Young writers cover Pandora Productions’ Louisville premiere of ‘Fun Home’

When Pandora Productions premiered the Tony Award-winning musical “Fun Home,” four high school students set out to cover different aspects as part of Arts Bureau Edge, a youth arts journalism program. The coverage was part of the program’s most recent workshop.

“Fun Home,” based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir of the same name, recounts her relationship with her father and growing up in a restored Victorian home that also included a funeral home her father runs.

Arts Bureau Edge and the participants are grateful to Pandora Productions’ Producing Artistic Director Michael Drury and the cast and crew for their time for interviews.

Participants also are grateful for insights gained into Pandora Productions’ work and the local theater scene through a panel discussion with leaders during a workshop including Drury; Amy Attaway, Kentucky Shakespeare Associate Artistic Director; Idris Goodwin, StageOne Family Theatre Producing Artistic Director; and Charlie Sexton, Commonwealth Theatre Artistic Director.

Much thanks to Melissa Chipman who helped guide the participants in the twice-weekly sessions over six weeks and to UofL for hosting the workshop. Special thanks to Keith Stone and Scott Recker of LEO, who practice the values of collaborative journalism and bring you the community these young reporters’ work.

Molly Dauk as young Alison in a scene of Pandora Productions’ Fun Home with cloud illustrations by Jenrose Fitzgerld. | Courtesy of Jenrose Fitzgerld.

How fun is being a young actor in “Fun Home”?

By Angel Cathy

duPont Manual High School, sophomore

“Where is your barrette?” It’s a demanding question Alison, the young girl in “Fun Home,” gets from her father.

Alison doesn’t want to wear that barrette and grows up not wanting to wear dresses. Her father owns a family funeral business and wonders what people would say if they see his daughter dressing differently.

Small Alison doesn’t pay that much mind to her sexuality, until she gets older. Then, she starts realizing her attraction to women. This isn’t broadcast loud enough for her parents to suspect a difference. However, it’s simple things that speak louder than words.

But small things foreshadow arguments, and, in the end, there is one between her parents.

Throughout this Tony Award-winning musical’s unusual storyline with nonlinear vignettes, there is a young actress who must dig deeper than many would suspect in her role here. She is one of three different Alisons — a small Alison of her childhood telling this story among a college-age Alison and an adult Alison, who attempts to unlock the mysteries surrounding her father’s life. (She also narrates the musical.)

Molly Dauk was one of the two actresses who played the role of young Alison in Pandora Productions’ recent run of “Fun Home”

Molly’s parents helped her prepare. Kelly Dauk, her mother, said she and her husband helped Molly sing and rehearse her lines. Dauk also said the tension “Fun Home” shows between parent and child is often reminiscent of real-life situations.

“I will say, as her Mom, that I drew some occasional parallels between the show and the tense moments we have when I want Molly to dress up and wear a certain outfit, and she prefers a more casual style,” she said.

Dauk also was aware of the musical’s storylines about sexuality, including Alison’s self-awareness and her father’s secrets about his gay identity. So, she had conversations with Molly about what it means to be a lesbian as well as other topics.

“Certainly, we did have a lot of discussions about what a lesbian is and all the different kinds of families that exist — sometimes two moms; sometimes two dads; sometimes a grandma; sometimes a mom and a dad,” Dauk said.

While Molly has gotten this stage experience, she has gained knowledge about different kinds of people and their own struggles. Molly is happy, for the most part, for the opportunities it has given her to sing — during the shows and at the Pandora subscribers’ party.

“I got better!” Molly said. “I love being on stage.”

“Fun Home” illuminates LGBTQ issues  

By On’Dria Gibson

Louisville Male High School, junior

In the final moments of the musical “Fun Home” — based on Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic novel about her unusual upbringing — her father, Bruce, faces his demise. Both the book and the musical, which Pandora Productions recently premiered in Louisville, depict an accident that is a suspected suicide of her father, who is gay but kept that part of him hidden.

In a song, he sings:

“But the edges of the world that held me up have gone away

And I’m falling into nothingness

Or flying into something so sublime”

These lyrics present the quest to find one’s own identity. The themes of “Fun Home” are rooted in a deep sense of finding who you are while, on the other hand, losing yourself in a world you’ve created.

This Tony Award-winning musical is partly a coming-of-age story about one’s sexual awakening concerning the main character, Alison, played by Mandi Elkins Hutchins in Pandora’s production. On the other hand, the story parallels the unraveling of Bruce, played by Jordan Price. The play showcases the generational gap between Alison and her father who’s been burying who he really is for years, whereas Alison’s leans on the idea of embracing who she is.

Alison discovers her sexuality while she’s away at college and encounters women’s and lesbian collectives. In the self-expressive musical number “I’m Changing My Major” she sings the same lines as her father:

“Am I falling into nothingness

Or flying into something so sublime”

Only this time, it has an entirely different meaning, a new beginning.

Hutchins said she has a lot of sympathy for Bruce’s character, whose story reveals he was a white male in the military when he was younger, and at no point in his life would he have been able to have a safe space. The societal pressures on that generation, she said, could do a lot of harm to a person’s mental health.

Helen, Bruce’s wife, was the only one who knew of his struggle all along. In her song “Days and Days” she sings, “He told me I understood how the world made him ache.”

Price said he saw Bruce as a man also suffering from undiagnosed bipolar disorder that causes him to unravel through the duration of the play. We see a man whittled down to his very essence. After years of suppressing his true self, he finally finds a false escape.

In the preceding years, he had a hobby of working to fix old things and make them new again. In a way, he was mending himself. He had an appreciation for the beauty of the world, but he couldn’t fully experience the beauty himself.

While Bruce, a member of an older generation, suffers in “Fun Home,” this musical has an important story because it illuminates mental health and suicide, which are issues for members of the LGBTQ community, particularly youth. According to 2016 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, lesbian, gay and bisexual youth were five times more likely to attempt suicide than were heterosexual youth. In today’s society, while some push for the normativity of the LGBTQ community, the study showed that youth also are contemplating suicide three times the rate of heterosexual youth.

“Fun Home” Directors Underscore Musical Motifs to Tell the Story

By Megan Mendez

Louisville Male High School, senior

In a moving scene of the musical “Fun Home,” recently performed by Pandora Productions, Alison, the artist and the main character, listens quietly as her mother Helen begins singing. She quiets the room with her song of pain and misery as the two stand amid a set of tables, couches and bookshelves in their house.

Composer Jeanine Tesori and playwright Lisa Kron modeled the musical off Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel. But Alison’s mother Helen, appears much more prominently in the musical.

Alison’s mother helps tell her husband’s story by giving the audience an intimate glimpse of his struggle in her tragic song “Days and Days.”

“In order to tell Bruce’s story, which is kind of the story of a man disintegrating over the course of the play, there has to be people around him who show us how to see that,” said Pandora Productions Producing Artistic Director Michael Drury, who directed the musical.

Helen details the relationship she first had with her newlywed husband and how he slowly crumbled after their once-happy marriage. The song documents her own personal struggle and unmasks the hidden sorrow in the family through the line, “like chaos never happens if it’s never seen.”

Drury guided the process of finding the right way to perform songs such as “Days and Days,” in a radically different format than just singing a song.

“I really like to drill down on the lyrics and express feelings through song,” he said. “And one of the ways I do that is by working with the musical director in the initial musical rehearsals and having the actors work their song as a monologue first.”

James Russell Cooper was Drury’s partner in this endeavor. The two approached the musical direction to allow this production of “Fun Home” to clearly express its message to the audience.

Both wanted to bring out the musical motifs and lyrical processes created by Tesori and Kron and develop its complex characters for this Louisville premiere of “Fun Home.” Cooper credited Tesori’s music that supports Kron’s writing.

“My main goal was to ensure we brought out the moments that are written into the score itself,” Cooper said.

Cooper didn’t expect audience members to notice these motifs and their connections. But he did want the music to enhance the emotional connection the audience felt to the story and its characters.

“Good composers know how to write music that enhances each scene without distracting from the actors’ work on stage,” he said.

Tesori, along with other composers, use motifs, or short melodies, that represent a certain character, place or idea.

He talked about Helen’s motif.

“Most of what Helen sings — building up to her moment — is her dealing with the situation in which she finds herself,” he said. “There is an expository song at the beginning of the show explaining the obsession Bruce has with appearance and image not just of himself, but his home, family and life in general. She is a major player in what I call the denial motif — trying to ignore the actions of her husband.”

Cooper then point outs the song “Days and Days.”

“She opens by quoting her opening song — though this time it is sung a cappella and with a new inflection that lets us know what the artifice has cost her,” he said. “The song is beautifully written, and we have worked to ensure it captures the audience and allows them to empathize with her.”

He emphasized how composer Tesori created these motifs and used them with other characters, namely Alison. But with Alison, Tesori also represents moments in her life, said Cooper.

“The show opens with the most recognizable motif, a series of three triplets. Throughout the show, the audience hears this repeated on clarinet, violin, cello, piano, bass clarinet and English horn,” he said. “Each time, the audience knows Alison is remembering something. So, it’s fitting that the show opens with these patterns as the stage fills with her memories.”

When Allison makes a meaningful connection with someone else, there is another theme — simply two chords. Cooper described this as “a cluster opening just enough to let us in and hear consonance from the dissonance.” The audience, he said, hears this in the song “Ring of Keys,” when Alison meets her eventual college girlfriend Joan, and when she has her heart-to-heart talk with her mother.

Even Bruce has his own motif, Cooper said.

“Throughout the show, Bruce is progressively unraveling as he tries to hold in his true self and maintain the picture-perfect life that he feels he should show,” Cooper said. “There is a third theme that is associated with this, a moving eighth-note pattern that changes key — always moving in tight clusters. This motif builds and builds until it explodes in the cacophony of his last song, ‘Edges of the World.’”

Cooper talked about how writing music for the stage and screen is different from composing individual songs.

He also pointed out how the use of motifs is hardly limited to “Fun Home.” Many motifs are very familiar in popular culture. One famous example is “Star Wars” and its music associated with Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, fight scenes, and Princess Leia. 

Illustration by Louisville artist Jenrose Fitzgerald depicting the scene in ‘Fun Home’ with the song ‘Ring of Keys.’

Artist behind scenic art in “Fun Home” puts ideas of graphic novel centerstage

By Jewel Shaw

Louisville Male High School, sophomore

Although Louisville artist Jenrose Fitzgerald was never onstage in Pandora Productions’ recent run of “Fun Home,” her work with the company helped bring to life this musical of a family’s complex life in a small town that involves a daughter’s story of clambering her way out of the closet and a father’s untimely death.

Fitzgerald’s influence was all over the set, where many pieces were painted solid white and outlined in black. When actors walked onto the sage, they entered a comic book-like world with projections of illustrations Fitzgerald had created for each scene. Fitzgerald’s work was designed to remind the audience that they were watching the musical adaptation of the inspiringly drawn memoir of the same name by Alison Bechdel.

The Louisville artist found inspiration from Bechdel’s comic itself to make the sets and background drawings. Two panels projected in the musical were recreated from panels in the book in Fitzgerald’s detailed art style. Fitzgerald did not want to erase the themes in Bechdel’s work, but rather expand on them.

In the Broadway version of “Fun Home,” set designers worked to bring the audience straight into the protagonist’s life using ornate fabrics and furniture — such as that found in Bechdel’s childhood home. Pandora, said Producing Artistic Director Michael Drury, could not afford to recreate the Broadway set because it would require advanced technology and hydraulic lifts to take the heavy furniture pieces on and off stage.

So, he and Fitzgerald decided to bring the graphic novel that is “Fun Home” to life by paying homage to the art style of Alison Bechdel combined with Fitzgerald’s personal style.

“Wouldn’t it be great if the audience could see that? It would be nice for you to be able to see a little bit of what that looks like,” Fitzgerald said about portraying Bechdel’s themes.

Fitzgerald was ready for this project, having been a reader of Alison Bechdel’s work and a longtime fan of Bechdel’s comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” which ran from 1983 to 2008.

“They could be my friends! They were so quirky and diverse,” Fitzgerald said. “They felt really authentic and discussing topics that interested me.”

Fitzgerald had also read Bechdel’s graphic novel, “Fun Home,” which began as a story of queer struggle represented through literature and was translated into a musical.

Fitzgerald said “Fun Home” playwright Lisa Kron surprised her with how well she was able to directly translate the ideas of the graphic novel. This family tragicomedy relating to queer audiences of many ages is also a musical equally accessible to a wide an audience.

The fact that Fitzgerald found inspiration in the graphic novel — and not in the musical — isn’t surprising. Although the musical ran Off-Broadway before eventually moving to Broadway where it won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Book, Fitzgerald did not believe greatly in the musical’s ability to succeed as an adaptation when she first heard about it. She imagined it could not succeed like the graphic novel.

Even though she bought the original cast recording, she admitted, “It’s literally still in the plastic packaging in my house.”

But after she saw the musical on stage with her own artwork, Fitzgerald loved what it became as a show. She is proud this production embraced the style and feeling that Bechdel produced through her art, which originally drew Fitzgerald to the work.

“A big part of the story is not the story of her looking back on her past but that she made sense of her past through the art itself,” Fitzgerald said. “She made sense of it through art.”

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