There are many things about modern Broadway that no-one would have in a million years expected even as recently as the end of the last decade. For example, who would have thought that Andrew Lloyd Webber would be back on top after twenty years of failures, or that the two biggest composers on Broadway would be the Avenue Q guy and the In the Heights guy? But one of the biggest surprises is that the most successful and respected composer of the post-Sondheim avant-garde crop would be, not Adam Guettel or Jason Robert Brown or Michael John Lachiusa, but the ‘girl’ of the group, Jeanine Tesori.
Tesori was always taken less seriously than her peers in the field, partly just because she was female, and partly because she was willing to ‘slum’ by applying her talents to more commercial projects. She had already had two hits, albeit with shows that were far from the post-Sondheim style, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Shrek, but her works in the more sophisticated post-Sondheim vein, like Violet and Caroline or Change, had always been failures (although to be fair, the same thing was generally true of her male peers too).
But with this show, Tesori was the first to score a real hit in the post-Sondheim style…not a modest commercial success with good critical press like The Light in the Piazza, or an off-Broadway sleeper success like The Last 5 Years, but a true, Tony-winning Broadway smash hit. The show was, in fact, written by an all-female creative team, and drawn from the great lesbian cartoonist and cultural figure Alison Bechdel’s graphic-novel memoir of her relationship with her father.
Because the musical is only an hour long, it ends up having to leave out certain elements of the novel, such as the young Alison’s struggle with OCD. However, the core contents of the novel…Alison’s discovery of her sexuality and her complex relationship with her father, who was also gay and eventually committed suicide…are faithfully treated, the anachronic structure of the storytelling is retained, and many of the novel’s constant references to great literature remain in the script. The musical even expands on some elements…Alison’s mother Helen is a far more developed character than in the original novel, and the show’s best song, the unforgettable “Ring of Keys”, is drawn entirely from a single panel in the novel.
The score is Tesori’s best since Violet. “Ring of Keys”, “Changing My Major”, and “Come to the Fun Home” are the highlights, but everything in the score shines. The opening ensemble, “Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue”, is a perfect illustration of the show’s core conflict…chaos and turmoil hidden under an unrealistic veneer of perfect order. “Come to the Fun Home”, an imaginary commercial for the titular funeral home made up by the Bechdel kids, sounds just like a song made up by a group of kids messing around, except that it’s also a fantastically catchy showstopper.
The nervously ecstatic “Changing My Major”, sung by Alison’s college-age self after she loses her virginity to another girl, is beyond adorable. “Ring of Keys”, sung after the young Alison encounters an ‘old-school butch’ lesbian and is instantly enamored of her style, is one of the most uniquely brilliant numbers on modern Broadway, a confused, not-quite-articulate outpouring of emotion. And the lyrical passage that bookends the show, “Flying Away”, is breathtaking.
The musical is actually much less depressing than the novel, which is actually something of a downer despite its brilliance, but as the show draws to its tragic conclusion, the songs do become appropriately darker and sadder. “Days and Days”, a weary lament for Alison’s mother that consists in part of a sorrowful reprise of “Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue”; “Telephone Wire”, a tension-wracked musical scene detailing the last conversation Alison ever had with her father; and the anguished eleven-o’clock number “Edges of the World”, which Alison’s father sings just before his suicide are all downright devastating. But the show, like the novel, does end on peaceful note of reconciliation, as if telling this story over enabled Bechdel to come to terms with it.
In any case, this show’s success has made Tesori one of the most respected figures on Broadway, giving her a level of prestige none of her male colleagues ever approached. The show definitely qualifies as a breakthrough for women on Broadway in terms of both creators and portrayals, but unlike certain other, less worthy items that won acclaim largely because of the current political climate (such as the revival of The Color Purple musical), this is one show that has fairly earned its acclaim with genuine artistic merit. I was genuinely surprised when it won the Tony against the far more commercial Something Rotten and An American In Paris, but I was also thrilled, because it was without question the finest Broadway show of the season. The Broadway production has now closed, but this is one of those ongoing classics that will never die, and I imagine we will continue to see it all over the place for the foreseeable future.