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Interview with Lisa Kron: Writer of Lyrics and Book for Broadway Musical “Fun Home”

Interview with Lisa Kron: Writer of Lyrics and Book for Broadway Musical “Fun Home”
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Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

By Steve Weinstein

It’s taken five years to get there, but the musical “Fun Home” has finally found its home on Broadway. For Lisa Kron, who has been working on the complex script and lyrics all along, it’s been a wildly fulfilling personal and professional journey.

“I feel extraordinarily fortunate having had this opportunity,” Kron told this publication in an exclusive interview. “I was in the right place at the right time.” Maybe she’s being too modest. Kron had already built up a reputation as one of the most talented playwrights of her generation when she was chosen to adapt Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic novel for the stage.

Born and raised in Michigan, Kron mined her own family’s fascinating backstory for autobiographical plays that brought her critical praise and a raft of awards. “Well” recounts her feelings of being an outsider as a Jew in an extended family of Christians, her father’s side having been obliterated during the Holocaust. “2.5 Minute Ride” describes her experiences in a mostly African-American elementary school where her mother, as a pioneering community activist, purposely sent her to in a one-woman effort to ensure an integrated school system.

When Kron moved to New York in 1984, however, she was intent on becoming an actress. The hectic life of working day jobs to make ends meet while trying to get a leg up in the city’s competitive theater world became the subject of “101 Humiliating Stories.” Once she found four kindred spirits who collectively became The Five Lesbian Brothers, she began her ascent as a playwright. The group’s witty satiric works refute the stereotype of lesbian theater as earnest, combative and dreary – words that no one has ever used describing Kron’s oeuvre.

Although composer Jeanine Tesori had a long resume in musical theater, Kron had never written book and lyrics before starting the arduous task of adapting Bechdel’s complex novel to the stage. Even if she had written a dozen musicals, however, she would still have found the task of transferring the interlaying of Bechdel’s memories daunting. Bechdel herself has described “Fun Home” as a labyrinth, which only begins to describe the non-linear narrative that weaves in and out of time, shifts among characters’ changing perspectives, and allusions that encompass everything from pop culture to Greek myth.

The book is Bechdel’s coming to terms with a tyrannical father who, in between running a funeral home and teaching high school, was most devoted to restoring the family’s Victorian home. Alison’s discovery of her own sexual orientation parallels her father’s deeply closeted homosexuality — a closely guarded secret that ends in an accident that may or may not have been suicidal.

In his review of the hugely successful original off-Broadway New York production at the Public Theatre in 2013, New York Times critic Ben Brantley compared “Fun Home” favorably to Tennessee Williams’ classic memory play “The Glass Menagerie.” Brantley praised Kron’s book as “a detective story of sorts, in which one woman tries to solve the mystery of who her father, now dead, really was, and what, in turn, that makes her.”

If Kron herself described the long journey at the time as “nothing but problems,” today she can bask in the universal praise “Fun Home” received when it opened on Broadway April 19.

Having lived with it for so long, her own description best summarizes what ultimately makes “Fun Home” work: “More than any other piece I’ve ever worked on,” she tells us, “every element of the theater contributes to the dramaturgy. Because of the memory play that it is, you’re watching one character walk through the memories and what their effect has been on her.”

The complexity, which hurtles the audience almost continually back and forth in time, is necessary, she adds, because in the novel, the family is frozen because everyone is living a lie: “It swirls and swirls around the same period. It took me years to unravel it. There is an emotional yearning from beginning to end. That’s what made it into a musical.”

Although Bechdel has remained involved in the production the entire time, she gave the creative team complete freedom. “Alison was very available to us,” Kron says. “She just turned it over to us. She gave me total anonymity in the writing process. I can’t imagine a better situation. She’s been around a lot, and so have her brothers and her father’s sister. Our company feels very connected to Alison.”

It undeniably helps, Kron notes, that Bechdel, composer Jeanine Tesori and Kron are all the same age, even if their family backgrounds and coming out experiences vary greatly. “We were able to bring different and complementary sets of experiences to the writing of this piece,” Kron says.

As the critical raves have noted, “Fun Home” ultimately transcends the main character’s sexuality. Kron herself expresses surprise when someone remarks that it’s “so much bigger than the story of a lesbian. Hadn’t it occurred to you before that a lesbian is as complete a prism as any other character?” According to Kron, misogyny remains a bigger obstacle in the world of professional theater than homophobia. “When I did my play ‘Well’ on Broadway,” she recalls, “I was [only] the 12th female playwright” [to be produced on Broadway].

One thing that Broadway could never be accused of is ageism.

Consider, for example, playwright and director David Laurents. He was directing a revival of one of his shows at age 90, and undertook a radical rethink of another the next year. Then there’s director George Abbott, who was going strong when he died at age 106. The year before his death, he was heavily involved in a revival of one of his shows from the ‘50s.

After living and working with Tesori and Bechdel for so long, it’s hardly surprising that Kron believes the theater is not all about “youth culture” but “working with wonderful collaborators.”

For Krone, her long dedication to “Fun Home” has paid off big time with two Tony Award nominations for best score and best book of a musical.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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