A hit musical about a little girl growing up in a funeral home who discovers she's a lesbian – surely not the most promising proposition.
A critical and commercial hit when it opened in 2015 on Broadway, the show kicked off a national tour in October and stars former Miss America Katherine Shindle (Legally Blonde on Broadway, Cabaret national tour), who grew up in New Jersey, in Brigantine and Moorestown, and attended Bishop Eustace Preparatory School in Pennsauken.
Bechdel, whose parents ran the Bechdel Funeral Home in Lock Haven, Pa., still marvels at the improbability of it all.
"Did I ever expect it to become a hit musical?" she said, repeating the question with mock incredulity. "Well, no, I didn't."
Bechdel, 56, is the creator of Dykes to Watch Out For, a comic strip she began producing shortly after graduating from Oberlin College in 1981. Her best-selling memoir, a deeply moving exploration of her relationship with her father, also explored her growing awareness of her homosexuality. Told from her point of view at three different times of life, it was acclaimed for its use of multiple perspectives. Her father, Bruce Bechdel, a high school English teacher, sometime antiques dealer, and funeral director, was a deeply closeted gay man whose lovers included underage students. He died a few months after Alison came out to her parents.
The prospect that Fun Home might actually be made into a Broadway production filled Bechdel with anxiety. "I had both a hope and a dread that it'd actually get made," she said in a phone interview from her home in northern Vermont. "You know, it's such an intimately personal story. Mostly, I worried that it would be made in an exploitative way." But, in the end, she was overjoyed at the way composer Jeanine Tesori and writer Lisa Kron adapted the book. "I met with them a few times, but I wasn't involved in the writing," she said. "I was totally blown out of the water when I finally saw what they had been concocting."
Bechdel said she loved the show's innovative way of dramatizing the book's multiple perspectives by featuring three Alisons on stage at the same time, including Alison at 11 years old (played by newcomer Alessandra Baldacchino) and Alison as a college freshman (portrayed by another newbie, Abby Corrigan).
Shindle plays the middle-aged Alison, a role originated by Beth Malone in the original Off-Broadway and Broadway productions. "I saw it on Broadway, and I was haunted by it," she said in an interview from East Lansing, Mich., where the show is currently in production. "The writing was spectacular." She immediately inquired about auditioning for the touring production.
For the show's immense likability, Shindle credits Bechdel's personality, which, she says, shines through at every point in the production: "People are drawn to her as a person. She is a fascinating human being who has put together this incredible story. And she deals in the story with a lot of different factors and some heavy subject matter." It's not 100 minutes of nonstop darkness, Shindel says: "It's emotionally intense, but it's also fun, it's entertaining."
Shindle, well-known as an AIDS activist, said Fun Home has an important message: "It's a very unique show, but it's also a very topical show. … It's very important to support people who are trying to live their own identity." Yet she insists the musical can't be reduced to its message: "This is, above all, a great show. It's a piece of theater for people who love theater and who love what theater can do and what it can teach us."