A WRITER REACHES FOR THE STARS

My fellow Vermonter, Alison Bechdel, was writing what she knew in her 2008 tragi-comical graphic memoir, Fun Home, a sort of expose of family secrets that her closeted gay and emotionally distant father didn’t want people to know. Alison’s own coming out in a letter to her parents that she’d ‘imagined as an emancipation” only intensified his anxieties. He was enraged, for example, when she refused to wear “frilly girl” clothes or no barrette. “Next time I see you without it, I’ll wale you,” he shouts in her book as he jams it back into her hair. At age 44, just two weeks after his unhappy wife asked for a divorce, Bruce Bechdel was hit by a Sunbeam bread truck in what Alison believes to be a suicide.

The book, as many of you know, was an immediate bestseller. Modest about her success, Alison told a local reporter: “I think many people identify with the idea of a family with a secret.” (We mystery writers would surely concur.) The book ultimately earned her a MacArthur Foundation Genius grant and a windfall of $625,000 to work on her art. All she wanted to do now, she said, was to stay home in Vermont and “draw cartoons.” In her early fifties, she was quietly working on a new graphic memoir about physical fitness and the aging body–a book I was looking forward to!

But Alison’s family secrets flew quickly out into the open, and with it came an offer to turn Fun Home (a nickname for her father’s Pennsylvania funeral home) into a New York City musical. For a time she didn’t know what she was getting into–she felt “like a paratrooper” about to leap out of a plane. “I was anxious about it,” she said of this new (to her) mix of story and song. “Is this going to be terrible, or what?”

But the musical opened off-Broadway in late 2013, garnered great reviews and won Obie awards–far more than she’d dreamed of. Yet she knew she had earned the praise after spending seven years writing the book to get the tone just right and the illustrations detailed into full three-D dimension. Those of us who’ve read the book might recall, for one, the loaf of Sunbeam bread often seen sitting quietly on a shelf, to remind the reader of her conflicted father and his tragic death.

The play was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, which helped propel it up into the bright lights of Broadway–in the Circle Theatre in the Round, where it received twelve Tony nominations and has just won Best Musical. Critics call it “dense and poignant and funny–a probing of artistic and sexual identity.” Sitting in the audience, Alison thought: “Oh, I wanna live in this play! But then I have to remind myself: Wait! I kind of did.”

And she brought a bit of Vermont along with her. There are nine characters in the play–three of them portraying herself at various ages. The youngest child, playing her little brother, is Vermonter Oscar Williams, who had just last February starred in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, in my son Donald’s Vermont-based Very Merry Theatre, where the lad had his acting start as a 7-year-old. Now, at the grand old age of 11, the eldest of five brothers, with large luminous eyes and a head of longish dark hair, he’s on Broadway.  “I just know I’m doing my dream,” he exalts as he makes plans to go to the Tony award party for the cast and crew, “and it feels awesome.”

His stardom hasn’t been easy, though, for his family. His father has mostly remained at home in Vermont with two of his brothers, age 9 and 6, while his dedicated mom, along with a 3-year-old, 3 dogs, and a 7-month old baby, stays in a New York City studio apartment. His dad drives down weekends, though, and Oscar somehow juggles his school work with the hoopala on stage. “He’s a really great, creative kid,” says my son, who has directed the boy in umpteen plays, and is proud of his success. But Donald has “subtly” warned the parents that Broadway life can be really hard on a young actor–not to mention his family. Don’s mission for his own Very Merry Theatre is that every kid is his own star. “They don’t have to be on Broadway,” he insists, “to shine.”

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4 Responses

  1. Nancy,

    This is totally fascinating! I have wondered about “Fun Home.” I live so close to NYC. But unfortunately no longer get to see the shows. I’m still very interested in them and love to know how and why they exist. As usual, you’ve written a wonderful, relevant blog!

    • Thanks so much, Jacquie. Living in Vermont, I seldom get to NYC, but am determined to go down to see this one. Recently a busload of Oscar’s young friends went down with their parents to catch the show–a thrill for them. I also have an actor-writer friend who is trying to get his own musical on Broadway, but to date with no luck. It’s something of a miracle for Alison Bechdel.

  2. Yes, fascinating! I just finished watching the Tonys last night (squeezing it in here and there), so this blog was very timely for me! I’m headed for NYC next week, and guess what I’m going to try to get to now? I saw Tony-winner Helen Mirren in The Audience in April and would love to make it a 2-Tony year 🙂 Thanks for all this backstory.

    • Oh, great, Camille! I hope you can get to it, and let me know what you think. I saw Helen Mirren in The Audience, too, and loved it. My spouse and I spent a heavenly week last November in NYC and took in 4 plays before our money ran out. Joy, joy, joy. Thanks so much for commenting.

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