People & Places

Bechdel’s musical comes home to Vermont Stage

Alison Bechdel

Vermont cartoonist laureate Alison Bechdel’s life inspired the Broadway musical “Fun Home,” which is set for its state premiere at Burlington’s Vermont Stage. Photo courtesy the MacArthur Foundation

Before Alison Bechdel was named Vermont cartoonist laureate and winner of a $625,000 MacArthur “genius” grant, she was in a less-than-happy place.

Specifically, her family’s hauntingly Victorian funeral home.

“Caption: My Dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town,” the artist recalls as if drawing. “And he was gay, and I was gay, and he killed himself, and I became a lesbian cartoonist.”

Seeing the results of her father’s sexual suppression, Bechdel decided to share her story. She started in 1983 with the comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” syndicated nationally in 50 alternative newspapers. That led to the 2006 graphic memoir “Fun Home,” which led to a 2013 off-Broadway theatrical adaptation and 2015 transfer to the Great White Way, which led to five Tony Awards, including one for best musical.

Some 35 years later, with casts about to translate the work in Barcelona, London, Manila, Singapore and Tokyo, it’s all coming full circle: Burlington’s Vermont Stage is set to present the state premiere of the show that dramatizes the life of an illustrator who lives just down the road.

“What a strange experience this has been to have this story that I was writing for seven years up on my hill in Bolton turned into a musical,” Bechdel recently told a local preview audience. “I’m excited to have it come to Vermont.”

Alison Bechdel

Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir “Fun Home” is the inspiration for the Tony Award-winning musical.

The Burlington troupe may be a year-round professional theater company with space in downtown’s Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, but presenting “Fun Home” is an inimitable, intimidating feat.

“Bringing it to where Alison lives and wrote the graphic novel was incredibly appealing,” says Cristina Alicea, Vermont Stage’s producing artistic director, “but the national tour had no plans to come here, and I found out they were only releasing the rights on a case-by-case basis.”

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The Burlington not-for-profit applied and won acceptance — setting up a whole new series of hurdles. The company rarely produces musicals, and its typical show costs between $45,000 and $65,000. Add Broadway licensing and a six-person orchestra and the local “Fun Home” totals $115,000.

“This is a whole new animal for us,” Alicea says. “But it was the only way the community was going to see this if we produced it.”

The script features three actresses portraying Bechdel at different stages of her life: as a child, college student and adult. On one hand, it’s about a “fun home” — her childhood shorthand for the family funeral home — homosexuality and an apparent suicide.

“I leapt out of the closet,” her character tells the audience, “and four months later, my father killed himself by stepping in front of a truck.”

But it’s also about the stuff of everyone everywhere, with a daydream sequence in which her brothers belt out 1970s bubblegum pop and a climactic ballad in which her mother sings of “Days and Days.”

“It’s unlikely that many details of your childhood exactly resemble those of the narrator of this extraordinary musical,” the New York Times wrote in a rave review. “Yet this impeccably shaded portrait of a girl and her father occupies the place where we all grew up, and will never be able to leave.”

“Set in three ages of one woman’s life,” critic Ben Brantley continued, “it tries to solve the sort of classic mystery that keeps grown-ups in analysis for decades: Who are these strange people who made me?”

“For me, the story is universally relatable,” Alicea says at her Vermont Stage office. “It’s being told around the specific character of Alison, but there’s also the larger themes of a child taking a look at their parents and their choices, as well as what it means to be different and how you deal with it.”

The show has been lauded in Vanity Fair and on television’s “The View,” as well as in national news articles ranging from “UN Brings Ambassadors From 17 Nations To Broadway’s ‘Fun Home’” to “James Comey, Fired by Trump, Goes to a Musical.”

“It’s just suddenly striking me as very unseemly that I’m going around talking about my family like this, even though I’ve written a book and now they’re in a play,” Bechdel said in a special episode of the news program “Democracy Now!” “But somehow it’s still very painful, intimate stuff.”

“I think that’s why it is so powerful,” host Amy Goodman replied.

“I just expect no one is going to be interested in my bizarre, subcultural experience,” Bechdel continued. “I’m used to pushing against the mainstream, like wanting to be let in. And so, to finally find myself on the inside is a little disorienting.”

“I’ve used the word ‘surreal’ so many times, it doesn’t even have any meaning anymore, but that’s the only word I can think of to describe it,” Bechdel concluded. “There’s me as an adult. There’s me as a college student. There’s me as a child. And these actors are doing something that feels very authentic and that does feel like some version of my actual self as I watch them on stage.”

“The buzz about this show has been amazing — I haven’t had to sell it that hard,” Alicea says. “It’s ultimately a very heartfelt and funny musical about family.”

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And finding home.

“It feels very special,” Bechdel capped her comments to a Burlington preview audience, “to have it come back here to Vermont.”

Vermont Stage will present “Fun Home” Oct. 4-29, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday matinees. More information, including an advisory about adult themes appropriate for ages 12 and up, is available at the company’s website.

Kevin O'Connor

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