When Alison Bechdel
published her graphic novel Fun Home,
a memoir exploring the complex relationship she had with her enigmatic father,
the accolades came in droves. Among those captivated by the book was Lisa Kron,
the Tony-nominated writer and performer who is known to weave personal memory
into her own work.
Kron is now the book writer and lyricist on her first musical, an adaptation of Fun Home, opening tonight at the Public Theater. I caught a preview performance of the show last week and was amazed by nearly every element: the score (Jeanine Tesori), the staging (Sam Gold), and the rich cast of actors. But what was most brilliant was how creatively the graphic form was reimagined as live theater. Without wanting to place an academic lens on the work, it is, in my view, the highest form of adaptation: completely original yet faithful to the book in every scene.
Below, my conversation with Lisa Kron, on reworking a masterpiece:
Much of your work draws on your own personal and familial experience. How do you compare the experience of adapting someone else’s memoir?
I have never thought of my work as memoir. I’ve used personal material, but I’ve done it in order to explore some idea. Living with Fun Home now for five years, I’m astonished everyday at what a – and I don’t use this term lightly, it’s a masterpiece. [Alison] and I have both exploited personal material in order to give the audience – or in her case, the reader – some kind of experience. We’re making something that we hope will feel like the experience of the book, Fun Home. But in order to do that, we had to do an incredible amount of conflation and invention. And gratifyingly, Alison has said that it feels real to her even when she knows it didn’t happen that way.
That’s a great compliment to receive from her.
Yeah, it was relieving! And it’s true that you cannot be reverent about a thing you’re adapting. You have got to reinvent it. There’s an initial impulse to do a one-for-one substitution. Instead of this thing, we’ll do this thing. And there’s a desire when something is so beautifully made to try to replicate the whole thing. And anybody quickly realizes you can’t do that. I had to read that book for two years before I could dismantle that structure in order to see what was happening. So that I could see the components and put it back together in a different form. The spine has to exist differently in a musical.
Alison had given an interview where she talked about the book being a labyrinth. Musicals, on the other hand, have to be a machine in some ways, with a very specific structure. Did you try to maintain that labyrinth form?
The second time I read it, I thought, there are no scenes in this book. There’s this voice that is key to the book, then there’s a child from age 4 to 19. So how do you cast that? I’ve always loved musicals, but once I started working on this, I started looking at them with a different eye, and it’s absolutely true that if you don’t have that clear engine…. Jeanine and I had a conversation with George Wolfe and he was saying, “You have to be so clear. The person has to want one thing, and it has to be a life and death thing, and you have to say it really clearly, and then you can be as complicated as you want.”
What do you think makes a good book writer?
I guess a sense of structure. And if you’re not writing lyrics, a lot of humility. I have loved working on the lyrics for this.
Alison has said that her images and her text function on two levels of storytelling. How do you transition in storytelling when you’re writing a song from when you’re writing dialogue?
We’re hopeful that this will feel – as the book does – that there’s a straightforward drive to it. The book hinges around these huge life-changing events, but apart from that the characters are leading their lives and they don’t know that these big things are going to happen. They’re also emotionally repressed people. So it’s writing songs for people who don’t know what their emotions are and a book in which there are virtually no events. Like the juxtaposition in her book, we also have juxtaposition: of past and present, of what’s spoken and what’s sung.
It seems that one of the cool things about entering the musical world is that suddenly you’re connected to all of these talented composers and performers.
Musical theater people are incredible. It makes you feel so remedial as a human being. You know there’s that game people play where they say, if you could choose a superpower, what would it be? I think now I would say music: to be able to sit at the piano and do what Jeanine can do. It’s not just that dialogue is set to music. The music does a whole other thing. And what happens between those two elements is the most thrilling thing I’ve experienced in the theater. The most extraordinary plays will have moments that lift off, but they’ll never do it the way music does.