TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY MUSICAL, "FUN HOME")
EMILY SKEGGS: (As Medium Alison) Caption - 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.
GROSS: That's the story at the center of the Broadway musical "Fun Home," which won this year's Tony Award for best musical. It's adapted from the memoir of the same name by my guest Alison Bechdel, who first became known for her comic "Dykes to Watch Out For." Last year, she was the recipient of the MacArthur Genius Award.
Alison didn't find out her father was gay until after she came out at the age of 19. After she told her parents, her mother delivered the shocking revelation about Alison's father. Alison's mother had always been aware that there were men his life, but she'd stayed married to him in spite of that. His death came shortly after Alison learned the truth.
The songs for "Fun Home" were written by composer Jeanine Tesori, who also wrote the music for "Caroline, Or Change," and lyricist and playwright Lisa Kron. They're joining us, too. They won a Tony for best score, and Kron, who wrote the adaptation, won a Tony for best book of a musical. In the musical, Alison is at her desk, writing her graphic memoir. And as she writes and draws, the action flashes back to the periods of her life and teenage years that she's illustrating. Three different actors play Alison at these three different stages of her life.
Her childhood home is an important part of the story. Located within it was the Bechdel Family Funeral Home, which her father had taken over. The house was a great source of pride for him because he'd renovated it and furnished it with antiques - collecting them was his passion. This scene from the cast recording begins with adult Alison at her desk, writing a caption for a panel of her memoir about her childhood.
(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY MUSICAL, "FUN HOME")
BETH MALONE: (As Alison) Caption - sometimes my father appeared to enjoy having children, but the real object of his affection was his house.
MICHAEL CERVERIS: (As Bruce Bechdel) I just got a call - Eleanor Bachner (ph), Alleghany Historical Society. She's calling about the house tour.
JUDY KUHN: (As Helen Bechdel) Oh, that's wonderful.
CERVERIS: (As Bruce Bechdel) She's on her way over right now. I don't know what to do. The place is turned upside down. I'm not dressed.
KUHN: (As Helen Bechdel) Go take a shower.
CERVERIS: (As Bruce Bechdel) But I...
KUHN: (As Helen Bechdel) Take a shower and get yourself dressed.
CERVERIS: (As Bruce Bechdel) OK.
KUHN: (As Helen Bechdel) Kids, kids, there's an important lady on her way over to look at the house. Listen to me, please. This is one of those times you need to do what I say quickly and without any shenanigans.
(Singing) He wants the Hepplewhite suite chairs back in the parlor. Move the G.I. Joe. It can't be on the floor. He wants the Dresden figurines back in the breakfront. A slinky messes up the period decor. Get the Lemon Pledge and dust them. They should face the same direction. He wants it vacuumed, the surface gleaming. He wants it closer to the door. He wants, he wants, he wants - he wants the brass candelabra set at an angle. The crayons and the glue should go back in the drawer. He wants the bust of Quixote square on the mantle. Sweep that lint away. It's what a broom is for. Gently wipe the eucalyptus. Polish up the crystal prisms. When he comes down here, he wants it ready. We've got to get it done before. He wants, he wants, he wants...
CERVERIS: (As Bruce Bechdel) Where's my bronzing stick?
KUHN: (As Helen Bechdel) It's in the...
(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR SLAM)
SYDNEY LUCAS: (As Small Alison) (Singing) Welcome to our house on Maple Avenue. See how we polish and we shine? We rearrange and realign. Everything is balanced and serene, like chaos never happens if it's never seen. Every need, we anticipate and fill. And still...
GROSS: Alison Bechdel, Jeanine Tesori, Lisa Kron, welcome to FRESH AIR. Alison, let me start with you. What was it like when you first heard your story sung?
ALISON BECHDEL: I was kind of blown away. I was not at all prepared to hear the music that Jeanine and Lisa had made. I somehow thought a musical - you know, I knew the musical was happening. I was preparing on some level for it. But I thought it would be somehow lighter, a kind of arm's-length take on my life. But listening to these songs of people singing as my family was - it was just really visceral, just really hit me in the stomach. It was much more emotional than I had been anticipating.
GROSS: So, like, your father was gay but very closeted. You came out at the age of 19. Do you think it's a coincidence that he was gay and you're a lesbian? Like, what do you make of that?
BECHDEL: (Laughter) Do I think it's a coincidence? I don't know. I mean, my family was certainly very odd in its psychological dynamics. But I do feel like in many ways, my life, my professional career has been a reaction to my father's life - his life of secrecy. I've been, like, all about being out and open about being a lesbian since I came out in, like, 1980. It's been my career. Like, I wrote this lesbian comic strip for many, many years. That was my job - a little bit to my family's horror at first, but they all got used to it, eventually.
GROSS: You found out that your father was gay only after you came out at the age of 19. You were in out-of-town college. You told your parents by writing them a letter. After getting the letter, your mother told you that your father had had affairs with men throughout his life and that she had known all along. But did you have any clues that your father was gay?
BECHDEL: I didn't. I mean, no, I was floored. I was - literally, I had to lie down on the floor when my mother told me that. But then I immediately started reviewing my entire life so far and, yeah, I started seeing lots of clues. My father was a dandy. He always wore kind of fancy clothes. He had more clothes than my mother did. He loved buying clothes for my mother. You know, and then all these stereotypical ways that he was, you know, gay - that he collected antiques. He didn't watch sports. He didn't go hunting. You know, he was kind of a stock character in a way.
GROSS: What did it say to you about your mother that she managed to stay in the marriage with him all those years knowing that he was gay?
BECHDEL: Well, my mother was a complicated person and a very, very duty-bound person. She - people didn't get divorced in our small Pennsylvania town. It just - I mean, it was starting to happen culturally in the broader country, but no one we knew did it. And she wasn't prepared to break up our family. I feel like my parents really are - they're kind of tragic figures. They both were ready to have different kinds of lives than were available to them in the culture. But they came along too soon. They both came of age before the women's movement, before Stonewall. They weren't able to take advantage of those liberation movements. They were already stuck, married, living, you know, in this tight-knit, little community. They didn't have a lot of options.
GROSS: It doesn't seem like it was a very loving or warm marriage, judging from the book. In the musical, he would kind of order her around. He wasn't very grateful for the things that she did for him. Did you ever ask her what it was like for her in the marriage, knowing that he was gay?
BECHDEL: I don't think I ever asked my mother that directly. I was always very careful about what I asked her - you know, how much I was going to impinge on her privacy. She used to tell me a lot very freely in the years after my father died and before. At age 40, I started to write this book about him. She told me a lot. But once she knew I was writing about him, she sort of cut me off from that flow of information. I think she didn't want to be complicit in the project, although she, you know, made it clear that she understood that I had to do it, and that was OK.
GROSS: So she didn't force you to choose between a relationship with her or doing your art?
BECHDEL: No, my mother was amazing in that way. I mean, that would have been a very easy thing to do and I think a lot of parents would have done that. But my mother understood writing, understood the creative process, understood the imperative of, you know, creativity. And she was able to put those things in different compartments. I was going to tell the story. She would just live with it. It was not her story. It was my story.
GROSS: My guests are Alison Bechdel, who wrote the graphic memoir "Fun Home," and Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, who wrote the songs for the Broadway musical adaptation. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Alison Bechdel, who wrote the graphic memoir "Fun Home," and Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, who wrote the songs for the Broadway musical adaptation.
Alison, before you knew that you were a lesbian, you knew you didn't want to wear dresses and very feminine clothes. But your father wanted you to fit in and look like the perfect daughter from the perfect family, so he'd make you wear clothes that you didn't really want to wear.
GROSS: How did it feel to wear clothes that didn't fit your sense of who you were when you were a child and didn't have the power to just say, no, that's not me, I'm not going to wear it?
BECHDEL: You know, that struggle was so - came so early in my life. It's like one of the first things I remember is wanting to wear boys' clothes and fighting with my dad about it. And, you know, sometimes I would win (laughter), which testifies to, you know, the strength of that feeling in me. But mostly, you know, when I did have to knuckle-under and dress up for a party or something, it just felt terrible. It just felt very powerless. I felt like I was living some kind of lie. It was not pleasant.
GROSS: In "Fun Home," you write about the first time you saw a butch lesbian. It was at a diner. You were there with your father. Would you describe that experience for us?
BECHDEL: Yeah, this is one of my earliest memories. I think I must have been 4 - no more than 4 when this happened. I was traveling with my dad, probably to pick up a body for the funeral home. And we were in Philadelphia, like a large city, a much larger city than where we lived. And we were having lunch in a diner and this woman came in, this big, burly woman with short hair and men's clothes. And I was spellbound. I was - my jaw dropped. And my father saw me looking at this woman and he whipped his head around and said, is that how you want to look? And, you know, there was so much going on in that exchange. Like, in that moment, I recognized that woman. I identified with her. I wanted her. I wanted to be her. And I knew that that was completely unacceptable. My father didn't, you know - he just exploded that.
GROSS: So there's a great song in the show "Fun Home" that describes this experience from the 9-year-old Alison's point of view. And this is - for anyone who saw the Tony Awards, this is the song from "Fun Home" that was performed on the Tonys. And before we hear the song, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, I want you to talk about writing this song. The song is called "Ring Of Keys," and, you know, in the drawing in the book "Fun Home," you know, we see this, like, large woman with short hair and jeans and a plaid shirt and work boots on, you know, very much wearing clothes that you might identify with a man, though a lot of women now - a lot of women wear those clothes, too. But anyways, there's something very man-ish about her. But she does have this ring of keys hanging from her belt. And it's not - it's not a detail that's especially called attention to in the drawing. But that's the focus of attention in the song. Why did you make the ring of keys, like, the symbol of everything that the 9-year-old Alison is feeling as she sees a butch lesbian for the first time?
JEANINE TESORI: Well, I think both of us - I think, Lisa, you know, when we were talking about it, I remembered thinking, to a kid who is in school, that keys - and especially a lot of keys - to me meant access. I didn't know that word probably when I was that young, but I knew that those people - that those keys opened a lot of doors, which meant that there are a lot of places that they were going to, even if it was in one building, that that meant some kind of power. And I think, as an object, they're fascinating things, and you see babies playing with rings of keys. And the fact that she would have that on, that detail in it, I think it was one of those objects that I knew that Lisa and I were talking about is, what is - what would be the event? And the way that it built to - it's, like, the greatest thing ever. It just felt both childlike without being childish. And that distinction is so important when writing from a kid's point of view.
LISA KRON: From the very first moments that I thought about adapting this book, I was really worried about doing well was portraying butchness and portraying exactly what is meant by that and what is felt in that because in mainstream culture, the way that it has often been expressed is as a stock character of ridicule. And I was very worried about how we would put this story and that character, and specifically that moment, on stage without triggering that ridicule and that sort of reflexive response. And so Jeanine said we need to write a song about this panel and I said, we can't because there's not going to be a way to do it that people won't laugh at that character and I couldn't bear it. And Jeanine said, you know, we have to and then I said, OK, because I do what Jeanine tells me, so...
GROSS: Well, let's hear the song. And this is "Ring Of Keys," and it's sung from the perspective of the 9-year-old Alison Bechdel in the musical adaptation of Alison's graphic memoir "Fun Home." And the words and music are by my guests, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron. Alison Bechdel is with us as well. So here is the song and it's sung by Sydney Lucas.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RING OF KEYS")
MALONE: (As Alison) You didn't notice her at first, but I saw her the moment she walked in. She was a delivery woman. She came in with the handcart full of packages. She was an old-school butch.
LUCAS: (As 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.
I thought it was supposed to be wrong, but you seem OK with being strong. I want to - it's so - it's probably conceited to say, but I think we're alike in a certain way. I - 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.
GROSS: That's Sydney Lucas singing "Ring Of Keys" from the cast recording of the musical "Fun Home." The music is by my guests, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, and the story is based on the graphic memoir by my guest, Alison Bechdel.
Alison, were you concerned in the same way that Lisa Kron was concerned that a song about this moment, where the young version of you sees this woman and recognizes her and feels something, that if it wasn't handled really carefully that it would be offensive and be taken as ridicule?
BECHDEL: Well, I didn't know that they were working on that song. That all came as a surprise to me. Lisa and I had had many conversations before that, like, early in the process about the whole problem of this butch character, about making her, you know, positive and appealing to an audience because we just don't see butch women portrayed as appealing characters. But this is the great power of allies and the power of Jeanine as a straight woman, just barging right in there and saying we got to do it. She could see that it had to happen.
TESORI: It's what straight women do, Alison, barge right in.
BECHDEL: And we're glad you do.
GROSS: And I should mention that Lisa Kron is a lesbian. And, Lisa, do you think you were especially sensitive about this 'cause you know butch women and you were trying to see how they would respond to the song too and want make sure that they would not feel personally offended by lyrics of the song?
KRON: Yes, the butch women and their femme girlfriends.
TESORI: Well, look, I was at a play with Lisa, and there was a character who came on and in a typical way. And I turned to the side to just see what was happening with her 'cause as I got to know her - and she's a sister to me now - and she was crying. And I thought, this - that's what she's talking about. You know, we had been discussing it, but to really sit next to it, I thought, oh, I get it now. You know, so I can bring a kind of dramatic entitlement, but I saw - it destroyed her, and it was like, oh, there it is again. There it is. And it was all it took for her to stay in her seat
GROSS: My guests are Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, who wrote the songs for the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical "Fun Home," and Alison Bechdel, who wrote the memoir it's based on. We'll talk more and hear more music from the show after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're talking about "Fun Home," the book and the musical. The musical won the Tony this year for best musical. My guests, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, wrote the songs. Lisa also wrote the book for the musical. The musical is based on a memoir told in comic book form by my third guest, Alison Bechdel. The story in the book and the musical is about Alison growing up and, after she came out at the age of 19, finding out that her father, who was still married to her mother, was actually gay himself and her mother knew that, but the marriage stayed together.
Alison, you came out when you were in college - out-of-town school. And you write in the book, "Fun Home," that until you came out, you - and had an actual relationship with another woman that your homosexuality was theoretical, an untested hypothesis.
GROSS: Go ahead.
BECHDEL: I came out by reading books, not by having actual experiences with other people. I had this very formative moment. I was browsing in my college bookstore, and I found this book called "Word Is Out." It was a book about a documentary film that had been made which was interviews with a whole bunch of gay men and lesbians. I think it was made in the late '70s. And I was spellbound by this book. And as I was reading it, I had the simultaneous realization that, oh, my God, I am one of these people in this book. And also that it was OK. Like, just like that, I accepted that in myself. I didn't have any long period of struggle. I had this great opportunity because of the moment. You know, the generational moment when I came out, it was OK to be gay in 1980.
GROSS: Was there a part of your mind where you were thinking, OK, what if I make love to another woman and it turns out I'm not gay and I don't like the experience, then what? Did you have any doubt like that?
BECHDEL: Well (laughter) I read a lot more books after that first book. And I was getting a pretty clear sense that it was going to work out and be OK, but of course I didn't know that. I hadn't had sex with anyone at that point. So, yeah, it was still kind of up in the air for me until I actually did it. It was actually very awkward the first time, but I still knew it was OK.
GROSS: So the song that's sung about Alison's first time making love to a girl is called "Changing My Major." And so the lyric is, I'm changing my major to Joan. It's kind of like a comic number, you know, and it's just filled with her just kind of exhilaration and your dizziness from this experience. Jeanine Tesori, Lisa Kron, why did you make this a more comic number?
KRON: The book is drenched in this kind of heartbreaking, elegiac tone. And we had to excise that from what we were writing because moving forward, the adult Alison knows that her father is going to kill himself. But the characters - the Small Alison and the college-age Alison - moving forward - her brothers, her mother - they don't know what's going to happen. And Alison had given us her work journal from when she was writing "Fun Home." And in that work journal, she had copied sections of her actual college journal. And, you know, we could really see that in action that she didn't know what was going to happen. And the - it - all of a sudden, we realized that before you know what happens to her in the story is that she comes out. Four months later, her father kills himself. And so her coming out becomes, in retrospect, bound with that tragedy. But moving forward, she didn't know what was going to happen.
And so in that moment that she has sex for the first time, it's an incredible feeling of opening out. In the moment where she's first coming out, she's not thinking about her parents. Her world is opening up. And we realized that dramatically, it was going to be so powerful to have that opening happen and to have that kind of lightness. And then there's this - you know, she's never dated. She's never experimented sexually. She's never - you know, 'cause she's a lesbian. So there was no way to do that. So all of this passion, this sort of backlog of passion, is just going to shoot out at this person in this moment in a way that is just, you know, comedy gold, as they say.
GROSS: Jeanine, this is a waltz. Why did you want to write this song in three quarter time?
TESORI: Well, I like the idea of dramatically putting something which, you know, there was all this language that Lisa wrote, and it was really jumbly. And I think in those moments, it's the search for like (speaking gibberish). And then ultimately, it's such a romantic, beautiful moment. It's truly - they're doing a dance, and she's jumbled, and then she's finding something. And there's this wonderful moment that Lisa wrote of - I - and she really, in this character - and it's very strange to be talking while I know that Alison is listening because we're talking about Alison's life - But I just imagined it to be this moment when she said I was - I really thought I would be alone for the rest of my life. And that's real. And then suddenly, there is this peace that comes with knowing that that's just not true. And I think there's nothing more beautiful or calming than a waltz like that. It's so romantic.
GROSS: So here's the song. It's called "Changing My Major," written by my guests, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron. And it's from "Fun Home," which is based on the memoir "Fun Home" by my guest, Alison Bechdel. Singing "Changing My Major" we'll hear Emily Skeggs from the cast recording of "Fun Home."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHANGING MY MAJOR")
SKEGGS: (As Medium Alison, 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. Oh, my God, oh, my God, oh, my God, oh, my God, 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 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, foreign study...
GROSS: That's Emily Skeggs singing "Changing My Major" from the cast recording of "Fun Home." It's the musical that won the Tony Award for best musical this year. Let's take a break, then we'll talk some more. I have three guests - Alison Bechdel is the author of the graphic memoir "Fun Home," and Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori wrote the songs for the musical "Fun Home," which won the Tony this year for best musical. We'll be back after a break.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Alison Bechdel, who wrote the graphic memoir "Fun Home," and Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, who wrote the songs for the Broadway musical adaptation.
Alison, after you came out, you went home to your parents' home and you wanted to talk with your father because at this point your mother had written you the letter saying that your father was gay. So you went there to talk with him. Judging from the musical and your memoir, it didn't go very well, that he was not prepared to have that conversation.
BECHDEL: Yeah. I knew that I wanted to establish contact with him. I wanted to have us both acknowledge this to each other. It had been all, you know, through letters and through my mother talking behind his back to me. But I wanted to have a direct conversation with him, and I was terrified to broach it. I didn't know how it was going to happen. We finally - at the end of this week, we finally ended up in the car together going off to a movie. And I was doing that thing where you see a sign. Like, I was - when the streetlight changed, I was going to say something, so that's how I forced myself to finally broach the topic with my dad. And he was very shameful. It was like - it was as if we had suddenly had this parent-child role reversal. He became very sheepish and also very confessional. He started talking to me about being a little kid and wanting to wear girls' clothes and about his first experience with another boy when he was 14. And it was kind of overwhelming, you know, and I wanted to talk about me too, and there just wasn't room for that. He was so filled with pain and shame that it just was all about him.
GROSS: So this is another song in the musical "Fun Home" in which Alison and her father are in the car having the kind of conversation that she's just described. That's a difficult one to make into a song. Jeanine, Lisa, do you want to describe that process?
TESORI: You know, I write musicals for a living. And after a while, where the sweet spot is for a song just pops out whether or not you get to write it. And this was very, very obvious that this had to be musicalized. But song form AAB, it couldn't be because it didn't have a form. I always think that - and Lisa and I talked about this endlessly - that form and structure were always fighting in this musical because they were characters who couldn't find a way to sing and children who were trying to sing the song of the parents who didn't have the form and structure to sing.
And so they are both searching and the accompaniment has the row going (imitating song structure) - and then there's the waiting and the repetition of I'll do it here, I'll do it when we get there, I'll do it when we get here. And then the hesitation from the parent to the child and then the child who sees an opening and it's just not in song form.
And it's very hard for me to go see the musical now because I'm not noting it and my head isn't inside - oh, that's out of tune, and I find this particular section unbearable because of my own relationship with my father who's not alive. You know, the things that were left unsaid and the silence just - the presence of that silence in my life is - makes it - I literally just shut my eyes when this goes by because there's so many things. It would have been easier had certain things been said, and it's too late now. And watching the attempt and the incompleteness of the moment is - I find it really wrenching to watch. It's almost like I didn't write it with Lisa. It goes into another space for me.
GROSS: Lisa, is it as emotional a song for you as it is for Jeanine?
KRON: I don't think in the same way. It's one of my favorites, I have to say. And it was clear to me at some point, you know, I read Alison's book many, many, many times. And we were inside of it for six-and-a-half years. It took me a while, but at some point I saw that it's a two-page series of panels - that car ride. And reading straight through it one time, when I'd been working for the book for a long time, I realized that there's this sort of increased tempo going to that moment. And then this horrible stillness after it. And I'm talking about inside of the book. It's the emotional climax of the book.
And so I think then we knew that there was some way that that had to be true of the play. And one of the things that happens is that that car ride is taken with Alison in college. And there's a moment right before where the character of her dad is talking to the college-aged Alison as our adult Alison looks on as she's doing as we're sort of moving all those three time periods simultaneously. And then the character of Bruce just sort of - with not too much fanfare around it, thanks to our subtle director Sam Gold - turns to the adult Alison and says, are you ready for that car ride? So the person who sings it is the adult Alison.
BECHDEL: This is Alison coming in. I just wanted to say that when I first saw that moment on stage in an early workshop version of Bruce turning to not college-age Alison, but the adult Alison - that was so emotional. I totally teared up and I don't - I'm not a crying person, but that was really powerful that the adult Alison and the father finally were connecting on stage before me.
GROSS: Which you didn't get to do in real life.
GROSS: So let's hear the song that's called "Telephone Wire." And singing we'll hear Beth Malone and Michael Cerveris from the cast recording of "Fun Home."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TELEPHONE WIRE")
CERVERIS: (As Bruce Bechdel) I was - (laughter).
MALONE: (As Alison) (Laughter).
CERVERIS: (As Bruce Bechdel) You were - you - is that too much air?
MALONE: (As Alison) No, it's good.
(Singing) Telephone wire, run and run. Telephone wire, sundown on the creek, partly frozen, partly flowing, must be windy, trees are bending, Junction 50, field needs mowing; feels like the car is glowing. Say something, talk to him. Say something, anything. At the light, at the light, at the light, at the light. At the light, at the light, at the light, at the light. Like, you could say, so how does it feel to know that you and I are both -
CERVERIS: (As Bruce Bechdel) Hey.
MALONE: (As Alison) Yeah?
CERVERIS: (As Bruce Bechdel) Where do you want to go?
MALONE: (As Alison) Oh, I don't know.
CERVERIS: (As Bruce Bechdel, singing) I know a bar that's kind of hidden away, a seedy club for folks like, you know - could be fun.
MALONE: (As Adult Alison, singing) But, Dad, I'm not 21.
CERVERIS: (As Bruce Bechdel) Yeah, right.
MALONE: (As Alison, singing) Telephone wire, long black line. Telephone wire, finely threaded sky.
GROSS: That was Beth Malone and Michael Cerveris from the cast recording of "Fun Home." With me are the songwriters of "Fun Home," Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron. Lisa also wrote the book for the musical. And also joining us is Alison Bechdel, and her graphic memoir "Fun Home" was adapted into the musical. Alison, let me get back to you. After you came out, your mother filed for divorce. Do you think her filing for divorce was related in any way to you coming out?
BECHDEL: Well, I do. I feel like this whole sequence of events was somehow my fault, even though I might know intellectually it's not. I - it's very hard for me even now to separate them. But I feel like if I hadn't come along blithely announcing that I was a lesbian, my parents would've comfortably gone on in their - well, not comfortably, but they would've gone on the way they had been in this difficult, secretive, repressed situation. But no one would've jumped in front of a truck. No one would've gotten divorced. So I feel like I precipitated all that. I don't - you know, I wouldn't change it. I don't think it was my fault, but somehow I can't see it outside of that sequence of events.
GROSS: Your father was hit by a truck and you believe it was suicide. What leads you to that conclusion?
BECHDEL: Well, that my mother had asked for a divorce, that my father had been behaving so erratically. My mother would call me upset. He'd just thrown a painting down the stairs. And so something - in some way, he started to - I don't know - decompensate. Like, there was something he was just having a very hard time managing. And so there are other little clues I would find. He was reading a book by Camus called "A Happy Death," underlining certain passages about love and and not being able to love. It just seemed like his life had become impossible.
GROSS: My guests are Alison Bechdel, who wrote the graphic novel "Fun Home," and Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, who wrote the songs for the Broadway musical adaptation. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Alison Bechdel, who wrote the graphic memoir "Fun Home," and Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, who wrote the songs for the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical adaptation. When we left off, Alison was explaining why she thinks her father's death was a suicide.
Your family had a funeral home. Was that where your father's body was?
BECHDEL: Yeah, that was another really disturbing thing about my father's death, was that he was laid out in our family funeral home, where I had seen many - you know, my brothers and I would play in the funeral home when I was growing up. We'd see these old people, all embalmed in the caskets, and we just thought it was such a crazy ritual. And then all of the sudden, here's my father, embalmed in a casket in our funeral home. You might think that being raised around that, all that, you know, everyday kind of experience of death would prepare you better for it, but I feel like it made it more surreal for me.
GROSS: I'm thinking that maybe the first man you saw naked was a corpse?
BECHDEL: Yeah, that's true. Yeah, when I was around 10 or so, once, my dad called me back into the embalming room. And I don't know why. I don't know what was going on. He had some little thing. He wanted me to hand him the scissors or something. But lying on the table was this naked man - not an old man. Like, most of the people my father dealt with were very elderly. This was a young guy - big, muscular guy - stark-naked and with his chest cut open, I guess from an autopsy or something. It was really - you know, it was very traumatic to see that.
GROSS: I can imagine it would be traumatic to see that. What effect do you think that had on you?
BECHDEL: (Laughter) I can almost feel the way that my whole system just shut down in that moment because I knew I couldn't betray that I was upset. I couldn't show any emotion at all. If I had freaked out, my father would have been contemptuous probably, so I just - I knew that this was - I just had to suck it up.
GROSS: Alison, listeners will be really angry with me if I don't ask you about the Bechdel test. And why don't you describe what it is?
BECHDEL: (Laughter) All right, well, I feel a little bit sheepish about the whole thing because it's not like I invented this test or said this is the Bechdel test. It somehow has gotten attributed to me over the years. Many, many years, ago back in 1985, I wrote an episode of my comic strip where two women are talking to each other about - they want to go see a movie. And one woman says, you know, I'll only go to a movie if it satisfies three criteria. I have to confess that I stole this whole thing from a friend of mine at the time because I didn't have an idea for my strip - my friend, Liz Wallace. And Liz said, OK, I'll only see a movie if it has at least two women in it, who talk to each other about something besides a man. And that left very, very few movies in 1985. The only movie my friend could go see was "Alien" because the two women talked to each other about the monster.
BECHDEL: But somehow, young, feminist film students found this old cartoon and sort of resurrected it in the Internet era. And now it's this weird thing. Like, people actually use it to analyze films to see whether or not they pass that test.
BECHDEL: And still, very few - surprisingly few films actually pass it, although more and more do.
GROSS: Since the idea of this criteria was suggested by your friend whose last name is Wallace, would you like it to be renamed the Bechdel-Wallace test?
BECHDEL: I would be very happy if that happened.
GROSS: (Laughter) So one more song I have to ask you about and this is a total change of mood. There's a song that's, I think, a parody of "The Partridge Family" theme. And it takes place in actually a dark moment of the show, as I recall. The fantasy song is called "Raincoat Of Love." So did "The Partridge Family" - am I right in thinking it's "The Partridge Family?"
TESORI: Yes. Oh, yes.
TESORI: Oh, yes.
KRON: One of my proudest moments was when my agent asked me if we had rights to it.
GROSS: Very good. So, Alison, did you go through that kind of I wish type of fantasy of ever wishing, like, your family was like the Partridge family?
BECHDEL: Yeah, except for me it was more "The Brady Bunch." I totally, totally wanted to live like "The Brady Bunch."
GROSS: OK, so we're going to end with this kind of fake happy song...
GROSS: ...Called "Raincoat Of Love." And is - I don't - could you have come up with, like, a cornier phrase - a raincoat of love to protect you from the world?
TESORI: Lisa Kron, ladies and gentlemen.
KRON: These were strangely the hardest lyrics to write.
GROSS: Because they were so not you?
KRON: No, because they were so - they're so - they have to be bland and yet not, you know?
TESORI: And everything is with an apostrophe - sneakin'.
KRON: That's right.
KRON: We really enjoyed that. We liked, like, parenthetical titles, yeah.
KRON: When we listened to a lot of those songs, we realized many of them had to do - in the '70s - those pop songs - just sneakin' around.
TESORI: A lot of minor chords.
TESORI: (Imitating chords).
TESORI: (Singing) I can feel your heartbeat.
TESORI: You're welcome. That was for you, Alison.
GROSS: I want to thank the three of you so much. It's really been great to talk with you. Alison Bechdel, Lisa Kron, Jeanine Tesori, thank you all so much. It's really been such a pleasure.
BECHDEL: Thank you, Terry.
KRON: Thank you.
TESORI: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAINCOAT OF LOVE")
JOEL PEREZ: (As Roy, singing) Today, I woke up with a feeling that I did not recognize.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Strange feeling, yeah.
PEREZ: (As Roy, singing) Oh, a happy life seemed far away and everything was made of lies.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Lies, yeah.
PEREZ: (As Roy, singing) The sky was turning dark when, baby, I looked in your eyes. And that's when I knew...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Everything's all right, babe...
PEREZ: (As Roy, singing) ...When we're together.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) When we're together. 'Cause you are like a raincoat...
PEREZ: (As Roy, singing) ...Made out of love.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Keeping me dry. Magic shield of love...
GROSS: My guests were Alison Bechdel, who wrote the graphic memoir "Fun Home," and Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, who wrote the songs for the Broadway adaptation, which won this year's Tony for best musical.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, I'll talk with Lily Tomlin. She stars in the new film "Grandma" and stars with Jane Fonda in the Netflix series "Grace And Frankie." We'll talk about her life and work, including a subject I didn't feel like I'd ask about when I first interviewed her in 1989 - being a lesbian. Tomlin married her longtime partner a year and a half ago. I hope you'll join us.
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