April 30, 2014

Fun Home
Original Cast Recording

We’ll take a look at the recordings of the Tony nominated Broadway musicals before the June 8 award telecast but, right now, there’s an original cast album of an Off Broadway musical that deserves your attention.

Fun Home is a musical that is showing up on almost all the lists of nominees for awards that include Off-Broadway. PS Classics captured an original cast recording before the show’s limited run came to an end in January. That run was a world premiere at the Public Theatre where A Chorus Line, Hair, Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson and Caroline, or Change, were first mounted.

It has been nominated for 9 Lucille Lortel Awards which recognize outstanding work Off-Broadway, 8 Drama Desk Awards and 7 Outer Critics Circle Awards which recognize quality both On and Off Broadway, and it has been nominated in both categories for which it is eligible for the Drama League Awards.

What is more, it has just been named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, becoming one of only ten musicals in the ninety-six year history of that prize to be either awarded the prize itself or named as a finalist for the award. (This year's award itself went to Annie Baker’s drama The Flick.)

Fun Home has a book and lyrics by Lisa Kron and music by Jeanine Tesori who has an admirable ability to compose in a mode that fits her subject. Here she’s not composing big production numbers and catchy tunes as she did for Shrek: The Musical or the throwback pop sound of the material she added to the film’s score for the Broadway version of Thoroughly Modern Millie.

Instead, for this small, intimate and serious piece, Tesori is composing much more in the style of her more serious works such as Caroline, or Change which also premiered at the Public and went on to multiple award nominations both Off- and On-Broadway after its transfer to a full Broadway house, the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. Here she uses melody more as connecting tissue than to construct hummable tunes.

As a result of the more complex and interconnected nature of the score as an integrated part of the story-telling along with the book, PS Classics rightly made the decision to record not just the songs from the show, but the underscored scenes as well. This provides a listening experience something akin to witnessing the show itself. In support of that experience, the booklet includes the full lyrics, as well as the text of the dialogue in the underscored scenes and a fine three-page synopsis by the playwright who wrote both book and lyrics, Lisa Kron.

There are also seventeen color photos of the production which give a fairly good feel for what it must have been like on stage. However they give barely a glimpse of the projections of Jim Findlay and Jeff Sugg, which must have provided a linkage to the source of the story, the graphic memoir of cartoonist Alison Bechdel whose comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For was syndicated for over twenty years.

Bechdel’s story (and, thus, Fun Home‘s story) is neatly encapsulated in Kron’s script where she has Bechdel say “My dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town, and he was gay, and I was gay, and he killed himself, and I … became a lesbian cartoonist.”

Such a short précis! What Kron and Tesori do with that tale is quite engrossing. They tell it from three perspectives simultaneously, one weaving in as the other weaves out. There’s fully grown Alison, writing and illustrating her book in order to figure out just what happened and how she really feels about it.

Then there’s Small Alison, the pre-teen who, along with her two siblings, cope with their father without knowing of his closeted infidelity or the reason for the acrimonious arguments between him and their mother behind closed doors.

And finally, there’s Middle Alison in her freshman year at Oberlin College where she discovers her own homosexuality, falls in love with an activist from the Gay Student Union named Joan and, as her song says, “changes her major to Joan.”

As the three Alisons, Beth Malone, Sydney Lucas and Alexandra Socha manage to deliver dialog as if in performance on a stage and not the often stilted sound of unsung lines in a recording studio. This is true of the rest of the cast as well and I don’t know if the stage director Sam Gold or the record producers Tommy Krasker and Philip Chafin deserve the credit. Whoever deserves it has my thanks for making the listening experience absorbing instead of disjointedly slipping from spoken to sung material.

In the roles of the parents are Michael Cerveris and Judy Kuhn, both turning in performances of richness and texture. This comes as no surprise, of course. Both have been doing so for quite a while. From time to time they do it together. In 2002 they teamed up with Marin Mazzie as the three principals of Passion at the Kennedy Center’s Sondheim Celebration. Thanks in large part to their work, (and that of Mazzie and director Eric Schaeffer) that was hands-down the finest production of Passion I’ve had the privilege of attending.

As this isn’t an album of songs from the show but an audio presentation of the storytelling as an integrated whole, this is an album to settle in with – booklet in one hand and perhaps your favorite libation in the other. It takes just over an hour. It is a wonderful hour.

As a side–bar, I should report that the source material for the show, Bechdel’s book, has caused a bit of a stir in South Carolina this month. A member of the state House of Representatives said he received a complaint about the College of Charleston selecting the book for the “College Reads” program which the college’s website describes as a “campus-wide common reading program designed to connect students, faculty, and staff around a single book to promote the idea that liberally educated people read broadly and discuss with one another ideas arising from the books they share.”

The legislator, Representative Garry R. Smith, (R – Simpsonville, SC) succeeded in getting the House to reduce the state’s appropriation for support of the College by the $52,000 he determined was the cost of the program. The reduction was offered because of the college’s use of a book he said “could be considered pornography.”

Fun Home
Original Cast Recording
PS Classics Catalog PS-1421
Running time 1:04 over 25 tracks (14 vocal, 11 dialog)
Packaged with notes, synopsis, lyrics and photos