The Tonys, 'Fun Home' and Kids


I am not one for predictions, particularly where the Tony Awards are concerned. In fact, I can't remember the last time I watched a Tony broadcast. I know the last ceremony that I attended personally was when Rent won everything posthumously for my late-friend Jonathan Larson in 1996. That was almost more than I could bear, and I haven't been back since.

This year, however, two things intrigue me: My kids' first-time stake in the proceedings, and Fun Home. Lea and Sara have seen a lot of Broadway theater this season. As a result, they feel personally invested in their Tony connection to You Can't Take It With You, On the Town, An American in Paris, Something Rotten!, The King and I. Each show is real to them. They know the names of even the supporting players (no-one made a bigger impression all season on all of us than Annaleigh Ashford and her sublime terpsichorean daffiness as Essie Carmichael in You Can't Take It With You). Sara is rooting hard for Robert Fairchild, the City Ballet-based star of An American in Paris, to take Best Leading Actor in a Musical. Lea is pretty high on Christian Borle's rock star turn as Shakespeare in Something Rotten! for Best Featured Actor, but she refuses to play favorites. "They were all pretty good," she maintains.

The point I come away with is this: The Tony Awards really need kids. If the Theater Wing could find a way to give kids a routing interest by getting more of them in to see these wildly overpriced productions (I know, it does try to), then the Neilsen numbers would follow. Kids ought to be part of the television show's focus -- not to infantilize the telecast any more than it already is, but to trumpet the party innocently and joyously, and end it early. Start the whole thing at 7:00, I say. Make the kids welcome and their parents might just follow.

Which brings me to Fun Home. I found it as exquisitely excruciating to watch as I first found Sweeney Todd, when I saw it at the Uris Theatre way, way back in 1979. The unexpected parallels between these two diversely original musicals only struck me after I'd gone home to recover from Fun Home. Not since Sweeney Todd has there been a Broadway musical anti-hero more sickeningly appealing and appalling then the child predator dad, Bruce Bechdel, whom Michael Cerveris grotesquely conjures. As with Len Cariou as Sweeney, I could not take my eyes off Mr. Cerveris, even as I badly needed to look away. I am, myself, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse -- though my predator was not a father figure but a rabbi, which, given the recent New York Times stories about the dastardly, sauna-centric Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt up in Riverdale, remains a painfully unresolved issue. But enough about me and rabbis.

A little over a decade ago, in my book Ever After about "The Last Twenty-Five Years of Musical Theater" up till that time, I devoted the better part of a chapter to Jeanine Tesori, then a promising young female Broadway musical composer (rarity of rarities). Ms. Tesori's progressive evolution since then has been a wonderment to witness. From Violet to Thoroughly Modern Millie to Caroline, or Change, and now Fun Home, her musical palette has shape-shifted and expanded, taking on new colors with the new demands of each project. While I couldn't say that her music for Fun Home is as spectacular as Stephen Sondheim's for Sweeney Todd (what is?), her score is clearly a noble descendent in its intense manipulation and reinterpretation of tradition. Classic Broadway music is alive and well in Ms. Tesori's Fun Home score (abetted by effortlessly expressive lyrics from Lisa Kron), yet it sounds reborn. Seventies Pop is, in a sense, Tesori's equivalent to Sondheim's deployment of Britsh Music Hall strains in Sweeney, and, as Sondheim did, the songs dramatize discomfitting moments in Lisa Kron's kaleidoscopic retelling of Alison Bechdel's extraordinary, troubling story in ways that I really have never experienced before.

Though it is full of kids -- talented kids, like the Tony nominated Sydney Lucas, who plays Small Alison -- Fun Home is not for kids. That said, I have discussed the show with Lea and Sara, who typically grill me these days when they find a Playbill lying around for a show they have not seen. Having already talked with them about my own childhood abuse -- in an effort to, if nothing else, warn them to be vigilant in their own self-defense -- it was not a huge leap to explain what Fun Home is about. Even my selectively generalized description disturbed them... thankfully. They should be disturbed. Both agreed that this was not a show they needed to see right now. Should it actually win the Tony Award Sunday night for Best Musical, I think they will share my surprise. They will also understand my satisfaction.