Hi there,

If you think Democracy Now!’s reporting is a critical line of defense against war, climate catastrophe and authoritarianism, please make your donation of $10 or more right now. Today, a generous donor will DOUBLE your donation, which means it’ll go 2x as far to support our independent journalism. Democracy Now! is funded by you, and that’s why we’re counting on your donation to keep us going strong. Please give today. Every dollar makes a difference—in fact, gets doubled! Thank you so much.
-Amy Goodman

Non-commercial news needs your support.

We rely on contributions from you, our viewers and listeners to do our work. If you visit us daily or weekly or even just once a month, now is a great time to make your monthly contribution.

Please do your part today.


Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home”: The Coming-Out Memoir That Became a Hit Broadway Musical

Media Options

In a Democracy Now! special, we look at the acclaimed Broadway musical “Fun Home,” which swept the Tony Awards last month. Composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist Lisa Kron made history as the first female duo to win a Tony Award for Best Original Score. “Fun Home” is also the first-ever Broadway musical to feature a lesbian protagonist. The musical is based on the 2006 best-selling graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.” The memoir is a poignant exploration of family, memory, first love, coming out and a daughter’s relationship with her father. The title comes from the Bechdels’ nickname for their family business: a funeral parlor. Throughout the memoir, Bechdel — the artist and protagonist — sketches out her hazy memories of growing up in rural Pennsylvania and coming to terms with her sexuality as she tries to make sense of her father’s suicide. Her father was secretly gay and took his life shortly after Bechdel came out as a lesbian. We speak to Bechdel, Kron and Tesori, and air highlights from the Broadway musical.

Related Story

StoryMay 28, 2020“Fight Back!”: ACT UP Members & Tony Kushner Remember Trailblazing AIDS Activist Larry Kramer
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In a Democracy Now! special, we turn now to the acclaimed Broadway musical Fun Home, which swept the Tony Awards last month. Composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist Lisa Kron made history as the first female duo to win a Tony Award for best musical score. Fun Home is also the first-ever Broadway musical to feature a lesbian protagonist. This is a video montage from the hit performance.

SMALL ALISON: [played by Sydney Lucas, singing] I wanna play airplane
I wanna play airplane
I wanna play airplane
I wanna put my arms out and fly
Like the Red Baron in his Sopwith Camel
No, wait
Like Superman up in the sky
’Til I can see all of Pennsylvania

ALISON: [played by Beth Malone] Caption—
My dad and I were exactly alike.

SMALL ALISON: I see everything!

ALISON: Caption—
My dad and I were nothing alike.

[singing] Maps show you what is simple and true
Try laying out a bird’s eye view
Not what he told you
Just what you see
What do you know
That’s not your dad’s mythology?

BRUCE: [played by Michael Cerveris, singing] I guess I’m older.
And it’s harder when you’re older to begin
Peeling plaster,
Sagging roof,
Two missing stairs,
A buckled wall.
I’m fired up to do this,
But on my own for it all
So much damage,
Broken windows,
Pipes are
Crap veneer.
It’s hours later,
Jesus, I’m still standing here.

SMALL ALISON: [singing] Your swagger and your bearing
and the just right clothes you’re wearing
Your short hair and your dungarees
And your lace up boots.
And your keys oh
Your ring of keys.
I know you
I know you
I know you

AMY GOODMAN: The musical is based on the 2006 best-selling graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. The memoir is a poignant exploration of family, memory, first love, coming out and a daughter’s relationship with her father. The title comes from the Bechdels’ nickname for their family business: a funeral home. Throughout the memoir, Alison Bechdel, the artist and protagonist, sketches out her hazy memories of growing up in rural Pennsylvania and coming to terms with her own sexuality as she tries to make sense of her father’s suicide. Her father was secretly gay and took his life shortly after Alison came out as a lesbian. Incidents are told and retold in light of new information, each panel painstakingly drawn in black line art with a grey-green ink wash. In the musical, Bechdel is depicted by three actresses at different stages of her life. Before Fun Home, Bechdel was best known for her long-running comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For. Last year, she won a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant.”

Well, Nermeen Shaikh and I interviewed Alison Bechdel, along with Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, who adapted the memoir for Broadway. I started by asking Alison Bechdel to talk about her life story as she tells it in Fun Home.

ALISON BECHDEL: It’s my story of my childhood, basically, growing up in Pennsylvania with my dad, my closeted father, and realizing that I was a lesbian, realizing that I was this different kind of kid, growing up. It was a story that felt—I felt like I could not tell that story for a long time, because it was revealing these very intimate family secrets. People didn’t know about my father’s sexuality. People didn’t know that he had killed himself. And actually, no one is absolutely certain it was a suicide; we just—the family sort of feels that’s what it was. He was hit by a truck. So those felt like very problematic things to make public. And I had felt for a long time like this was a story that was somehow important, to me, personally, but just also a culturally important story somehow, because it just—it showed how differently my generation of gay people could go on to live their lives, as opposed to my father’s generation, who—you know, he came of age in the '50s, on the other side of this great watershed moment of the Stonewall rebellion. And I came of age on the other side, and I got to be out, you know, have a sort of whole, happy life. And my father didn't get to do that. So it’s kind of a book about those different historical paths.

AMY GOODMAN: When did you understand that your father was gay?

ALISON BECHDEL: Well, that was the strange part, was I didn’t find out until I came out to my family as a lesbian when I was in college. And my mother told me. My father never really had a very direct conversation with me about it. And this all happened in a very condensed little period of time. I came out to my parents in February, and in July my father died. So there was a lot of upheaval in my family, in my personal psyche. And the book is a way of going back and trying to sort out that incredibly confusing time.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: What do you think the different things are, to the extent that you can identify them, that led you to decide to make these things public? I mean, you say, which is true, that it’s culturally a very important story, but the work that preceded this one, to what extent were you preparing yourself to make more and more revelations, as it were, about your private life?

ALISON BECHDEL: Well, yeah, I think that I was, in some sense, preparing to tell this story over the course of two decades of writing my comic strip. I made a decision soon after I got out of college to draw this lesbian comic strip. I liked drawing cartoons. I was coming out as a lesbian, getting very involved in the feminist and lesbian activities and stuff here in New York City. I lived here in New York in the early ’80s. And I started publishing these cartoons about people like me and my friends. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Why did you call it Dykes to Watch Out For?

ALISON BECHDEL: I can’t even remember. It was just a—just something that came off the top of my head. I had this friend in college who I would write letters to and started drawing some of these early prototypes of the comics. She somehow inspired this certain kind of silly mood. And I just labeled one of these crazy lesbians “Dykes to Watch Out For, Plate Number 27,” even though I had—that was the first one I had drawn, and I didn’t have 26 other ones. It just struck me as funny. And, you know, I like it’s got a double meaning. It’s like, oh, look out for them, they’re great, and look out for them, or you’ll get in trouble. You know?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: You also said, in another interview, that in writing Fun Home, you wanted to give your father a, quote, “proper funeral.”

ALISON BECHDEL: Yeah. I mean, when my father died, it was under the cloud of all these misunderstandings. You know, I felt like people didn’t know who he really was, what his life had really been like. And we had this bizarre, very conventional funeral for him in our family funeral home, which felt just wrong to me. I mean, I don’t know. I had grown up in the funeral business, and we would always kind of joke about, I don’t know, just how kind of bizarre American mourning rituals are, that they really are not very helpful.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to a clip from Fun Home, “Come to the Fun Home,” from the musical. You and your brothers perform this.

SMALL ALISON: Fun Home commercial. Take seven million billion thousand.

JOHN: [played by Zell Steele Morrow, singing] Your uncle died
You’re feeling low
You’ve got to bury your momma
but you don’t know where to go
Your papa needs his final rest
You got you got you got to give them the best

SMALL ALISON AND CHRISTIAN: [played by Sydney Lucas and Oscar Williams, singing] Come to the Fun Home

JOHN: [singing] That’s the Bechdel Funeral Home, baby

SMALL ALISON AND CHRISTIAN: [singing] The Bechdel Fun Home

JOHN: [singing] Next to Baker’s Department Store

THREE KIDS: [singing] In Beech Creek!

SMALL ALISON AND CHRISTIAN: [singing] The Bechdel Fun Home

JOHN: [singing] We take dead bodies ev’ry day of the week so

THREE KIDS: [singing] You’ve got no reason to roam
Use the Bechdel Funeral Home
What it is, what it is
hoo hoo hoo
What it is, what it is now, baby

SMALL ALISON AND CHRISTIAN: [singing] Sock it to me
Sock it to me
Sock it to me

AMY GOODMAN: “Come to the Fun Home.” That’s from the musical, Fun Home, and we’re going to speak with the women who wrote the book, who wrote the music, the lyrics and the music. But right now we’re talking to Alison Bechdel. Now, this—is this very far from what you did? I mean, reading the tragicomic, reading Fun Home, you guys did perform.

ALISON BECHDEL: Well, we certainly played around in the funeral home. I mean, it was this, you know, funny stage set, in a way, like always waiting for a funeral to happen. And we had carts that we’d push around and play with, that the folding chairs went on. And, you know, it was a fun place to play. And when Lisa Kron wrote the play, she focused in on that really fun aspect.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, let’s go to another clip from the song, “It All Comes Back,” from the musical, Fun Home.

ALISON: [played by Beth Malone, singing] There’s you.
And there’s me.
But now I’m the one who’s forty-three
And stuck.
I can’t find my way through.
Just like you.
Am I just like you?

BRUCE: [played by Michael Cerveris, singing] A sign that he was here
And made his work.

ALISON: [singing] I can’t abide romantic notions
Of some vague long ago.

BRUCE AND ALISON: [singing] I want to know what’s true,
Dig deep into who
And what
And why
And when
Until now gives way to then.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was a clip from “It All Comes Back” from the musical, Fun Home.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Alison Bechdel. Now, tell us about your dad. When it comes to his secret gay life, it was more than that. And talk about the young men he’d bring into the house and what you understood.

ALISON BECHDEL: Well, my father—my father was a high school teacher, and I later learned that he was carrying on with some of his underage students, you know, kids in like 11th grade or something. And he’d almost gotten in—he had got arrested once for buying a kid a drink, but really I think it was an issue of him, you know, having some sexual stuff going on with this boy. So there was always this threat that it was going to become public. And what would happen to my family and my mother?

AMY GOODMAN: He was charged?

ALISON BECHDEL: He was charged just with the underage drinking, not with anything else. So my mother was living with this constant anxiety that somehow this was going to become public, and there was just a great deal of strain.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go to the song about your mom. And maybe you can weigh in here before we turn to this. Your mother isn’t a—is not the pre-eminent figure in the play, in the musical, but you ended up writing a book about her, Are You My Mother? It’s not—she’s not the main figure in Fun Home. So before we talk about this really revealing song, which is the highlight for the figure who’s your mother, talk about her.

ALISON BECHDEL: Oh, my mother was an amazing person. I keep thinking, what would it be like for her to see this play? She died two years ago, just before it opened at The Public. And I think it would have been very, very painful for her to see the play. But my mother was also an actress. Like that was—she was a high school teacher by profession, but her passion was for acting. And she would often be doing summer stock as I was growing up. So it’s funny to me that she’s become a character on the stage. You know, I think she would have gotten a big kick out of that, in a way.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask a second part. It’s to do with how your mother related to your father in raising the three of you, because, in a sense, she was a counterforce. She knew there was something wrong.

ALISON BECHDEL: Yeah. Oh, I don’t know. I feel like I could probably write 17 more books about my family and what exactly was going on. But my mother, yeah, she knew about my father’s relationships with these boys and men, and, I think, considered leaving at some point but couldn’t. You know, she had three kids. She consulted with the family doctor, with her priest, and everyone said, “Oh, you’ve got to stay, stay with your husband.” So, she was a very dutiful person, and she did that.

AMY GOODMAN: Though didn’t she tell him she was going to leave him a few weeks before—

ALISON BECHDEL: And finally, part of this crazy constellation of events in this few months between when I came out and when my father died, one of those things was my mother finally decided she had had it, and she asked my father for a divorce. So, that’s part of why we think that he probably intentionally stepped in front of the truck. It’s just suddenly striking me as very unseemly that I’m going around talking about my family like this, even though I’ve written a book and now they’re in a play. But somehow it’s still—you know, it’s very painful, intimate stuff.

AMY GOODMAN: I think that’s why it is so powerful in your book, Fun Home. I mean, the way you convey it in—I mean, and I don’t think you’re insulted by this—in cartoons, in a graphic novel, is so powerful. It changes the whole medium. Speaking of which, even the song, the song about your mom, “Days and Days.” Let’s go to a clip.

HELEN: [played by Judy Kuhn, singing] Days and days and days
That’s how it happens:
Days and days and days
Made of lunches
And car rides
And shirts and socks
And grades
And piano
And no one clocks the day you disappear.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

HELEN: [played by Judy Kuhn, singing] Days and days and days
That’s how it happens:
Days and days and days
Made of posing
And bragging
And fits of rage
And boys—my god, some of them underage!
And, oh, how did it all happen here?

Don’t you come back here.
I didn’t raise you
To give away your days
Like me.

AMY GOODMAN: “Days and Days,” sung by Judy Kuhn, from the Broadway musical, Fun Home, based on the graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we spend the hour looking at this remarkable Tony-winning Broadway production. In addition to Alison Bechdel, we’re joined by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, who just made history by becoming the first female duo to win a Tony for Best Original Score of a musical. They were also nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Fun Home. Jeanine Tesori has been described as “the most prolific and honored female theatrical composer in [Broadway] history.” Her other works include include Caroline, or Change; Shrek the Musical; Thoroughly Modern Millie; and Violet. Lisa Kron wrote the lyrics and the book for Fun Home, which earned her a Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical, as well. I asked Lisa Kron to discuss the challenges of transforming Alison Bechdel’s funny, yet dark, graphic novel into a musical.

LISA KRON: The book has a kind of an essayistic quality to it. And it feels like it has a straightforward narrative. But it doesn’t really. The action of the book, I think, is the narrative voice, the voice that appears in captions in the book, interrogating—you know, remembering these scenes, but then interrogating what really happened, sort of taking the knowledge that Alison gained later about who her father truly was and then remembering scenes that she experienced in one way and then trying to understand what really happened. So the question for us was: How do we theatricalize that? Because you can’t show somebody’s thoughts on stage; you can only show their behavior. And so—

JEANINE TESORI: Well, that was what’s so great about it: You can sing your thoughts.


JEANINE TESORI: And you can—you know, and that’s the thing that—


JEANINE TESORI: —that when we were dealing with that, it was the idea that they’re behaving one way—


JEANINE TESORI: —and they are thinking another way. And in that way, the juxtaposition of how you dramatize a graphic—I suddenly became British—a graphic novel.

AMY GOODMAN: Maybe you’ll become Jeanine in the future, when she moves to London.

JEANINE TESORI: I hope so. It always sounds smarter, [in British accent] graphic novel. And that’s why, you know, it was my—you can—my biggest worry, working with these two women, was being as good as what they had done before, to live up to the book, to live up to—you know, I’ve known Lisa Kron’s work, and it’s—the bar is really high.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Jeanine Tesori, you’ve said in another interview that you’ve been, in a sense, studying your whole life to write Fun Home. Could you talk about that, like how Fun Home relates to all the previous work you’ve done, whether you see it as kind of culminating following all of the works you’ve done or as something completely distinct?

JEANINE TESORI: It’s ex post facto. I look at it, and I think, “Oh, my god, you were doing all of those things.” You know, in Shrek, which I had a wonderful time musicalizing, there are three Fionas. And I thought, “Oh, you were doing that to do this, to study how to do that in much the way that an artist will do sketches in preparing for the work.” And in Violet, there was a young Violet and old Violet. So I’ve always been interested. And that Violet was the first musical I ever wrote, was all about forgiveness and a daughter and a father. And there are not—there are very few, if any, daughter-father relationships that are examined in the dramatic repertoire. Certainly in musical theater, there are not. You know, mostly the women are not front and center, and they’re mostly wearing big, bangly earrings or—and I’ve written some of them. But this was so much, I felt, what I could bring to it and heal some part of myself.

AMY GOODMAN: The two of you are the first women duo to win for musical score and book. Did we see that at the Tonys?

JEANINE TESORI: No, we did not. Well, we sort of—I don’t know. I didn’t watch them. But no.

LISA KRON: It was not broadcast, no.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

JEANINE TESORI: Well, every time I lost, it was live. So that was nice. And I finally win the [bleep] thing, and it’s taped.

AMY GOODMAN: Wait. What happened? Did you get it at a different ceremony?


LISA KRON: No, it was—it’s just off air.

AMY GOODMAN: You got it during the commercial?

LISA KRON: So we got it during—yeah, we got it—there’s a part of the show that happens before, and then parts of it that happen in the commercial.


LISA KRON: But it’s—you know, it was—

JEANINE TESORI: With other awards.

AMY GOODMAN: So, history was made—not on your TV screen.

LISA KRON: That is correct. Also, just to say, even if we hadn’t won, the writers and the composers are not being—you know, there is no theater without writers and composers. And that has been taken off the broadcast.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to that clip to the two of you going up on the stage, because—did they perform it—did they play it at the Tonys at all?

LISA KRON: Well, it happened at the—it happened in the room.

ALISON BECHDEL: Yeah, like I saw it. I was in the audience, and it was—

AMY GOODMAN: You saw it.


AMY GOODMAN: It happened in the room. But did they then take the moment that they hadn’t broadcast live and play it in another part of the—

LISA KRON: A small clip of it, a tiny clip.

AMY GOODMAN: They took a tiny clip.

JEANINE TESORI: Very edited.


AMY GOODMAN: So we’re going to play that right now, so that everyone can experience history being made.

LISA KRON: I can’t really believe I’m standing here, because I have never written a musical before. I am here for one reason and one reason only, and I am so proud to be standing here next to the magnificent Jeanine Tesori.

JEANINE TESORI: Oh, wow! Thank you. Oh, I have to give a shout-out to John Buzzetti, for whom—I just wouldn’t be doing this without John Buzzetti and Nancy Rose. Thank you guys are my rocks. My grandfather, Dominic Venta, was a composer in Italy. He came to this country to try to fulfill that dream. He died when my mother was five years old, working in a gas station—not my mother, my grandfather. And I didn’t realize that a career in music was available to women until 1981. I saw the magnificent Linda Twine conduct The Lady and Her Music: Lena Horne. And that was my “Ring of Keys” moment, which, by the way, is not a song of love, it’s a song of identification, because, for girls, you have to see it to be it. And I am so proud to be standing here with Lisa Kron. We stand on the shoulders of other women who have come before us—Mary Rodgers, Tania León, Linda Twine. Thank you to my family; Matthew Titus, my love; Madeleine George, my new love. And at the very least—we have something to tell you, Lisa. This award, I dedicate to all of the theater children, who miss—we miss your bedtimes. You nap during sound check. My daughter, Siena Rafter, is the reason I am here. I’ve never wanted to be an actress, but the role of mother is something that I cherish. Thank you so much.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori winning, for the first time a women duo, for best book and best musical score. Your feelings then as you went up on the stage?

JEANINE TESORI: Well, it was shocking. It’s all shocking. I’m what I call BFF, braced for failure, always. I think its’ in my upbringing of expect—you know, work with great rigor, ferocity, kindness and low expectations, and then just put your head down and row. And this musical was the most important thing I’ve ever, ever written. And I know that it sounds hyperbolic when I’m saying, you know, I really don’t need to write another thing, but I feel that way right now. I will write, but there is a part of me that’s completely—the bottom of the rice cooker has been scraped out of things that I’ve been really searching to express musically for a very long time. And I don’t know quite how I got so lucky as to meet this work with these people at this time. It will never happen again, and I know that. And so I treasure it. That said, it was shocking. I felt shocked by it, you know?



LISA KRON: You know, awards are—it’s a capricious business. And they mean a lot, and they don’t mean anything. But I think that in this case, you know, we had, and we have, the most extraordinary producers. And we were constantly having to rewrite the assumed narrative, which was that this was not commercially viable, because it’s a serious piece of work—you know, it’s not a pure entertainment, even though it is very entertaining; because it was written by women; because it not only has—focuses on women characters, but lesbian characters, and, more than that, has a butch lesbian protagonist. Even when we were succeeding, even when we it had had a successful run at The Public and we were selling tickets on Broadway, still the question was being asked: Do you think this will work on Broadway? And our producers did, and our marketing team and our press team did, an incredible job of working to turn around that set of assumptions. And I feel that one of the really important things for us about winning that award was that it totally confirmed that success. And if we had not won, people would have then reverted back and said, “Right, this is not—this is not viable.” And that, to me, felt very gratifying. And that felt like the most important thing to me about it.

JEANINE TESORI: That was so beautifully said. You know, I’ve been sort of searching, and that was like just like perfectly said.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, speaking of things being perfectly rendered, we will show something that did appear at the Tonys, and this was the performance of “Ring of Keys.” This is from Fun Home at the Tony Awards.

ALISON: [played by Beth Malone] In this panel, me and my dad in a diner.

BRUCE: [played by Michael Cerveris] Where’s Betty?

SMALL ALISON: [played by Sydney Lucas] She went home. Lorna is on now.

ALISON: Caption—
My dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town. And I didn’t know it, but both of us were gay.

BRUCE: Where’s your barrette?

ALISON: And we were exactly alike.

BRUCE: Put it back in. Keeps the hair out of your eyes.

SMALL ALISON: So would a crew cut.

ALISON: And we were nothing alike.

BRUCE: Do not take it out again.

ALISON: Which was it, Dad?

BRUCE: Get Lorna. Need coffee.

ALISON: You didn’t notice her at first, Dad, but I did. I saw her the minute she walked in. I’d never seen a woman who looked like her. It was like I was a—a traveler in a foreign country who runs into someone from home, someone they’ve never met before but somehow just recognizes.

SMALL ALISON: [singing] Someone just came in the door.
Like no one I ever saw before.
I feel…
I feel…

I don’t know where you came from.
I wish I did
I feel so dumb.
I feel…

Your swagger and your bearing
and the just right clothes you’re wearing
Your short hair and your dungarees
And your lace up boots.

And your keys oh
Your ring of keys.

AMY GOODMAN: “Ring of Keys,” sung by Sydney Lucas, who just turned 12. She sang that when she was 11. Jeanine Tesori, what did she say about her 11th year?

JEANINE TESORI: She said, “11 was my year.”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Alison, talk about “Ring of Keys,” because this wasn’t prominent in the graphic novel. It was maybe a couple of frames. But talk about what Lisa and Jeanine did with this.

ALISON BECHDEL: Oh, this is so incredible to me. I mean, to see that song performed at the Tonys on national television is really mind-blowing. I’m not always braced for failure, as Jeanine says, but I’m always braced for marginality, like I just expect no one is going to be interested in my bizarre, subcultural experience. But this is like a very—it’s a small moment in the book, but it was a big, formative moment for me as a kid. It happened when I was actually much younger. I was like four or five. And I was out with my dad, and I noticed this very butch delivery woman, this masculine-looking woman who came into the diner where we were. And I had this moment of recognition, like that woman is—I’m like that woman. You know, I both admired her, I was her. And my father saw me noticing her, and he said, “Is that what you want to look like?” Because even then, at age four, we had always had struggles about like how I needed to look more like a girl and stuff.

AMY GOODMAN: And he was always trying to dress you up in dresses.

ALISON BECHDEL: Yes, he was always—yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Your dad, not your mom.

ALISON BECHDEL: Right. No, my mother didn’t care, but my father wanted me to wear dresses and have my hair barrette in at all times. Yeah, that’s a long story. So, of course, when he said, “Is that what you want to look like?” I sheepishly said, “No.” But it was. It was. And that woman, just that brief image of that woman, was very sustaining for me as I grew up, as I learned that I was a lesbian. It was just—you know, I had a role model. And so, here’s this child singing that, you know, and acting that memory from my life. And it’s just so intimate, so powerful, so deeply transgressive, I think. And here it is on television.

SMALL ALISON: [played by Sydney Lucas, singing] I thought it was s’pposed to be wrong
But you seem okay with being strong
I want…to…
You’re so…

It’s probably conceited to say,
But I think we’re alike in a certain way

Your swagger and your bearing
and the just right clothes you’re wearing
Your short hair and your dungarees
And your lace up boots.

And your keys oh
Your ring of keys.

Do you feel my heart saying hi?
In this whole luncheonette
Why am I the only one who sees you’re beautiful?

No, I mean

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, that is “Ring of Keys,” sung by Sydney Lucas, playing our guest today, Alison Bechdel, the real deal.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Alison, one of the things that you’ve said about the performance of this song is that having a child singing about desire in this interesting way is also revolutionary.

ALISON BECHDEL: Yeah, I mean, desire and identification, and the complex relationship between those things. We don’t want to think that children have sexualities, and so that feels very revolutionary, that this kid is discovering this part of herself.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Can you talk about what it was like for you to see your life represented in these three stages of your life—as a child, an adolescent and in the present—on stage?

ALISON BECHDEL: It’s been really—I’ve used the word “surreal” so many times, it doesn’t even have any meaning anymore, but that’s the only word I can think of to describe it. Yeah, there’s me as an adult. There’s me as a college student. There’s me as a child. And these actors are doing something that feels very authentic and, like, that does feel like some version of my actual self as I watch them on stage, so it’s really weird.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Do you think there’s something about the musical form, seeing your life represented in that way, that revealed something to you or showed you something new about your life, how you may perceive it or how audiences might?

ALISON BECHDEL: I felt like seeing the musical made the emotions that I was trying to get at in the book, and in my own self—I feel like, when I talked about making a proper funeral for my father, I also meant I wanted to be able to fully grieve him, in a way that I hadn’t been able to when his life was enshrouded in these lies. So, I wanted to tell the true story, and I tried to do that. But then, seeing the musical, I felt like I was unprepared for the power that music has. It was really—it just cut to the emotional heart of my story in a very direct way that was stunning.

AMY GOODMAN: Alison Bechdel, author of the graphic memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. We’ll be back in a moment with her, Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, who adapted Fun Home into a Broadway musical. Stay with us.

MEDIUM ALISON: [played by Emily Skeggs, singing] What happened last night?
Are you really here? Joan, Joan, Joan, Joan, Joan,
Hi Joan! Don’t wake up Joan!
Oh my god, last night. Omigod omigod omigod omigod last night.

I got so excited. I was too enthusiastic.
Thank you for not laughing.
Well, you laughed a little bit at one point when I was touching you
And said I might lose consciousness,
Which you said was adorable, and I just have to trust
that you don’t think I’m an idiot or some kind of an animal.
I’ve never lost control due to overwhelming lust, but I must say that
I’m changing my major to Joan.
I’m changing my major to sex with Joan.
I’m changing my major to sex with Joan,
With a minor in kissing Joan.

AMY GOODMAN: “Changing My Major,” a song from the Tony-winning Broadway musical, Fun Home, performed last night on NBC’s Late Night with Seth Meyers. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we return to the interview with the graphic novelist Alison Bechdel, author of Fun Home, and Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, who adapted the novel for Broadway. I asked Alison Bechdel about the scene around the song, “Changing My Major.”

AMY GOODMAN: Alison, talk about this moment, because it captures something so important in college at Oberlin.

ALISON BECHDEL: Yes, this—this is my excrutiatingly awkward first sexual experience turned into a showstopping Broadway number.

JEANINE TESORI: That will now be on national TV.

ALISON BECHDEL: And this is—these guys completely made this up. I mean, there’s—I show this—


ALISON BECHDEL: I sort of gloss over the details of this encounter, but this was my first lover in college, Joan. And I just show before-and-after pictures, like waking up the next morning. And out of that, they made this incredible song.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you and Joan feel about it?

ALISON BECHDEL: Well, it’s funny, because the real Joan came and saw the show, and she loved it and, you know, thought it was insane that there’s a song based on her. She recalled not having been quite so confident, but I think she actually was. She just forgets that part.

AMY GOODMAN: Or maybe more than you.

ALISON BECHDEL: She was a lot more confident than me, yeah.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Alison, you talked earlier about how you’re used to being—your work being, let’s say, marginal or representing a subculture. But with Fun Home, first with the graphic novel and now of course with the musical, it seems as though your work has become a lot more mainstream.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: Does that seem like a success?

ALISON BECHDEL: I like the way you frame that. Everyone assumes that it’s a success, but it does feel a little fraught. Like I’m very happy about it, but I’m not used to—I’m used to pushing against the mainstream, like wanting to be let in. And so, to finally find myself on the inside is a little disorienting. It’s a funny moment, you know? It’s a very funny moment for LGBT culture and civil rights right now. And I feel like the play and the success of the play is very much tied into what’s happening in the culture, especially with the whole marriage thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, the whole marriage thing, you’re very much a part of, because didn’t you just get married?


AMY GOODMAN: Can we see that finger?

ALISON BECHDEL: I did. I did. I have a ring on my finger. I’m very happy to be married, but I am also still quite ambivalent about the institution of marriage. You know? But I just got kind of caught up in the moment. It’s exciting. It’s so exciting to have this be legal everywhere, that I wanted to do it.

AMY GOODMAN: Which brings us back to where we started, with the comic strip, the series that you did, Dykes to Watch Out For, and the book that has come of that, The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, Alison Bechdel, The Lives, Loves, and Politics of Cult-Fav Characters Mo, Lois, Sydney, Sparrow, Ginger, Stuart, Clarice, and Others.

JEANINE TESORI: That’s our next musical. We’re announcing it on Democracy Now!

LISA KRON: It’ll be ready in 2075.

ALISON BECHDEL: Well, yeah, this is—I wrote this very subcultural comic strip for many, many years. And one of the themes if it was, you know, the struggle between people who wanted to assimilate and people who wanted to rebel, people who were against marriage. They didn’t want anyone to get married. So, it was sort of an ongoing debate for 25 years in my comic strip. And now I’ve finally capitulated.

AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly, you know, we just came from Charleston, South Carolina, the killing of the nine African-American churchgoers. The big funeral that President Obama gave the eulogy for Reverend Pinckney, and also sang, was held at the College of Charleston, the arena there. Now, you have an interesting experience with the College of Charleston just a year ago. Can you talk about it?

ALISON BECHDEL: Yeah, my book was taught at the College of Charleston. I went down and made a visit a couple years ago. And the college was punished for that, for bringing me to campus, for giving students this book to read. By the—the trustees, yeah, were upset about this, and defunded the college, took a big chunk of money away from them for having done this. And so, there was some outcry about this. And the play, the cast of the play and me and Lisa and Jeanine, we all went to Charleston and did a little performance, like to support the people on the campus who were supporting the book. We had—

AMY GOODMAN: You all went there?

ALISON BECHDEL: Yeah, we all went there. It was really amazing.

JEANINE TESORI: Yeah. I think it was Michael Cerveris, who plays Bruce. He had this idea.

AMY GOODMAN: Who won the Tony for playing Bruce, Alison’s dad.

JEANINE TESORI: Who won the Tony. He said—because I think it started as saying they should be the first people to get the rights to—or we should—and then he said, “Why don’t we go down?” And then, all of a sudden, we did. It was this amazing concert.


JEANINE TESORI: And we raised money. We raised money for them to fight this legal battle.

AMY GOODMAN: And what was your experience like in South Carolina, especially the students, how they received you?

ALISON BECHDEL: Well, it was very, very warm. People were ecstatic that we were there. But I have to say, you know, when I had been there previously, it was very—it was notable to me. This was a very conservative place. Like I’m used to going to colleges and talking about my work, and I’m usually very warmly received. But it was—you could tell that Charleston was a conservative place. So I wasn’t too surprised that this happened, that this kind of censorship happened.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, as we wrap up, Alison, do you feel you know your father more after this journey of the book, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, The Family Tragicomic?

ALISON BECHDEL: Well, the play was.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Alison, as we wrap, do you feel that you know your dad any more after this long journey of writing the book and the book becoming a musical and so many millions of people now experiencing this?

ALISON BECHDEL: Do I know him better? I feel like I have increasing understanding of him all the time as I age, you know? But—yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, you’re the age of—

ALISON BECHDEL: Well, I’m now much older than he was when he died. He was 44, I’m 54. So, I’m in a whole new part of life that he never got to have. But yeah, I do feel like I keep learning more about my dad through the play, through people’s responses.

AMY GOODMAN: And about yourself?

ALISON BECHDEL: Yes, definitely about myself.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: One of the things that’s very striking in the stuff that I read about you is that your cat is named after the very famous British psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: So I wanted to ask you—and you’ve also referenced in your more recent work, that’s more explicitly about your mother, the work of Freud, as well as of Alice Miller—how psychoanalysis, if at all, has helped you to both understand yourself and come up with a language to reveal what you would like to reveal about yourself and those you were intimate with.

ALISON BECHDEL: Well, I did write this memoir about my mother, which is also kind of a memoir about therapy and almost an essay, too, about therapy and how therapy works. Yes, I would not have been able to do any of this work without a lot of time on the couch. I’m a big fan of therapy. I’ve been in therapy most of my adult life. It’s really—you know, people talk about therapy as being sort of self-indulgent or an individual solution, but I feel like it is the most radical thing we can do to really, like, get in touch with our autonomy and agency. And it has helped me a lot. It’s made me able to do this work. So, yeah, Donald Winnicott is a particular idol of mine.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Lisa and Jeanine, how has this changed your lives?

JEANINE TESORI: Well, you know, in some ways, it has; in some way, it hasn’t. You know, I’m working, because, for me, the musical form—and I think some people I know, and you—I’ve been in meetings, and they’ll say, “That’s so musical theater,” and I think, “What do you mean by that?” And I think what they mean is it’s just, of the Jell-O 1-2-3, it’s just Jell-O 1. And I find that the musical theater, which is a brilliant American art form, knows no boundaries in what it can do, and we really can’t condescend to it. And so, I think that this has met our time. It’s a musical of our time. Makes me, I think—my thinking is available of what else can it do? You know, what are the next stages? Where are we? What can we express, that the conversation, the global conversation and the national conversation, and express that in musical theater form, so it’s not relegated or in fact marginalized in its own way to a particular type of entertainment, and it can be really entertaining and really funny, and speak of the moment? So I think that it’s happened. That, for me, is everything. Plus I’m fiercely, fiercely proud of this work. And anytime anyone says, “Oh, you wrote Fun Home,” I think, “Yes, I did.” I wrote it with some beautiful people, and we did it with integrity, and I love the way it was made and the people with whom it was made.

AMY GOODMAN: And Lisa Kron?

LISA KRON: Well, it was the most glorious experience making it. And I think, similar to Alison, it has placed me in a more central position, I guess, in my field. And one of the things that I am interested to pursue is this question of parity in the theater, which, as with all fields, you know, women are capping out—you know, there are some remarkable successes, but—and we are one of them—but the numbers for women are topping out at roughly 20 percent. And—


JEANINE TESORI: Oh, in the theater. So women—so the numbers of women playwrights and women composers whose work is being produced, women directors, women protagonists in plays, as—sort of across the board in the culture, there seems to be this 20 percent ceiling. And I think when there are—I think the successes are a little bit more vivid, and it leads us to believe that the numbers are higher than they actually are. And I believe that theater is a place where we actually could just decide to change it, because there’s so much more—because there are so few production slots and so many more writers.

AMY GOODMAN: So why don’t we end with the Bechdel test? What is the Bechdel test, Alison?

ALISON BECHDEL: The Bechdel test is actually a joke from a very early Dykes to Watch Our For cartoon from 1985. A friend of mine in my karate club told me that she would only go see a movie if it satisfied three criteria: One, it had to have at least two women in it; two, they had to speak to each other; three, about something besides a man. And this was very funny to us, because you could hardly find any movie that met all those three criteria. She could go see Alien, she discovered, because two women talk to each other about the monster. So we just thought that was—

AMY GOODMAN: Was the monster a man or a woman?

ALISON BECHDEL: Well, the monster, I think, was sort of ambiguous. Good question, though. So this was just like a lesbian, feminist joke from the '80s that was in my comic strip and disappeared. But somehow it got resurrected in the early 2000s, I think after the Internet started up. And a younger generation of feminists found that—I think feminist filmmakers—and kind of latched onto it, because they were in fact being told those things in film school: “Don't have more than two women characters, or Hollywood won’t buy your movie.” So they took it and started using it as a gauge for movies, and it got kind of popularized. And it’s still attached to my name, which I feel a little sheepish about. But it’s kind of cool.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Because it was your friend’s idea?

ALISON BECHDEL: It was my friend’s idea, yeah. Actually, I think my friend got it from Virginia Woolf. I think it was sort of a key part of A Room of One’s Own. But it’s a nice boiled-down version of it.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Right before we conclude, I’d just like to ask you—the title of your next work is Secret to Superhuman Strength. Would you like to say anything about it?

ALISON BECHDEL: Oh, yeah, it’s not a very political book, not so far. It’s a book about exercise. It’s a memoir comic about my relationship to exercise. I’m not—I haven’t quite figured it out yet. That’s all I’ll say.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you exercise?

ALISON BECHDEL: I do. I do. I like—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: With ambivalence.

ALISON BECHDEL: No, that’s one thing I’m not ambivalent at all about. It’s how I stay sane.

AMY GOODMAN: Alison Bechdel, author of the graphic memoir, Fun Home, along with the history-making Tony Award-winning duo, Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, who adapted Fun Home into a Broadway musical.

If you want a copy of today’s show, visit our website at democracynow.org. If you use an iPhone, check out our app at democracynow.org/ios. We also have a job opening for a social media editor. Check democracynow.org.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Up Next

“Fight Back!”: ACT UP Members & Tony Kushner Remember Trailblazing AIDS Activist Larry Kramer

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation