Vol. 31 No. 2

Branding Bechdel’s Fun Home: Activism and the Advertising of a “Lesbian Suicide Musical”

by Maureen McDonnell
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 31, Number 2 (Winter 2019)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2019 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

Alison Bechdel offered a complicated and compelling memoir in her graphic novel Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006), adapted by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori into the Broadway musical Fun Home (2015). Both works presented an adult Bechdel reflecting on her father’s troubled life as a closeted gay man and his possible death by suicide. As Bechdel herself noted, “it’s not like a happy story, it’s not something that you would celebrate or be proud of.”[1] Bechdel’s coining of “tragicomic” as her book’s genre highlights its fraught narrative and its visual format indebted to “comics” rather than to comedy. Bechdel’s bleak overview of her father’s life and death served as a backdrop for a production that posited truthfulness as life-affirming and as a means of survival. Fun Home’s marketers, however, imagined that being forthright about the production’s contents and its masculine lesbian protagonist would threaten the show’s entertainment and economic potential. It was noted before the show opened that “the promotional text for the show downplays the queer aspects,” a restriction that was by design.[2] According to Tom Greenwald, Fun Home’s chief marketing strategist and the production’s strategy officer, the main advertising objective was to “make sure that it’s never ever associated specifically with the ‘plot or subject matter.’” Instead, the marketing team decided to frame the musical as a relatable story of a family “like yours.” [3] The marketers assumed that would-be playgoers would be uninterested in this tragic hero/ine if her sexuality were known. Ticket buyers who perceived the lesbian protagonist’s sexuality as a barrier to their “recognition of [her] humanity” risked not experiencing the subsequent ethical empathy that tragedy might elicit.[4] In the marketers’ efforts to circumvent the lesbophobia and taboos against suicide they imagined would-be playgoers might hold, they became complicit in such prejudices. As the production was met with commercial and critical success, a “both/and” marketing approach surfaced: that the production was both timeless and timely, with the production newly presented as a vehicle for affirming emerging legal gains for LGBTQ+ rights generally, and marriage equality in particular. This rising sensibility that lesbian characters and culture were commodifiable might justify future shifts from Broadway’s systematic exclusion of lesbian characters, even if for mercenary, capitalistic reasons. The creative team voiced their support of lesbians and their rights throughout the run, a departure from the endorsed narrative of Greenwald’s company. The producers began to echo the creative artists’ advocacy after two nearly simultaneous events: the production’s anniversary of winning five Tony Awards and the Orlando mass shooting as the deadliest incident of violence against LGBTQ+ people in US history. The producers’ commentary swerved in June 2016 when they began championing both the production and the communities it represented, albeit a year after the show’s critical reception was secure. These evolving campaigns suggest the vulnerability of productions that feature female actors playing sexual minorities and gender non-conforming characters. By featuring a butch lesbian as its lead, Fun Home was culturally revolutionary, providing a cultural—and commercial—landmark for mainstream musical theater.

The musical featured three different actors performing the characters of Alison Bechdel: “small” Alison at 8, “medium” Alison at 19, and Alison at 43. The categorizations emphasized the characters’ visual differences (e.g. “small” versus “youngest”), in keeping with what may be a cartoonist’s default parameters. The adult Bechdel character served as a narrator, drawing at an artist’s table as she observed and commented on the memories enacted by her younger counterparts. An early line of Alison’s summarizes the plot: “Caption: 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” (“Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue”).[5] This expository line frontloaded the musical’s conclusion within the first eleven minutes of performance.[6]

The musical’s disclosure was strikingly more efficient than that of the marketing team. It was only after Fun Home opened that Tom Greenwald revealed that the “marketing team jokingly referred to [the play] as a ‘lesbian suicide musical.’”[7] This inaccurate characterization invited misdirection of a familiar type.[8] Despite a long cultural history that presents lesbians as necessarily isolated, doomed, and suicidal, this production challenged those tropes by presenting a lesbian protagonist who survives the dramatic action.[9] This theatrical and biographical outcome indicates the political dimensions of Fun Home’s tragedy, as its lack of an abject lesbian underscores that the tragic lesbian figure is conjured and constructed rather than fixed and innate. The team’s “joke” not only reinforced a stereotypical narrative about lesbian death, but also suggested that they saw the narrative arc of Bruce Bechdel (Alison Bechdel’s father) upstaging that of his daughter (it is Bruce who dies by suicide in the musical). Despite the decentering and misrepresentation of Alison Bechdel’s character, playgoers would have been able to easily learn that this dramatic protagonist’s real-life counterpart helped shape this creative narrative rather than becoming a victim of it. The marketing team’s omission of Alison Bechdel from the promotional campaign was perhaps motivated by their desire to make the show more broadly appealing to investors by erasing her sexuality and survival.

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