You have to see it. If you have read Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir of the same name, you know the story is about a funeral home director's daughter and their family's secrets. If you haven't read it, you don't need to. The show is as outstanding as every theater critic—and its Tony Award wins—suggests it is. Even without having read the book, the musical will leave you with questions about the function of family, and songs to hum while you try to answer them. If you don't want any spoilers at all, stop reading this article and just go.
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Go with a family member. It's worth watching with someone you grew up alongside. The show's structure is based on the slipperiness of memory, so you'll want a date who doubles as a backup drive for purposes of recall. My sister was mine when I saw it in New York. The show was sold out, but we managed to get standing-room-only tickets. Throughout the performance, the two of us alternated between leaning onto and being leaned on. Sure, we were as far as possible from the stage, but watching Small Alison and her siblings sing and dance, I felt closer than ever to our prepubescent selves who had done the exact same thing countless times. I teared up. My sister, who has a bigger heart but hides it better, did not.
You might feel lost at first. Why are there three Alisons onstage? Because that's how many Alisons the show needs to properly remember what the hell happened. Why does present-day Alison keep saying "Caption"? She's a cartoonist. Standing at one end of the stage with a pen raised, she'll begin to narrate a memory as if writing a caption for a comic strip, and immediately the sketch on her page comes to life onstage.
Why does the year keep changing? The nonlinear way this musical progresses may seem random, but if you pay attention, you'll feel a subtle emotive force threading the scenes together. The way Fun Home moves back and forth in time feels totally psychologically natural after a while.
Get ready to sympathize with people who have dark secrets. One in particular: the narrator's father, Bruce. He is a complicated man and the nucleus of the show's mystery. He's a high-school teacher, and he also runs the family funeral home. He's married to his devoted wife, Helen, and he also has affairs with... well, I'm not going to say any more, but it's intense. He is also a loving father: He has a mind full of literary wisdom—and a whole library of books—that he imparts on Alison, who shares his interest. But on the subject of being queer, which they both are, he's mum.
Be prepared to relive childhood. The emotional register of the show is so convincing, I remember some scenes as if I lived them. In one, Bruce insists that Small Alison wear a dress against her protestations. He also forces her to pin her hair back with a barrette. If you grew up in a repressive household, or if you've ever felt another person's wants and dreams and concerns projected onto your own life, it will feel unbearably familiar.
Get excited to feel young love again. Alison meets Joan outside Oberlin College's Gay Union. Their meet-cute is perfectly uncomfortable, with Alison pretending that she was totally looking for the German club, not the gay one, and Joan seeing right past the facade. Alison's franticness plays hilariously well against Joan's cool. There's coming out, kissing, and Colette. But best of all, there's "Changing My Major," a song that will make you remember your first real kiss: "I'm changing my major to sex with Joan / With a minor in kissing Joan / Foreign study to Joan's inner thighs / A seminar on Joan's ass in her Levi's / And Joan's crazy brown eyes."
Brace yourself for heartbreak. Imagine giving someone you love—someone who insisted they loved you—your word, your time, your unconditional support. Only for them to keep you at arm's length throughout your life together, casting you aside for someone else whenever they got the chance. That's the heartbreak that Alison's mother, Helen, endures. Her loyalty to Bruce is steadfast, even as she grows increasingly suspicious. Over the course of the musical, her unseen anguish builds up and culminates with Fun Home's crowning song, "Days and Days." It's devastating.
Withhold your judgment. Fun Home does not moralize, which is one of its strengths. In one scene, Bruce takes his children to New York City. At night, Small Alison watches him splash on aftershave before he goes out, leaving them alone in a strange apartment in this new town. Present-day Alison doesn't know what to make of the memory, whether to hold it against her father or not. She's at a loss for a caption: "'Clueless in New York'? 'In Denial in New York'? 'Family Fun in New York'? 'Child Neglect in New York'? I don't know."
Don't worry, it's not depressing. I know that's what all of the above sounds like, but it's absolutely the opposite of depressing. It's rendered with warm orchestrations, wit, and tender humor. For all of Bruce's absences, he remains an endearing and eccentric man. He takes Alison under his wing on a trip to steal bushes from other people's yards. His moments of withdrawal are balanced with the moments he holds her up in the air, playing airplane.
Read the book. I know I said you don't need to read the book before you see the musical. But once the curtain closes, you'll want and need more. Lucky you, there's so much more in the memoir. It's rich with literary references and scenes that were left out of the musical, plus Bechdel's amazing drawings. It's a little darker, too. And it has been subjected to several book-banning attempts, so you know it's good.