be diminished. That doesn’t serve them, and it doesn’t serve the theater.”

Instead, the creative team decided to “figure out how those tools in the graphic novel were functioning and then what we could use to achieve that same effect.”

For Kron, this meant exploring the way things are juxtaposed on the page versus what can be juxtaposed on the stage. “Early on I looked at the things she was juxtaposing — obviously, words and pictures,” she says. “Then scale, time periods, kinds of images, etc. And then I went through and made a list of things that can be powerfully juxtaposed in the theater to think about out how we could get to the same effect but in a different medium.”

The end result is as powerful and pointed on the stage as in the graphic novel. In the latter, Bechdel jumps between multiple time periods, comparing her own coming out story to the secrets of her father’s sexuality — secrets that ultimately led to his suicide. The musical mimics these layers with three different actresses representing three distinct periods in Alison’s life, each of whom relates uniquely to her father, serving as a clear through line that creates much of the show’s narrative tension.

However, part of the success of “Fun Home,” in either format, is the space left between those juxtapositions — the essential emptiness of unanswered questions and indescribable experience. As Kron notes, “Alison talks about what drew her to comics. She talks about this space of disjuncture in between what you see and then what the text says. I think that theater, but particularly musicals, are interested in that same place of disjuncture and emotional mystery and emotional ineffability. So I think that’s what made it feel like it could be a musical. It’s not the story that makes a good musical; it’s that quality of indefinable, in-between emotional space.”

To explore that in-between space, though, required a different set of artistic tools than those Bechdel used in her graphic novel. “We wanted it to feel the same, and we wanted it to ask the same questions that Alison was asking,” Kron says. “But you have to do it with completely different tools.”

This gets into the tricky question of adaptation itself, and how to make a work feel the same from one medium to another. Kron and Tesori had to ask themselves what the purpose of any adaptation is, and what it means to successfully adapt a work from one medium to another.

Their answer, according to Kron? “A successful adaptation can’t follow from the work being adapted,” she says. “It can’t be an extension of it. It has to have a brand new genesis, and it has to eventually live next to it, not after it.”

“Fun Home” the graphic novel is extremely intimate, in terms of both its story and the way it is received by an audience. As a work of art, it was created in relative solitude by a single cartoonist, and it is consumed in solitude by a single reader at a time. “Fun Home,” the stage musical, maintains that intimate story but without the same level of artist/audience intimacy that Bechdel’s book relies upon.

Indeed, as Kron says, “There’s nothing solitary about making a musical. It is one of the great collective endeavors in the world of art-making.” Nor is there anything solitary about watching a show with a large audience in a crowded theater.

The remarkable feat of “Fun Home” the musical, then, is that it so faithfully translates the feelings of solitude and alienation in Bechdel’s memoir using an entirely different set of artistic tools, a true testament to the entire creative team behind the show. Despite being very much a musical — complete with memorable, show-stopping numbers — “Fun Home” still feels like a personal, intimate reflection of one family’s powerful story of secrets, sexuality and simulacra.

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