The universality of a very frank coming-of-age and coming out story is what makes the original musical “Fun Home” so special, its local Tony-winning producers say.
“There’s never been anything quite like it,” said producer Mike Isaacson, who along with President Kristin Caskey co-head Fox Theatricals, which has produced 22 Broadway musicals and plays.
The show, now on its first national tour, opened at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis on Tuesday and will run through Nov. 27. It received a Tony for the 2015 Best Musical.
In “Fun Home,” author Alison Bechdel’s father was a mortician, and she and her brother nicknamed their funeral home living quarters “fun home.”
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Her best-selling 2006 graphic novel was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and hailed as a refreshingly candid, unique story about seeing your parents through grown-up eyes.
The character explores the mysteries of her childhood, and they connect with her in surprising new ways. The musical’s format introduces us to Alison at three different ages.
The cast includes former Miss America 1998 Kate Shindle as the 43-year-old Alison, while Alessandra Baldocchino reprises her role as small Allison and recent graduate Abby Corrigan as medium Alison.
During a phone interview, Isaacson and Caskey said they saw a spark immediately in early material for “Fun Home.”
“We knew it was something special and worth jumping off the cliff and diving in, and that was two years before off-Broadway in 2013,” Caskey said.
“It was so honest, and powerful from day one,” Isaacson said.
The musical was nominated for 12 Tony Awards in 2015, winning five, including best musical, director, book, score and actor Michael Cerveris.
Winners Lisa Kron, for book and lyrics, and Jeanine Tesori, for music, made history as the first female writing team to be awarded the Tony for Best Score.
The fact that it became an unlikely hit and won much acclaim was a welcome surprise.
“When you get involved, you never know the end, you see it through on its journey, and you do the best you can,” Isaacson said.
“This show exceeded any and all expectations. What a blessing,” Caskey said.
So, the thrill of being onstage at Radio City Music Hall to accept the Tony Award for Best Musical was the proverbial cherry on top the sundae.
“You could tell we were surprised. It was just an amazing recognition by our peers and for the show, and all the Fox partners. We’ve been working together for nearly 20 years,” Isaacson said. “It was a wonderful moment. We had worked really hard, and that was a moment to celebrate.”
Caskey said it was surreal. “It was a total out-of-body happening. To be on the stage with the Fox family, so many St. Louisans who have been with us and supported us, like Jack Lane. It was a full-circle moment,” she said.
However, Isaacson said it’s important after receiving honors to get up the next day and begin anew.
“You literally put it on a shelf, and begin work on creating, and taking risks, and investing in people. You don’t know where it’s going to end, and it’s best that you don’t know that about that journey, but it’s all about the direction you take. You have to trust it,” he said.
And now the show has embarked on a national tour, re-staged by the Tony-winning director Sam Gold.
“Sam had wonderful new ideas, and we had to create specific changes for the spaces and for those larger audiences,” Isaacson said. “We’re really very proud of it.”
The first stop Cleveland, and Isaacson said that acceptance was important.
“The launch was really something. All the reaction has been the same, in Cleveland, and Durham, and now Chicago – it’s a moving experience. It has complete respect for the intelligence of the audience. The show is told in such an original format, and the audience is energized. It’s a non-linear story. When Alison falls in love, and everyone can relate to (the song) ‘Changing My Major,’” he said.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer described the tour as “luminous.”
“’Fun Home’ is the story of what it means to be human. At a time when the country feels stretched to breaking by the differences that divide us into states red and blue, a reminder of the humanity we share is a very good thing. This is the show America needs to see,” wrote Andrea Simakis in her Plain Dealer review.
The musical was developed over five years. Gold also staged the off-Broadway production that ran September 2013-January 2014. The show closed on Broadway on Sept. 10 after opening April 19, 2015, running for 582 regular performances.
An international tour is launching this month in Manila with Lea Salonga (“Miss Saigon”) as Helen and Eric Kunze (“Damn Yankees” with Jerry Lewis on Broadway and a star of Muny shows) as Bruce.
The fact that it has a lesbian protagonist has made headlines, but both Isaacson and Caskey appreciate that it’s not a big deal in 21st century America.
“It’s the work itself, and that shows how far we’ve come,” Caskey said. “We’ve had really grateful people tell us that they’ve seen themselves on stage, and how moving that has been.”
Isaacson said Bechdel, 60, is very curious about others, and is such a talented artist, which makes her story a remarkable reflection on who she is.
“She is interested in everything. She is really curious how things work. She asks the questions. We can relate to her when she is first finding out who she is and is searching, ‘What have I done with my life?’ -- questions we all ask,” he said.
Much has been made of it not being in the mold of a traditional classical musical, like the old chestnuts of the 1940s and 1950s. But Isaacson disagrees.
“It’s always felt this show and the writing is like Rodgers and Hammerstein – it’s dramatic and beautiful and heartfelt,” he said. “The audience relates to the humanity, the same way as ‘I’m In Love with a Wonderful Guy.’”
Like a dad waiting in the wings to see his child debut, Isaacson is eager for local audiences to experience the much-acclaimed musical.
“I deeply love the show. This family shows us the best of what they are as people,” he said.
Now through Nov. 27