Tonight’s the night Broadway gets a look at Fun Home, possibly the first Tony-eligible musical based on a graphic memoir, and certainly one of the most beautiful new shows we’ll see. I know because it opened in the fall of 2013 at the Public Theater, and I wasn’t the only critic who called it shimmering. It’s based on artist Alison Bechdel’s drawn memoir of growing up in a restored Victorian mansion in Pennsylvania; the funeral home that is the family business; and the heroine’s search for meaning behind her father’s death. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the show has a book by Lisa Kron and staging by Sam Gold. The music is by Jeanine Tesori, one of a handful of composers whose every new work seems to break old conventions while honoring the rich breadth of Broadway music from classical roots to popular trends.
Tesori’s first show, Violet, drew deeply from American roots music. Caroline, Or Change, her groundbreaking collaboration with Tony Kushner, evoked the Civil Rights era. Shrek was her most conventional work and even it had its breakaway moments, as did Thoroughly Modern Millie. But Fun Home is utterly original and captivating on every level, from the three actresses playing Alison at various ages, to the journey that takes her from childhood innocence to her own coming-of-age. Produced by Fox Theatricals and Barbara Whitman at the head of the pack, Fun Home begins tonight at the intimate Circle in The Square, and opens April 19.
DEADLINE: So how’s the move going?
JEANINE TESORI: Sam said “There’s only one house I want to go in, the Circle In The Square,” and I thought, Oh, Christ, really? And he said, “This, absolutely, should be in the round.” I’ve never done a musical in the round. I’ve only seen one musical in the round. Why? He said, “I don’t want to just transfer, I’d like to do some transformation,” and I thought, “Well that’s not something you hear every day.” His idea was that no one in the show has the power, really. It swirls around you, and comes behind you when you when you least expect it.
DEADLINE: Do you think about your work in terms of a trajectory, of connections from one piece to the next? Fun Home, to me, is sort of reclaiming American idioms and American orchestrations that are so rare and that just melt my heart.
JEANINE TESORI: Oh, I’m so happy, because I feel that way. I see that Violet was so much guessing, and I think Fun Home, Violet are just the impulse to write about my father, which I grapple with constantly. Very few father-daughter relationships are examined in dramatic work. I mean we were thinking about it the other day, it was like we couldn’t think of almost anything after King Lear.
JEANINE TESORI: Yes! Carousel but not many more, and I think that’s something that I’ll grapple with forever. I also wanted to write about being a child of the ‘70s, of the innocence in that time, of being fed a steady diet of family dynamics that were nothing like what most of us were experiencing. You look down you can’t believe that you see that the mylar on Lost In Space, you’re like, “That’s aluminum foil!” and we just thought it was the most exotic, Lost in Space, it was millions of dollars, and when you look at the set, my god, you can see where the paper mache hangs. We just believed in a way.
DEADLINE: In your spare time you’re running Off-Center, the summer season of Encores! at City Center, which has been another spectacular success — notably for bring back Violet, which led to a terrific Broadway run with your muse, Sutton Foster. Have you figured out this summer’s program yet?
JEANINE TESORI: Yeah. We’re doing, William Finn’s A New Brain, with Jonathan Groff, the second is the concert of Little Shop of Horrors, with Ellen Greene, and then Andrew Lippa’s Wild Party.
DEADLINE: The Public really seems to have reclaimed its place as the major place for new musicals. Your relationship predates Fun Home and goes back to the time when George C. Wolfe was running things.
JEANINE TESORI: George took that place and completely redid the work force. He made it a home for a lot of artists — Susan-Lori Parks, Savion Glover and me. When I ran out of money, George got me a grant, I don’t even know how he did it. I had no money when I started working on Caroline and Millie hadn’t opened, and I just thought, I can’t do it, and suddenly there was $30,000 dollars that he had found somewhere. He said that money should not be the reason that you don’t do work, and he was a son figure to [Public founder] Joe Papp. I really felt the veins of that coming through him, and musicals really found their home with George. Now there’s just all this payoff for [current Public chief] Oskar Eustis and he’s attracting people specifically with musicals.
DEADLINE: George is ferocious, and fearless, and unbelievably articulate.
JEANINE TESORI: Right. And he approaches you artist to artist, because you know that he’s making something as well. That was the excitement that we felt, that you knew that he was in a part of the building doing the same thing, plus all this other stuff. Yeah, I’ve learned so much about musicals from him.
EADLINE: We give ourselves over to those kinds of leaders, who connect and who provoke us to change.
JEANINE TESORI: We do. With the three Alisons, and definitely Caroline, it was about how to write for kids in a way that honors how wise they are and how they are unknowing, and the balance of that. I’m a fan of [legendary set designer] Boris Aronson’s work, and the idea that you go to the theater to fill in the rest — that’s why we go. I do feel that Fun Home is the end of a chapter. Of something.