“Fun Home” was the darling of the 2015 Broadway season, winning five Tony Awards, including best musical, book and score. It made history as the first Tony winner to be written exclusively by women. It was listed on all the major Top 10 theater lists. And it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Yet there were those in New York who were somewhat nervous about how the musical might play in middle America. It features the first lesbian protagonist in a Broadway musical. The tour makes a Pittsburgh stop April 11 to 16 at Heinz Hall.
The story is based on Alison Bechdel’s best-selling memoir, “Fun Home,” written in graphic form, about growing up in an unusual family, discovering secrets and unraveling mysteries about herself and her father. The title refers to the family funeral home, which she and her siblings referred to as the Fun Home. The musical features Alison in three stages of her life — as a child, as a college freshman and as an adult.
Lisa Kron wrote the lyrics and book, and Jeanine Tesori wrote the music. How did they manage to translate a graphic memoir to the stage?
“Carefully, I would say,” says Kate Shindle, who plays grownup Alison. “Lisa took Alison’s experiences from the book and translated them through her own experiences onto the stage, and Jeanine did the same thing musically. They did an amazing job. And I can see how a ‘Fun Home’ musical could have gone very wrong. But it didn’t.”
Over the past six months of the tour, Shindle has found audiences welcoming and receptive.
“The critical reception has been terrific. The audience has been amazing,” she says. “It’s exciting to me. I think there is an audience for good theater everywhere. There are people who are curious and want to be challenged everywhere. And there are progressive thinkers everywhere.”
Yes, Alison is a lesbian in a starring role, Shindle says, “but she’s also just a person trying to figure out her relationship with her father.”
The story balances between dark comedy and heartache, joy and sadness, “the same way life does,” Shindle says. “The reason people have responded to this show is because it doesn’t feel like a show. It feels like you are watching people live their lives.”
The 1998 Miss America, Shindle originated the role of Vivienne in “Legally Blonde” on Broadway. She recognizes similarities between the characters of Vivienne and Alison, despite the very different tone and content of their individual shows.
“I think that both Vivienne and Alison, as a person and as a character, are individuals of intellect and integrity,” she says. “And I like playing them both.”
Shindle is looking forward to returning to Pittsburgh. She sang in the Pittsburgh Holiday Pops series a few years ago, and performed in Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera’s production of “Oliver.”
“I spent enough time in Pittsburgh to get to know it a little bit, and I can’t wait,” she says. “When I mention to people the next few cities on the tour, I have heard more times than I can count, ‘Oh, I love Pittsburgh’ and ‘Pittsburgh’s so great!’
“So, Pittsburgh’s reputation as a hub for the arts and a place people want to be is coast to coast right now.”
Sally Quinn is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.