NEW YORK (AP) — When it comes to breaking new ground in the theater, the axiom, “Chance favors the prepared mind” sometimes works out nicely. Just ask “Fun Home” composers Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron.
Not only does their musical introduce a new type of heroine to the Broadway stage, but Tesori and Kron can make history when the Tony awards are announced next month.
If they win, the pair will become the first female writing team to nab a Tony for musical score. The last time two women were even nominated was back in 1991 when Lucy Simon and Marsha Norman got the nod for “The Secret Garden.”
Regardless of the outcome, Tesori and Kron have already plotted a course through unchartered territory with their coming-of-age story of a young woman unravelling her sexual identity.
“There’s an invisibility of the lesbian experience in musical theater. There is none and it’s 2015. There should be a history of it,” Tesori said.
Based on the autobiographical graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, the story centers on growing up in the family funeral home — affectionately called the fun home — in a small Pennsylvania town.
Three different actors play her character simultaneously throughout the show with the adult version, played by Beth Malone, acting as the story’s narrator. The other two, Emily Skeggs and Sydney Lucas, playing a college student and child, respectively, provides clues to the realization she’s attracted to women.
While the musical seems timely, the world was a very different place when Tesori and Kron began adapting it a few years ago. According to Kron — responsible for the book and lyrics — sometimes a bit of luck comes your way.
“This piece is rare because theater takes so long to develop, so that this would come to Broadway at a specific moment when the gay marriage case is at the Supreme Court gives people a context,” Kron said.
She added: “It’s vibrating in the culture, and this piece can meet it.”
For Tesori, who’s been Tony-nominated four times before (most recently in 2014 for “Violet”) it’s a mystery that women composers don’t find their way to Broadway.
“There are not a lot of women who are composing for Broadway, but there are a lot of women who are musicians and great composers out there, great pop musicians,” Tesori said. “I’ve always been a Broadway musician. Been writing for it and it takes a really long time to understand the form.”
That form comes through in “Fun Home” with a score that partly captures the singer-songwriter flavor of the 1970s as well as songs with a traditional musical theater structure. Both “Ring of Keys” and “Changing My Major” would have no problem in a musical from decades past, only there’s a shift from “boy-meets-girl” to “girl-meets-girl.”
Maintaining the structure and tone of a traditional musical theater was very important to Tesori.
“Those are the ones that come up again and again and you revisit them again. You find yourself going back, no matter what age you are,” Tesori said.
At the same time, it was important that the songs were as Tesori called, “airtight,” especially on some of the “discovery” material.
“The laughs have to be correct. We have to make sure they’re (the audience) laughing with the character.”
Making the songs universal was something that Tesori referred to as the “my mother-clause,” a litmus test the composer discovered when her 83-year old mom saw the show.
“She said, ‘I really understand the woman who is telling the story, the Alison Bechdel character because she’s finding herself,'” she recalled.
That was important when it came to garnering mass appeal to telling Bechdel’s story.
“I think you’re always finding yourself. I think that’s the job that we had, not just to tell this story as her story, but tell this story as our story. That’s what makes something live for a really long time,” Tesori said.
Kron, who spent many years writing lesbian plays, feels this type of theater can provide a voice to the unrepresented, such as minorities and gays.
“It allows you to see and hear other people that you might not be able to see and hear, and hopefully will increase your humanity,” Kron said.
Follow John Carucci at http://www.twitter.com/jacarucci
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