How to Write a Musical

When you’re making a work of art, it feels like it will kill you. It won’t kill you. But you feel like it will.

By Laurie WinerJune 7, 2015


    After seeing the musical Fun Home, I felt changed in some way, taken apart and put back together. I’ve been recommending the show to everyone, but when someone asks me what it’s about, I’m stymied. If I relate the plot — a family in Pennsylvania, the father is an emotionally distant closeted gay man; four months after his daughter, who grows up to be a cartoonist, goes away to college and discovers she’s a lesbian, the father kills himself — I can see I am not selling the show. What I should say is this: it’s a show about the process of reliving painful things and then being made whole by remembering and re-understanding those things. It’s a show about levels of understanding, about how some revelations require time and maturity, maybe even repetition, as we go over and over the same information, the same incidents from our youth.

    Adapted from the graphic memoir of the same title by Alison Bechdel, Fun Home the musical is very much its own work and achieves its own unique emotional resonance. Some of the musical’s high points are fashioned from moments that are mere asides in the memoir, and in fact most of the show’s scenes do not appear at all in the book. By transforming the story into three dimensions, playwright Lisa Kron found a way to take what could easily have been a polite memory play and inject into it a life-and-death urgency.

    Kron divides our heroine into three Alisons embodied by three actress — Sydney Lucas plays young Alison (at around 11 years old), Emily Skeggs is middle, or college-age, Alison, and Beth Malone is grown Alison — at 43 she is the age her father was when he killed himself, by standing in front of an oncoming truck. The three Alisons allow Kron to develop her motifs about memory, temporality, and levels of comprehension with a special complexity. For instance, in the scene when Alison relives her last car ride with her father, she should, in terms of realism, be played by the college-age Alison, but Kron has the 43-year-old Alison, an older version of the person who had the experience, take that final car ride, as if we are seeing both the event and a memory of it simultaneously. The presence of adult Alison brings to the scene a mature level of dread and yearning, a lifetime of avoidance and partial understanding, that makes her revelation about her relationship with her father almost unbearably painful and beautiful.

    Having performed in and written several plays, including one about her own father (2.5 Minute Ride), Kron comes to the project with a deep understanding of theater. But she is a newcomer to musicals. To prepare for Fun Home, she studied the form, taking it apart to see how it worked, and what she put together from that knowledge is an astounding accomplishment. Her lyrics are spare and simple, giving ample space to Jeanine Tesori’s stirring melodies, allowing the music to do its work of opening up an audience, priming it to feel the full force of the show’s epiphanies. If you can’t get to New York to see Fun Home, download the cast album from iTunes. It is as moving an aural experience as it is a visual one.

    I spoke to Kron in New York at the Circle in the Square Theatre just before the show’s final dress rehearsal.

    — Laurie Winer


    LAURIE WINER: I want to talk to you about modes of narration.

    LISA KRON: Great. I’m obsessed with modes of narration, and when I talk about it people are like zzzzzzzzz.

    When did you come up with the idea for the three Alisons?

    I pretty immediately had the idea for the three Alisons. Nothing else was easy. Nothing. The making of Fun Home was painstaking — like nothing I’ve ever worked on before.

    Many people thought I would be a good match to adapt Alison’s work because we both have been “out” lesbians in our work, but the similarities in our interests go deeper. We both like looking at the difference between a story and what actually happened. And we both have a tendency toward mythmaking, and then a stronger compulsion to take that myth apart and ask — why are we doing this, what’s behind it?

    How long was the process of writing Fun Home?

    Six years.

    Not every day, but you’re wrestling with the problems of it for six years.


    Why so arduous?

    Fun Home, the book — it’s not correct to say it’s literally seamless, but when I was taking it apart, to find out how it was made, I couldn’t find the seams. It took an incredibly long time to discern its structure. First there’s just how dense it is. Readers think it has this straightforward narration that starts in her childhood and goes forward. It doesn’t. Because nothing happens in her childhood.

    Nothing that adds up to a story.

    Right. Dramatically speaking, there’s action in the story for four months and four months only, from the time Alison comes out to the time her father kills himself. And in fact the structure of the book is circling around and around and around those four months — what happened, what happened, what happened — and everything else reflects backward from there. The book is in the voice of someone who has been basically held in place from the moment of her father’s death until she can find a way to make this book.

    What was a breakthrough moment for you?

    We wrote a million opening numbers, and we did the thing that you are supposed to do and that most of the time works — make it more specific, more specific. Why is she starting to tell this story? What are her circumstances, why does she need to tell it? Like, does she need to pay her bills, what is happening? And the answer came to us: she has to solve this riddle now, she has to write this book now, because she is 43, the same age as her dad was when he committed suicide. This is the moment where people get stuck. I have a friend whose mother died of cancer, and as she approached that age, she felt, how can I live beyond my mother? This is a common feeling.

    That was very useful, when we made that connection. Bruce killed himself and Alison didn’t. Now she needs to understand why he did what he did. We searched for a long time before we found that reason.

    Wasn’t the reason in the book?

    Books look backward. Theater moves forward. Everything that happens in theater unfolds in the moment it’s happening — that has to be true for the adult Alison as well as for the other characters. But, then, this is a memory play. The grown Alison is a character who looks back. But by looking back, she’s moving forward.

    Actually, Alison is doing two things. She’s remembering and she’s drawing, and neither one of these things can be dramatized. They are internal — so how do you dramatize something internal? You externalize it. In this case it’s externalized by having grown Alison literally walk through her physical memories, and as they act on her, she changes.

    She changes because she’s remembering.

    Characters have to transform. Alison cannot be the same character she was at the beginning. In the book, that narrative voice is the same voice at the beginning as it is at the end. It knows the same things it knew. But for the show, Alison has to discover something new. This was very difficult to figure out.

    What Alison figures out in the course of the show — it’s not facts. She doesn’t learn any new facts. We played with that possibility for a long time, but it didn’t work. It was not convincing. It was outside of the story. So we had to figure out — what is her emotional growth? And how do you show it? How do you show a profound emotional transformation, and what would that be?

    The other thing about characters in the theater, the way they work, is that the audience has to know more about them than they know about themselves. I always tell my students that the play has to know more than any individual character knows. You have to make a context that’s bigger than the consciousness of that individual character.

    In early iterations of the show, the design was a realistic depiction of her studio. And this was the point where we realized, this is not a naturalistic story. You are inside her consciousness. That’s how the audience can connect to it. If you see her from the outside trying to draw her father’s story to make a book, you know, who cares? What if you go deeper than that so you are inside the primal need for an artist to make a connection, through art?

    When you’re making a work of art, it feels like it will kill you. It won’t kill you. But you feel like it will.

    It’s the same thing with knowledge, or with remembering something painful. It feels like it’s going to kill you, but it doesn’t.

    Anyone who makes things knows — you always go into it naive. You wouldn’t do it if you knew what was going to happen to you; you are transformed by it. In that deep imagining, in that deep imaginative identification, you lose yourself. You lose control. Our problem was: How do you show that?

    You’ve externalized an internal journey. She doesn’t learn anything new and yet at the end …

    She becomes integrated.

    She becomes integrated by facing the truth of what happened in her family, of comprehending it deeply enough to solve some kind of intensely personal riddle. Every time she draws a painful memory, she relives that memory. She keeps telling herself, “I’m just drawing something. I’m just remembering something, that’s all.” There’s only so much pain she can let in at a time.

    Alison’s problem is that she intellectualizes everything, she’s emotionally disconnected from her own story, and then, little by little, she gets pulled into it through her memories. She’ll have a realization, she’ll say, “I think I was mad at you.” And then she’ll try to transform it into a caption for one of her images; she’ll tell herself, “I’m working, I’m working.” That’s why she keeps saying: “Caption.” The safe place for her is the place where she’s doing her work. She’s like the person who always has to hold a camera in front of her face. She keeps trying to insert the mechanism of work between her and any emotional connection.

    The show is very much about levels of understanding. When young Alison is in a diner with her father and she spots a woman, “an old-school dyke,” making a delivery, she is transfixed by this vision, but she doesn’t yet have the equipment to understand what she’s feeling. She tries, singing, “I feel …” — but she can’t complete the sentence, so she simply describes the woman, what she sees in front of her:

    Your swagger and your bearing
    And the just-right clothes you’re wearing
    Your short hair and your dungarees
    And your lace-up boots
    And your keys, oh,
    Your ring of keys …
    I know you.

    This is a huge emotional moment in the show, and in the book it is a relatively minor moment; it takes place in a couple of panels.

    We created at least three-quarters of what happens in the show, if not more. There are no scenes in the book. There are no scenes! There is no dramatic action, there are no sustained scenes. There aren’t even really characters. There’s Alison at this age, at this age, and at this age. There are fragment of scenes in different locations.

    Did you study other musicals to see how it was done?

    Around the time we first started working on this I became a Tony voter, because I’m on the Dramatists Guild Council, so that meant I got to go to every musical on Broadway. And I’ve always loved musicals. I would get my tickets and I would think, well, even if it’s bad, it’s a musical, so I’ll have a great time. And then I realized that the musical form is much more unforgiving than even playwriting.

    Absolutely. There’s nothing as great as a great musical and there’s nothing as painful as a bad one.

    Yes. And I realized you have to set a super clear engine at the top of a musical, and that engine is made of some kind of primal desire. You have to follow it through, and if you don’t do that, you don’t have a musical. You have to have a reason to sing, essentially. And musical songs are not like pop songs. They’re active. And things have to happen to the characters; they have to change, there has to be some kind of tension in these songs, and then some kind of release.

    A different release than a reader gets from the book.

    The emotion is further back in the book than it is in the musical. The music pulls the emotion forward. The reason that people read the book and buy it for everybody they know is that it is about the primal desire of a child to make physical contact with her father. That’s why that’s the first and last image in the book. Because we all understand that desire no matter who our parents are, the desire to have that physical contact. We knew that that was the thing that drove Alison. And then, you know, what happens is that her father doesn’t give it to her — he makes her an artist.

    People who have an unresolved relationship with a parent often think: there must have been some moment of connection, some moment where we had it, and if I comb through my past I’m going to find that moment of connection, where he really saw who I am. And sometimes there is none. She finds that it wasn’t there. This is what happens in the book. The book speeds up speeds up speeds up until the moment in the car when she realizes they never shared a connection. And she says, “That was our Ithaca moment.”

    But maybe Bruce — the father — was a good-enough parent. He clothed her, he fed her, he educated her, and he loved her, even if it was in the limited way a narcissist can love somebody. There’s something there for her to find, there’s not nothing. I think you are harder on Bruce than we are.

    We had to be. But they were very close.

    One of the mysteries of art to me is how you know when it’s time for the audience to learn what.

    It’s a mystery to me too.

    Because you want the audience to have the biggest emotional response possible. In Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, the audience is supposed to realize that the Beggar Woman is Sweeney’s wife just before he cuts her throat. Just before he realizes it. There are musical cues and visual cues and language cues to make sure the audience realizes it moments before Sweeney does.

    Absolutely. I was very nervous the first time we put Fun Home in front of an audience; I thought they might not be able to follow it at all, with all these overlapping time frames.

    Telling a story from real life makes crazy expositional problems; there are all these pieces of background information that you need — there’s no emotional value in revealing them at all, and yet you can’t follow the story unless you know them. In this case you have to know that the kids grew up in a funeral home, which is not part of the plot. It doesn’t do anything for you, but it’s a great ironic place full of color. That’s how we ended up with the song “Come to the Fun Home.”

    The kids making a pretend commercial for their father’s business.

    Yes, you’ve got to have a song about the Fun Home; it’s the title! But why is it the title?

    For a first-time lyricist you seem to have a deep understanding that lyrics need to be simple, and an understanding of the effect that repetition has. In one song the family repeats the phrase: "He wants, he wants, he wants," which tells us about how, in that house, it’s all about serving him.

    Jeanine says that in every musical there’s an “I Want” song. In this show, it’s about this guy who wants something and we don’t know what it is, the family can’t figure out what it is.

    When you did first put Fun Home in front of an audience, what did you learn?

    We had numerous workshops, one at the Sundance Theatre Lab. At a certain point I learned that you can only understand this musical spatially — because Alison is watching her own memories. Something happens in those scenes that doesn’t actually further the action of the play. You can say in the stage directions, “Alison stands watching the scene,” but you can’t feel what that’s going to do, how that’s going to affect an audience, unless you put bodies in space. And so, more than any other play I’ve ever worked on, the set and the staging become vital dramaturgical components.

    How does the mood shift from book to show?

    The book is dripping with this heartbreaking elegiac tone. But that’s not useful in a play because characters don’t know what’s going to come. So another one of our breakthrough moments in the writing came when we realized there was a time when Alison had viewed her coming out as a catalyst for her father’s death. She says that in the book, and the book is predicated on her coming out as a catalyst. But in the theatrical version the thing that will break your heart is that when she comes out, she’s not thinking about him at all. It’s her life that is opening.

    And when he dies, he’s not thinking about her at all. She comes to that conclusion in the song “Telephone Wire.” She is flooded with memory and it is not what she’s been looking for. She asks, "Where’s the part of the story where you tell me you see me?" He never does tell her. He’s stuck on Norris Jones, the name of a boy he loved when he was a boy. "Where’s the part of the story where you tell me you see me?" That’s the heart of the musical.

    Yes, absolutely. Once she gets out of that car, she’s a truth seeker. She’s more compelled to go after truth than she is to find a place of comfort. I don’t think she has remembered the car fully before this scene takes place.

    There is a panel near the end of the book that is a close-up of the grill of the truck just before it hits Bruce. And I think what happens for Alison in the book — and for our Alison — is that it’s no longer an abstraction that her father killed himself. At that point she can no longer protect herself from having a very profound empathetic imagining of what happened to him in the last moments of his life. She goes down that road with him and she looks at what is unbearable to her — which is what actually happened to that man, that physical body, that soul, in the last moments of his life.

    And here’s what is different between Alison and her father. Both of them stood on a precipice of becoming the person they wanted to be. But in order to do that, you have to be willing to go through humiliation. When [director] Sam Gold was working with [actress] Emily Skeggs in the scene with Joan in the dorm room, he said, “This is a scene about humiliation. The humor and the heart of this scene is all about humiliation." If you’re going to become a different person, you have to not know, you have to step out of the person that you know and become someone that you cannot control, and that is humiliating. Bruce was not able to put himself in a state of humiliation. He tells young Alison, about her drawing: You can’t take that to school, people will laugh at you. You’ll be humiliated and that’s not bearable.

    So when Alison goes to college and comes out, Bruce writes her those excited letters — he can see the promised land; he can see who he might be. But between here and there, there’s a gulf of the unknown. He can see how it can be, but he can’t get from here to there. She walked into the unknown. She became a different person. All through that last song he doesn’t know and we don’t know if he will be able to do it. But he cannot do it. The answer is no.


    A former theater critic for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Los Angeles Times, Laurie Winer is a founding editor at the LA Review of Books.

    LARB Contributor

    Laurie Winer is a Los Angeles Review of Books founding editor.


    LARB Staff Recommendations

    Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

    LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!