Arts Angle Edge Journalist
‘Fun Home’ Directors Underscore Musical Motifs to Tell the Story
Molly Dauk as young Alison and Jodan Price as Bruce in Pandora Productions' "Fun Home." Photo courtesy Pandora Productions.
By Megan Mendez
Louisville Male High School, Class of 2020
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 have 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, uses motifs, or short melodies, that represent a certain character, place or idea.
Cooper 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 points out 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.