Over on the Great White Way, massive set pieces, jaw-dropping high kicks, and a gathering of Broadway’s biggest divas have dominated the past musical theater season.
How special, then, that heading into this year’s Tony Awards the toast of the town is a small musical that instead trades spectacle and special effects for emotional fireworks—and a storyline that, to quote the show, is steadfast in its mission to “say something.”
In its shorthand, Fun Home is revolutionary: It’s Broadway’s first mainstream musical featuring a lesbian protagonist. Based on the 2006 graphic memoir of Alison Bechdel (of the famed Bechdel test), the show follows Alison at three stages of her life as she comes to terms with her sexuality and grapples with the suicide of her father, who himself was closeted and killed himself soon after Alison came out to him.
Yep—and it’s a musical!
But labeling Fun Home the “lesbian musical” because of its dealings with sexuality is woefully reductive (as labels to do with sexuality typically are).
Meticulously directed by Sam Gold and with a folksy, natural score by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, it’s an intimate and specific look at one woman’s struggle with identity that explodes with universal humanity and relatability: the ecstasy of being who you are, and the agony of hiding that same thing.
The show is in contention for 12 Tony Awards, including Best Musical and one each for the three women who play Alison. Beth Malone, 46, plays present-day Alison, and has since the show’s first workshops in 2009. Emily Skeggs, 24, makes her Broadway debut as Alison in her college years, when she officially comes out as a lesbian.
And young Sydney Lucas, 11, returns to a role she originated at age 9, and will sing what has become Fun Home’s signature, most attention-grabbing tune at Sunday’s Tony Awards: “Ring of Keys,” an ode to a butch lesbian young Alison sings upon discovering her own sexuality. (Seriously, this show is special.)
We gathered “the three Alisons” for an afternoon chat soon after they learned they are all 2015 Tony nominees, covering the impassioned emotional reactions audiences have been having to the show, the significance of an 11-year-old girl singing “Ring of Keys” each night, and how Fun Home is changing their lives and own relationships.
I’m sure you’ve heard stories about how profoundly affecting this show is for so many people. But you also have the unique experience of performing this in the round where the audience is inches from you while you’re performing. What is that like for you?
Beth: I can hear people losing their shit all around me. That slippery slope of the last 20 minutes of the show I can hear people ugly-crying all around me.
Emily: Does that affect you? Do you have to block that out?
Beth: You know what? It’s fine. I let it in.
Sydney: And when I’m backstage about to come on for the finale I always watch the monitor and see everybody wiping their eyes. Even in the finale I make eye contact with people and they’re crying hysterically.
Emily: It’s hard sometimes. The other day in the finale, I faced the first row and they’re basically right there. I could reach out my hand and touch them. And there were these two young gay men, a couple, sitting in the front row holding hands, clearly having a very important experience. I got choked up to the point that I was like, I have to avoid them.
Beth: I never look at them. I hear them, but if I looked at them I don’t think I could perform.
Emily: I could just see them in my periphery. And hear them, and feel them. What’s exciting is that you can hold that all in and kind of ignore it, and then when you leave the show that’s when you talk to people and get to really engage with them and hear about their experience. That’s been my happiness doing this show.
Normally when a show ends, fans run to the stage door to snap a photo with the stars. But this is different, because people don’t want to just see you guys. They feel compelled to share stories with you.
Beth: I hug so many people. Like therapy: “It’s OK. I understand. It’s very intense.” You know, people cancel their plans after the show a lot, I’ve heard. “I had plans to meet a friend for drinks, but then I canceled it because I didn’t want to be with anyone who didn’t just see Fun Home and needed to just sit and talk about the show for four hours.”
Emily: It’s a cool thing to talk to friends after the show and they don’t really have anything to say, and then a week later they have been brewing and they’re ready to talk about it. It’s a different kind of experience when it sticks with you for that long and makes you think about it. When I was in college trying to figure out what I wanted to do and whether I wanted to do theater, my biggest hesitancy was, “What am I saying? What am I giving to the world?” So this being my first Broadway show has meant so much to me professionally and personally on so many levels.
Beth: You both are spoiled rotten. If this is your first experience (of being on Broadway)? Wow. Already people have sent me some readings (of prospective new roles) to do after this, and I’ve listened to them and I’m just like, “I can’t.”
Sydney, I can only imagine what people say to you after the show. You’re so young doing this.
Sydney: It really is the role. I really won the lottery with this role. There’s no other show like this. There’s no other part like this. I love the show because after the performance they do say, “Good job,” but they also say, “Thank you.” Especially the lesbians or the gay people, they say, “Thank you for telling this story.” And, “Thank you for making me feel welcome.” That’s what I love about this show. Not only is it fun to do, but as Emily said, 50 percent of it is meeting the people afterward to hear what their story is and what they have to say.
There are adult themes in this show. There are scenes about coming into your own sexuality. The show climaxes with a person’s suicide. Sydney, how are these things explained to you when you were just 9 years old?
Sydney: I just knew. I just started to ask questions.
Beth: There are a lot of things you asked in the early days.
Sydney: This is embarrassing for me. I remember when I was 9, I started going around asking people what they were. (Laughs) Are they asexual? Bisexual? Gay? Then my child wrangler went to my mom and was like, “Um, she’s asking these questions. I just wanted you to know…”
Beth: That’s not embarrassing! You’re 9 and you’re in this show that has these words in it. “What is this? What does it mean in real life? Are you gay? Is that what gay is?” It’s completely natural.
How familiar were all of you with Alison and her work before the show?
Beth: I was vaguely familiar. I hadn’t read much of Dykes to Watch Out For, but I was aware of it. And I had a single panel cartoon from Dykes to Watch Out For on my wall in college. I didn’t know who the cartoonist was. I just liked it and thought it was cool. And now when I realized Alison was the woman who drew that thing I was obsessed with, it was like, “Lightbulb!”
Sydney: I wasn’t that familiar because, you know, I’m a kid. I read the script and something about it was special, obviously. We researched Alison. We got the book. I read it with my mom, while she covered up pages. “OK, you can look at this page,” and I’d read that one.
Let’s talk the Tonys. What was it like the day nominations came out and you finally saw each other for the first time?
Beth: Oh my god.
Sydney: In “Raincoat of Love” that day I danced so hard. I always give it my all. But that night I was like, “This is so awesome.”
Emily: At the end of the day the Tonys are incredible. And all of these events and all this hype is so exciting. But we get to do the show. At the end of the day we get to do the show.
Have people asked whether you guys are competitive at all? Emily and Sydney, you’re in the same category, and nominated against Judy Kuhn [who plays Alison’s mother], too.
Beth: There’s a smackdown that’s coming. I can feel it.
Sydney: No! No. We love each other!
Emily: A fight with Judy, Sydney, and I. That would be so funny.
Beth: It’s a drag they’re all in the same category. It’s easier for me because I’m not going to win my category. But it would be better if someone was in my category that could win it, and I was in their category.
The report is that “Ring of Keys” is going to be your Tony performance.
Emily: It’s definitely the piece that most broadly represents what the show is about.
Sydney: We could’ve done “Raincoat of Love,” but it doesn’t have anything to do with the show. We could’ve done “Come to the Fun Home.” That has something to do with the show, but that’s still…
Beth: It doesn’t illustrate what’s behind it.
Sydney: All of us are realizing different things. Realizing I’m gay. Realizing I’m different. Trying to realize the mysteries of the family.
Beth: It’s about you and your dad. That’s why she’s singing “Ring of Keys.” We’ll do some of the scene before it, which says all the things you need to know to realize what’s happening.
It’s remarkable that you will be performing that song, though. There have been queer songs performed at the Tonys before, sure. But this is one about a woman realizing her attraction to a woman, which hasn’t been done before.
Beth: And it’s sung by an 11-year-old.
Exactly. It’s a huge thing. It’s landmark.
Emily: It’s not just about falling in love with a woman, though. It’s about seeing yourself.
Sydney: It’s realizing, “Oh, people do that? I thought people weren’t allowed to do that.”
Beth: People keep trying to sexualize that song, but it’s not about sex. It’s about, “Don’t you remember the first time you saw that person and went, ‘I like them, I’m not alone’”?
Emily: And that’s the thing about the show. It’s about being yourself. It’s about what can happen when you decide to be yourself and what can happen if you decide to hide who you are. That’s the heart of the show.
Maybe the song shouldn’t be sexualized. But “sexuality” can’t be extracted from it. It’s so important to the song.
Beth: Gender identity. It is about that. It’s not about sex, but it is about gender identity.
Sydney: It’s about a person discovering that she’s different, and that she wants to be that different person. She walks over to her dad and is like, “Oh, I’m not going to be accepted. What am I going to do?”
Emily: It’s a more raw and open way to look at these issues for people who don’t necessarily engage with that gender or sexuality discussion. This show is hard. It’s about a lesbian coming to terms with her closeted gay father’s suicide. A lot of people hear that and go, “Wait…what?”
Beth: And it’s a musical!
Emily: Of course you can’t deny that gender and sexuality are important. But a lot of people hear that and are disinterested. So the goal is to always make sure that people see themselves in it and always have empathy with the story no matter where they’re from. Like I love it when people who know nothing about the story but have a gay cousin, or something, come and see the show and are like, “Oh, now I get it.” The people who aren’t aware and well-versed in gender studies are the people who need to come see it.
Beth: That’s a huge way the Ireland gay marriage vote just swung. They appealed to straight people who love a gay person. You know your cousin is gay. You grew up with him. Don’t you want him to have the same rights as you? That’s how they won that vote. They appealed to the straight people. It’s a huge thing.
Sydney: There’s no reason to not agree with letting someone be who they are. I just don’t understand it.
Sydney, this is why everyone is so impressed with you. So many of us are from places where being gay wasn’t “allowed,” or people who were gay weren’t comfortable expressing that. But you were 9 when you started performing in this show. And you’re sitting here talking about gender and sexuality issues. That’s a wild thing.
Beth: The future of the world is bright. Here’s what I thought recently. I saw a girl on a train who was 4 or 3, or something. She had a humongous personality and was hilarious, but her mom kept trying to shush her. Saying to stop and be calm. And this girl could be the president of the United States. What if that girl never realized she was less than? What if she never heard that she was the second sex? What if she never felt for any reason that she was diminished? What would her life be like? What would she accomplish? What if you never felt ashamed? Who would you be? I just wonder what it would be like if, in the world, the next generation of people could grow up and never know what it’s like to feel bad about it.
Emily: Or, if you felt shame, to have the tools and the community and the backing to fight back.
Beth: But I mean, what if you never felt it? I realize this is a completely utopian society and it’s never going to happen in our lifetime. What would that be like? It’s like [sings] imagine all the people. You would feel so free. You wouldn’t have to push because you would know everything is cool. You’d never have to take a stand or show that you were gay or that you had a stable relationship. It would just be normal.
Is there a moment that one of your counterparts gets to have in the show that if you were older or younger and could play Alison at a different age you’d die for the chance to perform?
Beth: There are so many things I love. I love the scene where you’re at the door going, “Please God don’t let me be a lesbian.” I love that scene because you think of Alison Bechdel as this fully realized dyke in the world, who is super powerful. But she wrote it down. She wrote down that she thought, “Please God don’t let me be a lesbian.” She thought she’d never fit in. With who? The lesbians. The lesbians. I felt like that, too, and I’m the gayest lesbian there is now. But I remember in college I came out and said, ‘I’m not going to that party because those are different lesbians that are super lesbian-y, and I am not that.’ You know what I mean?
How has playing a role like this that mines so much from a complicated father-daughter relationship affected your own relationships with your fathers?
Emily: My dad saw a lot of himself and the relationship with his dad in this. For my dad, it was a cathartic experience. Seeing that other families are like that. I don’t think he ever exorcised a part of his relationship with his own dad. He passed away when my dad was 18 or 19. I got the opportunity to watch my dad investigate and close a chapter of his life. And it was really human. Now we have a different kind of relationship.
Beth: That’s amazing.
Emily: It’s not often you get to see your parents in a different way. I don’t even have words for it.
Beth: His daughter helped him heal something.
Emily: In a way I didn’t even know I was doing it. And I don’t know if he’d put it that way, that he’d say “helped him heal.” But I think there’s something in recognizing a part of yourself in art that does that.
Beth: When I watch Michael sing “Pony Girl” to Sydney, that guts you. It’s like, ‘Do you remember the one time when you were someone’s little girl?’ That’s all you were. Someone’s little girl, and he adored you. Even if in the middle of that song he checks his watch, which he does.
Sydney: I kind of feel it when he does it.
Beth: He was your daddy. He was your dad for one brief second. I have that memory with my dad. My dad and I have a very complicated story. When I came out he didn’t talk to me for seven years. Then he did, and we’re much better. But there’s that disappointment that me being gay was a dealbreaker for him for a while. I’m not sure he’s going to see this.
He hasn’t seen Fun Home?
Beth: No. So there’s work to be done with my own relationship with my dad still. But you know, he’s going to go to the Tonys party being thrown in their town. And he’s going to watch Sydney Lucas sing “Ring of Keys.” And he’s going to watch me stand on that stage and say, “Gay. Lesbian. Gay.” And he’s going to hear an 11-year-old say, “Butch. Laces. Short hair. Dungarees. Swagger.” He’s going to watch her describe something that’s near and dear to my heart, and he’s just going to have to deal with it.
Emily: And I wonder what it’s going to be like for him to see an entire music hall respond positively to that.
Beth: It’s going to be interesting. Like when my mom came to my wedding in 1997, [my wife] Shelly and I had a wedding and 300 people came. And she was mortified to show up to our wedding. And Shelly’s parents. When they saw other people love us it helped them to feel at least like we had a community of people who accepted and loved us, even though it wasn’t their people.
Emily: What about you, Syd? Is anything different with your dad?
[She shakes her head.]
Beth: Things are simpler when you’re younger. You still have a simple relationship.
Emily: I love what you said a few weeks ago, that what we’re all trying to do is have a relationship with our dad.
Sydney: We have different ways of trying that. Mine is by playing airplane. Yours is through books. And yours is drawing. You know, I’m sure he loved Alison. And I’m sure Alison loved him back. But it’s hard when you feel like you’re not allowed to be who you want. I can imagine someone being angry about that.