When it comes to Alison Bechdel, I was an early adopter. As a radical feminist in the 1980s, I embraced lesbian culture (although I never actually embraced any lesbians). What lesbian culture gave me was a world that didn’t revolve around men. To a straight woman who wanted to smash the patriarchy, a female-centric world was very compelling.
At the heart of lesbian life was Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For (DTWOF), a comic strip that didn’t merely reflect but defined, if not codified, what it meant to be a 1980s lesbian. Wise and funny, it was a sitcom on paper with an all-lesbian cast. (Think Friends or Cheers, but everyone’s a dyke.)
There were men in the strip too, but they were merely bit players. It was women who drove the action — falling in and out of love, building community, becoming politically active, and changing with the times. Bechdel covered all the issues, personal and political, important to a lesbian, or a lesbian wannabe, or a straight woman like me who hungered for a world in which women were subjects, not objects.
I fell hard for Dykes and quickly became a cheerleader for Alison’s work. When I published Women’s Glib, my first collection of women’s humor, in 1991, I included as many of her cartoons as I could, and I was touched when Bechdel drew a copy of Glib into the background of a strip that took place in a women’s bookstore.
I purchased the original of that strip. It’s still hanging in my hallway.
Bechdel retired Dykes in 2008, breaking many hearts (including mine). Her next creation, 2006’s Fun Home, a graphic memoir detailing her own coming of age, was just as funny as the strip in its own way, but deeper and far more melancholy. It wasn’t just a slice-of-lesbian-life with marvelous punchlines. It was personal and far more revealing. It quickly became a bestseller and collected every accolade imaginable, including Time magazine’s “Book of the Year.”
“You’ve come a long way, Alison,” I thought, not unhappily. You know the world is changing for the better when Alison Bechdel is mainstream.
I loved Fun Home. I read it more than once. (But, to be perfectly honest, while I recognize that the graphic memoir is a “higher” art form than the cartoon strip, I still missed Dykes.) Fun Home is about growing up the child of a loving father who was also a closeted gay man, who committed suicide shortly after his college-aged daughter came out. Were the two events related? Merely a coincidence?
Fun Home is a book about an unanswered question.
When I learned that Fun Home had been turned into a musical, though I usually shy away from anything described as “heart-rending” or “poignant,” I knew I had to go. I stuffed my pockets with tissues for weeping purposes and hit a recent matinee.
It’s very odd to see a musical about someone you actually know.
It’s not as if Alison and I are pals. Although I used her work in all 12 of my books, we met face-to-face just twice. I exchanged a few words with her when she spoke about Fun Home at the Philadelphia Free Library. And, years ago, in the heyday of DTWOF, when mutual pals told me she was in town, I took her out to breakfast at a local diner.
What was she like? Intense. Serious. Scary smart. (For DTWOF fans: She’s totally Mo.)
The musical version of Fun Home uses three actresses to play Alison: as a kid, as a college student, and as a 40-year- old. Adult Alison bears a striking physical resemblance to the cartoonist. Tall. Lean. Serious affect. She even wears the same glasses.
But when she began to talk (and to sing!) I immediately thought, “Hey, wait a minute — that’s not Alison!”
Of course not. It was Musical Theater Alison. It was the Alison I knew, but with added oomph and sparkle (and a lovely singing voice). An Alison who could be convincing as an aloof, analytical cartoonist, yet grab the hearts of a New York audience.
It’s a real trip to see a singing, dancing version of someone you actually know. It made me wish I could meet the Musical Theater version of me. It also gave me a new mind game, that of imaging the heightened onstage versions of my friends and family. (You can play this game too — just picture yourself, but with audience appeal.)
So how was the show? Terrific. It stays true to the spirit of the book. And, unlike, for instance, Mary Poppins, who, in the movie, is a totally different bird from the grumpy magical nanny in the books, it’s absolutely the same (albeit somewhat heightened) Alison. The story is just as poignant and unsettling. (I definitely needed those tissues.) But often hilarious, too. And the humor often reminded me of Dykes, especially two key songs about being a lesbian, “Ring of Keys,“ an ode to a butch UPS carrier, and “I’m Changing My Major to Joan,“ about Bechdel’s first love. (So why hasn’t anyone turned Dykes into a musical? Note to Alison: Make that happen!)
The musical of Fun Home, like the book, asks the question — why did Bruce Bechdel kill himself?
So the same unhappy mystery is at the heart of Alison’s life, and of her memoir, and now of this musical. And as many times as it gets asked, and in as many venues (Fun Home: The Opera! Fun Home: The Ballet! Fun Home: the six-part HBO miniseries!) it will, inevitably, remain unanswered.
Which is, I guess, the point.
Should you go? Absolutely. Both the book and the musical are unforgettable. And yet, I’d trade them both in a heartbeat for a couple more years of Dykes.
I really miss that strip.