The song sung during tonight's Tony broadcast, "Ring of Keys," is easily my favorite number from the show, for a multitude of reasons. First, it perfectly captures a single panel from the memoir in gripping detail. A young Alison encounters what is described in Fun Home the musical as "an old-school butch," and her heart and mind receive this person as a kindred spirit. The song acts as an amazing ode to this woman who is often the subject of ridicule in popular culture. I've even listened to interviews with Lisa Kron stating that she resisted writing this song, precisely because she worried it would lead to jokes rather than empathy and understanding. Luckily, Tesori pushed for the song to be included, because not only did it set the tone for their continued writing process, but it showcases the kind of song I don't think I've ever heard of on a Broadway stage, or even on a more local, smaller level: that of a young girl seeing what she identifies with writ large -- an exhilarating and scary experience, given the fact that young Alison expresses (in minor key) at the end of the song that intrinsically knowing this queer woman is a troubling, confusing thing in an uninclusive world.
What most resonates with me about this song and this musical, though, are its unfinished lines. Tesori and Kron have talked about how hard it was to find an opening number for the show, one that delivered necessary exposition about how Bechdel grew up in a family that ran a funeral home, that she came out in college, and soon after, her father's homosexuality was discovered, and he killed himself. They provide a lot of details in a technically smart way in the first scene (the family is cleaning their historically restored home for a visit from a VIP, fearful of the patriarch's response), but what I was more interested in was this repeated line in reference to Bechdel's father, "He wants/He wants/He wants," with the line unfinished until towards the close of the opening number: "He wants more." A lot of times, musicals start with an "I wish" or "I want" song. Certainly, Disney movies are famous for that tack. "I want" songs let the audience know what the protagonist cares about, so hopefully, we will follow the story, happy to be informed of whose arc and goal we're following. Fun Home has an "I want" song hidden in its opening number, but no one ever says what the father wants, he's not the protagonist, and the closest he gets to naming his desire is singing, "Sometimes the fire/it burns so hot/I don't know what I'll do." This unspoken motif continues throughout the musical.
Think again of "Ring of Keys," Tony viewers. Upon seeing this woman at a diner, Small Alison (remarkably performed by Sydney Lucas) sings: "Someone just came in the door/Like no one I ever saw before/I feel .../I feel ..." Again and again through the song, Alison sings about how she wants or feels, without ever finishing her thoughts, having no language for them yet, at such a young age. Each time, she reverts to describing the "just right" clothes the woman wears, i.e., lace-up boots, dungarees, a ring of keys. The song is joyous, on the cusp of something, even as it catalogs what Alison yearns for without naming it in stereotypical fashion. It is important to note that Kron wrote "lace-up boots," not "combat boots," or anything else that could make this butch woman a generalization or a joke. We are forced to see her as Alison sees her, and we are forced to deal with the unspoken realizations Alison is having, due to the lack of and specific use of words.
In a later spoken letter in the show, Medium Alison (the college-aged version) attempts to write her parents about coming out, singing, "I want/I want/I want," before finally blurting out, "Dear Mom and Dad, I'm a lesbian." She is more successful than her father in speaking the truth. He frames his potential new life as a single gay man within the metaphor of restoring an old house, and his haunting choice of words about cracking floors and bad pipes preface the terrible choice he makes at song's end. Alison ultimately has the language to come out and be herself onstage. How often does this happen in the theatre? Few dramas dare to explore what it is like to live one's truth in the way that Fun Home does, at least to my reckoning or in my experience. I am used to seeing gay characters play back-up to straight heroes, or to have their tawdry inclinations lead to a life of ruin or tragedy, a la The Children's Hour, or even later works, like Next Fall.
How many shows have a song like "Changing My Major," in which Medium Alison describes her first night with a fellow college student and eventual girlfriend, Joan. Kron has stated that this particular song needed not to be only about love, but more importantly, about sex. Kron does not want the audience to shy away from a lesbian's experience of the world, and that very much includes who one is having sex with, or the act of sex, at least. So again, we are put in Alison's shoes, and celebrate as she celebrates. As well, I think it's stunning that the "I feel" or "I want" statement in "Changing My Major" is actually completed by Medium Alison (as opposed to Small Alison, or the 43 year-old Alison, who is narrating this play, and at this point in the story, hasn't made peace with her father's memory yet). "Look, she's drooled on the pillow, so sweet," Alison sings, "All sweaty and tangled up in my bedsheets./And my heart feels complete." In the actual singing of the song, there is a meaningful pause between "heart" and "complete." The audience has been waiting for this sentence to be finished, and with Alison living her truth, it can be. In fact, it may be one of the reasons she is able to eventually see both the good and the bad that came from her family, because she is willing to be honest about who she is, and honest about her father, too.
In many ways, Fun Home the musical sounds as nuanced as Fun Home the memoir reads. Phrases keep repeating and building to some sort of breakthrough, as the literature Alison shares with her dad in the memoir begin to echo her experience as a gay woman and his experiences as a closeted man. Such rich material would of course have resulted in a rich show, but it's remarkable to think that Kron and Tesori have accomplished a lot simply by allowing Alison Bechdel to be onstage.