- Eva Sollberger
- Alison Bechdel at Circle in the Square Theatre, 2016
Tucked into a recent program for The Call at Vermont Stage was an announcement for the 2017/18 season, and reading it gave some theatergoers a pleasant surprise. Leading the charge in October will be Fun Home, a bold and ambitious choice for the modest quarters of the company's home, FlynnSpace.
The critically acclaimed musical was adapted by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori from Vermont cartoonist Alison Bechdel's best-selling 2006 graphic memoir (subtitled A Family Tragicomic) about growing up, and coming out, in her family's funeral home business. In 2012, the story journeyed from her pages to its off-Broadway debut at New York's Public Theater.
From there, in 2015, the show graduated to a Broadway production at Circle in the Square Theatre. Fun Home was nominated for 12 Tony Awards and won five, including the title of Best Musical; Kron and Tesori were the first female writing team to win the Tony for Best Original Score. The show is now a few months into its U.S. national tour and will visit an additional 19 cities before the end of the year.
For a company such as Vermont Stage to present a show during its national tour is a rare occurrence. To produce a theatrical work, a company must apply for the rights, and such requests are regularly denied. The most common reason is that another (usually bigger) production — such as a simultaneous national tour — is happening elsewhere. (Fun fact: Four days after President Donald Trump fired him, FBI director James Comey attended a matinee of the show in Washington, D.C., according to the New York Times.)
Nonetheless, when Vermont Stage artistic producing director Cristina Alicea heard that publishing company Samuel French was going to grant Fun Home rights to professional theaters on a case-by-case basis, she decided to throw her hat in the ring.
"At one point, we were trying to get the national tour to come to the Flynn [Center for the Performing Arts]," Alicea told Seven Days by phone, "but the show is only going to big cities that can sustain a two-week run. The only way that northern Vermont and Burlington will ever see Fun Home is if we do it."
Alicea won the rights.
Bechdel's life story is the basis for the musical. Prior to writing — and drawing — the memoir, she penned the comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For," which appeared in gay and alternative newspapers nationwide, including Seven Days. One of her panels is the source of the term "Bechdel test," a metric for the representation of women in fiction; a Bechdel character famously refused to see a film unless it featured two or more women having a conversation about something other than men.
In Vermont, residents might run into Bolton-based Bechdel — who was recently appointed the state's newest cartoonist laureate — at the supermarket or at local events. In past months, she's pulled "DTWOF" out of retirement a couple of times, employing her cast of characters to comment on the Trump administration.
Regarding Fun Home, Alicea said she recognizes that Vermont Stage has big shoes to fill.
"It was more of a daydream, applying for the show," she recounted. "So, when we got the call from Sam French, we started jumping around for joy. But my next thought was, Wait, how am I going to do this show?"
By necessity, the Vermont Stage version will be stripped down to a much smaller scale than the Broadway production. Alicea hasn't seen any performances of the show, aside from a few YouTube clips. "I prefer not to see a show that we're going to do," she explained. "I don't want my experience of watching other artists' work to color the way we're doing it here."
Fun Home is far and away the largest show Vermont Stage has ever approached, and Alicea acknowledged it will cost twice as much as the company's typical productions. For starters, the rights to a musical are more expensive than those for a drama. Fun Home requires nine actors, seven musicians, a musical director and possibly a vocal coach.
Accordingly, Vermont Stage needs to fundraise about $20,000 by September to afford a full mounting of the show. "That in itself is a daunting concept," Alicea said, then added, "I think we'll be able to do it."
Despite the obstacles, Alicea insisted the choice to produce Fun Home was a no-brainer. "Our mission is to produce plays that are both entertaining and offer meaningful conversation in our community," she said. "No one imagined that a play with a lesbian protagonist talking about her father's suicide would end up a musical that would resonate with so many people, but clearly it does."
At this point, the only known hire for the Burlington production is its director: Robin Fawcett. A theater teacher at Champlain Valley Union High School, she directed Slowgirl for Vermont Stage in 2015.
Alicea said Bechdel knows about the local production of Fun Home and is excited about it. Other details will have to wait until October. Auditions for the show begin in June.