Monday, March 10, 2014

Review - "Fun Home" Cast Recording

A review of the Fun Home recording after the jump. Contains spoilers, I guess, but come on . . . it's not like knowing details about a piece of musical theatre (and one that isn't about plot in any way, for that matter) is going to impact your enjoyment of it. So go ahead and read. Then go buy this recording, because it's amazing.

Memories are some of the most powerful forces in our lives. They shape who we are, which in turn shapes our next experiences, creating more memories that in turn shape us even more. And on and on it goes. Such is the miracle of human consciousness, an idea that's at the heart of Fun Home, Lisa Kron's and Jeanine Tesori's darn near flawless (honestly, it might very well be perfect) new musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel's superb 2006 memoir. From the very first listen I was blown away by the sheer power of the piece, but was kind of at a loss for how to explain exactly why its emotions hit so hard. Certainly Tesori's melodies—as insanely beautiful as ever—don't hurt matters, and they're equaled by the intelligence and emotional depth of Kron's lyrical work. The performances are tremendous. Then of course there's PS Classics' magnificent recording, with its liberal inclusion of book scenes to provide greater emotional context for the songs, transforming many of them into extended sequences whose outpourings of feeling—expressed via both music and dialogue—are astonishing to witness.

So yes, there are a ton of reasons why this is likely one of the best musicals of the 21st century so far. (I use the qualifier "likely" because I haven't had the chance to actually see it staged yet. I'm sure it's outstanding, though) But it's the way in which Kron and Tesori musically depict their heroine's search through her memory that makes the show's cumulative impact so great. To be clear, this isn't Caroline, or Change, whose songs (brilliantly) functioned mostly as small melodic motifs in an immense musical canvas. There are individual songs in Fun Home, and they're uniformly incredible: sometimes funny, sometimes devastating, and always perfectly realized in both intent and execution. But the story's structure—it begins with a middle-aged Alison (Beth Malone, one of three actresses who portray the character at different ages) looking into her past in "It All Comes Back"—results in a tremendous feeling of emotional accumulation over the course of the show. As we spend more time with each of the three versions of Alison, we see how her life has shaped her. Themes and ideas keep recurring in Kron's lyrics, such as references to flight in numerous numbers: starting with Small Alison's desire to "play airplane", continuing later with Medium Alison describing "flying into something so sublime" (a line that further recurs in her father Bruce's "Edges of the World" later on), and concluding in appropriately soaring fashion in the final song "Flying Away". The three time periods are linked. As they should be; they are all part of the protagonist's consciousness.

The connections are staggering. Some are obvious; others are incredibly subtle. But they're always meaningful in their evocation of Alison's overall emotional journey. In the middle of the show there's a passage of dialogue in which Small Alison brings her dad a map she's drawn for a school assignment and he tries to "make it better" by telling her to focus on drawing a smaller section in greater detail. It's a moment that epitomizes Bruce (Michael Cerveris); he honestly thinks he's trying to teach her something, but what he's really doing in this instance is stifling her creativity with his controlling—often crossing the line to emotionally abusive, as it does here—nature. It's followed by a beautiful song called "Maps" in which the older Alison uses maps as a metaphor for her attempt to understand her father: "I can draw a circle / You lived your life inside." And finally, in "Flying Away", the three Alisons reject Bruce's earlier advice to Small Alison by taking a much more panoramic view of their life's geography than he ever would: "Our house is over there, and there's our car / The fun home - I see it / I'm up so far". Yet the song also includes a testament to the influence the man's life has had on his daughter: "A picture of my father / Made of little marks." This line further ties back in to the very first song (with its lyrics about marks and signs), making it another great example of the type of complexity on display in Fun Home. But we're never conscious of the labor and thought that went into such moments. Rather, they feel like organic connections that represent the inner workings of a unique human mind and spirit.

And it's why PS Classics' recording is so darn good—because the show's flow of memory and evolution is as dependent on its book scenes as its songs. What is "Maps" without the scene that sets it up? A great song, sure, but its impact wouldn't be nearly as substantial. In addition, most musical theatre aficionados have likely had the experience of struggling to understand all of what's going on while listening to a cast recording of a show they've never seen in person. Not so with this disc. Fun Home's accompanying booklet includes a fairly detailed synopsis, and it's great, but the scenes they've chosen to include mean that it's almost unnecessary. One would expect a show that follows three different versions of the same person simultaneously to be difficult to follow, especially on disc, but instead it's easy to become immersed in Alison's childhood (during which she notices feeling a sense of identification with an "old-school butch" delivery woman she sees one day, and resists the dresses and barrettes her father occasionally makes her wear), her sexual awakening with her first girlfriend at college, and her middle-aged self's attempts to make sense of her earlier life and relationship to her father. (She learned that he too was gay while she was in college, not long before he was killed by a truck in what she believes was a suicide.) We never lose track of these emotional threads; they're clear and powerful from start to finish.

However, like in every great piece of musical theatre, they are most affecting of all in the songs: numbering just over a dozen (13, if you don't count the brief reprise of "Not Too Bad") fantastic compositions. In addition to the more haunting and/or sweeping fare that makes up a majority of the score, Tesori has also composed two phenomenally catchy numbers in a more pop/rock idiom. One of these two songs, "Raincoat of Love", is another great example of how essential Fun Home's story is to its music, and vice versa. On its own, the tune is insinuating but lyrically simplistic and saccharine, but it's meant to be. A television-inspired fantasy number, the song's bland and sunny repetitions of "Everything's all right" function as a heartbreaking mantra that can only briefly mask the ongoing disintegration of the young Alison's family. The earlier "Come to the Fun Home", meanwhile, wonderfully captures the strangeness of her childhood, as she and her brothers come up with a commercial for the family business: a funeral home. Here Kron crafts a series of marvelously funny lyrics for the trio of siblings, finding inventive rhymes for words such as "formaldehyde" and "embalm" in the process.

Kron fares even better when pairing cleverness with deep waves of feeling, as she does in "Changing My Major", sung by Alexandra Socha's Medium Alison the morning after having sex with a woman for the first time. Socha's performance is essential to this number; she's incredible in the role, displaying an endearing mix of awkwardness and exhilaration. And the way in which Tesori's rapid-fire lines of sung speech give way to the song's exuberant central 3/4 melody is exquisite. But none of it works without lines like "I will study my way down her spine / Familiarize myself with her well-made outline / While she researches mine", which suggest Alison's thrilled infatuation while at the same time wittily referencing the scene's collegiate setting.

I could go on: sing the praises of "Ring of Keys" (and of Sydney Lucas's performance as Small Alison), for instance, or try to describe the emotional gut punch that is Judy Kuhn's (as Alison's mother Helen) rendition of "Days and Days". The latter is an astounding, regretful ballad of lost time, and would be the finest song of almost any other show in recent memory by a mile. I won't argue with anyone who wants to say that it is. I won't argue with "Changing My Major", either. Or "Maps". Or "Edges of the World", the harrowing number Bruce sings just before he dies. Fun Home has about eight songs that I could justify calling its best, which is especially stunning for a one-act show with about half as many songs as the typical musical. But to me, its finest moments are contained in the raw emotion of "Telephone Wire", in which Alison remembers a car ride she took with her father not long before his death. An initially spare two-note guitar figure introduces the song's desperately driving melody, through which we witness one last failed connection between father and daughter. "This is where it has to happen / There must be some other chances / There's a moment I'm forgetting / Where you tell me you see me". Frustration and anguish radiate from each deliberately non-rhyming syllable, as she implores her father to "Say something / Talk to me". But the past cannot be altered, as the shattering change of tense from present to past during the final line ("That was our last night") acknowledges. Brutal. Devastating. Perfect.

But if the past is fixed, the future is not. It's how we respond to our past that ultimately determines the way forward. and in that regard Fun Home's future is most optimistic, despite the material's frequent moments of darkness. As has already been discussed, "Flying Away" recalls so many of the musical's earlier scenes and songs, representing the culmination of a life full of memories. It also gives Tesori's and Kron's formidable talents one last chance to shine; the former constructing a series of overlapping melodies (some from earlier songs) that finally coalesce into a glorious single statement of purpose, and the latter crafting those resonant lyrics of freedom and acknowledgement mentioned above. It's virtuosic songwriting in every way, and for my money the single most gorgeous closing song since Next to Normal's "Light". Which is only fitting, given that it concludes a show that is also probably the best new musical since Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's late 2000s masterpiece. Heck, maybe even since The Light in the Piazza. Hallowed ground in either case, but it's ground on which Fun Home absolutely deserves to walk.


  1. You have good taste (translation: you agree with me). FUN HOME is heartbreaking, almost to the extent of CAROLINE, OR CHANGE--a very high bar. Agreed, that the scores of that and LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA are hallowed ground. I've only gotten to hear NEXT TO NORMAL once, and look forward to getting to know it better (need to buy the recording); it's the only one of those shows I haven't gotten to see in production.

    Anyway, as a very longtime Alison Bechdel fan, I thought heaven had arrived when I heard that FUN HOME was being developed as a musical (still holding out hope for a multi-part series musical of DTWOF--a pipe dream, but one of which I won't let go), and that the composer would be Jeanine Tesori, such a brilliant and treasured artist. I so wish I could have seen this production. Living even further from NYC than you do, all I can do beyond local and touring shows, is read about what's going on in New York, or read scripts, listen to recordings, learn songs, and watch clips (and maybe now and then an illicit video or so). Thank goodness for ps classics and some of the other labels producing recordings of musicals old and new.

    Oh--nobody ever seems to mention one of my favorite songs/scenes from this recording, which is "Al For Short"--so fun, and resonates with memories and experiences I and other friends have had. It's also a great performance by Sydney Lucas. Same goes for "Ring of Keys," with its longing and feelings of connection and identification that can't be expressed, Alison not having the knowledge or experience yet, to understand, much less articulate them. But the whole score kills me. It's so uncomfortable listening to Michael Cerveris, who really evokes the twisted and tortured nature of his character. Great cast across the board though. Thanks for writing with such passion about this score and recording.

    1. Thank you!

      Word is that it's going to hit Broadway next year. And in any case, I would hope there's a regional future for it. I imagine there will be: the relatively small cast makes it ideal for that. With luck, we'll both get a chance to see it at some point in the next couple of years.