Tony Award-winning musical ‘Fun Home’ – Now a Northwestern University Wirtz Center Production

Preparing for Northwestern University's production of "Fun Home"
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In September of 2017, Chicago Splash Magazine journalist, Suzanne Magnuson, reviewed “Fun Home”, which at that time was being performed at Victory Gardens Theater.  In the review, she stated,  “This play will put you through the emotional wringer, from laughing along with the charming and funny moments to weeping along with the majority of the audience in the truly sad ones.”

And now, Northwestern University’s Wirtz Center presents the Tony Award-winning musical ‘Fun Home’ November 8 to 24 . Based on Alison Bechdel’s best-selling graphic novel, “Fun Home” features book and lyrics by Lisa Kron and music by Jeanine Tesori. The production is directed by Roger Ellis, assistant professor of music theatre at Northwestern School of Communication. With a soaring score and deftly constructed book, “Fun Home” explores identity, parental presence and absence from the quirky confines of a family funeral parlor.

“Fun Home” Poster

 See the Wirtz Center’s video about this upcoming production.

The Pulitzer Prize finalist and Tony Award Winner for Best Musical continues the Wirtz Center at Northwestern University’s “Love and Power” season, in the Ethel M. Barber Theater, 30 Arts Circle Drive on the Evanston campus. Tickets and more information are available on the Wirtz Center website.

Director, Roger Ellis, generously agreed to answer questions about the Northwestern University production of “Fun Home”. Read on and you will be inspired to see this production.

Can you comment on why you chose to cast actors of three racial identities for the production and how this underscores the themes of the play or adds another layer of meaning for audiences?

Alison is played by three different actors, each embodying a crucial flashpoint in Bechdel’s life. Adult Alison at age forty-three, Medium Alison at age nineteen, and Small Alison at age ten. When casting this production, the creative team saw many incredible actors audition for these roles. However, we were particularly blown away by the skill and interpretations of the three actors who we ultimately cast. Emma, Lydia, and Claire each gave life to the material with the depth, clarity, intelligence, and authenticity I knew these roles needed. I also knew that each of these incredible actors could offer the richness of their experiences and perspectives in a way that would truly illuminate the piece. I’ve learned so much from each of these women and it has truly been an honor to work with them. 

Previewing the set design

The Chicago Tribune  says of Fun Home “Exquisite. An emotional powerhouse.”  What are the factors that contributed to the choice of this play at this time?

When I saw the Broadway production of Fun Home in 2015, I was floored by the honesty of the material and the brilliance of the performances I witnessed. Although I’ve been a lifelong avid theatergoer and theatre artist—up until that point, I hadn’t seen many examples of my own experience in the art form to which I had dedicated my life. Representation matters—if you don’t see yourself represented in popular culture, it’s easy to feel invisible. I appreciated how the 2015 production put queer stories front and center in a big budget Broadway musical. I knew immediately that this was a production I wanted to direct. I’m grateful to Al Heartley—managing director of the Wirtz Center for seeing the timeliness and importance of this musical and the impact that it might have on the Chicago and Evanston communities. 50 years after Stonewall, Fun Home explores many of the questions of identity, liberation, community, and individual expression which were central to this pivotal moment in the LGBT rights movement. Now is the perfect time to reflect on how far the movement has come and to acknowledge the immense work there is left to do. 

Fun Home is continuing the Wirtz Center at Northwestern University’s “Love and Power” season.  What are the elements of this play that make it a good choice for this season?

Fun Home centers on the economies of love, power, obligation, and responsibility within the familial dynamic. Home operates as a microcosm for society at large. I liken it to peering through a terrarium, which helps one understand the intricacies of the world at large. This piece is also written by an all female writing team—the first all female team to win the Tony Award for Best Score. 

Discovering character costumes

You have stated, “I want audiences to be inspired by Alison’s journey so they too can learn to soar.” Is there a specific idea or memory you would wish to have the audience take away?

At its heart, Fun Home is an intimate, moving portrait about the meaning of family. Through Alison’s story we learn what it is to see one’s family and childhood through a grown-up lens. I’d like audiences to be left with the idea that it takes real courage to face one’s past in an effort to live authentically in the present, but ultimately it’s a journey worth taking.    

How long has the play been in preparation?

I feel like my preparation for this play has happened over the course of my entire life. This deeply personal story is close to home and I think it will resonate with many audience members as well. For these reasons, I’m especially honored to work on this exquisite material. I officially began working on the Wirtz Center production in March 2019. I began the process by learning as much as possible about Alison Bechdel, reading as much of her work as I could, plus a great deal of additional research on the themes and subject matter of the play. We began rehearsals on September 2nd, 2019. What audiences will see has been lovingly and painstakingly researched, conceived, designed, and rehearsed by myriad artists across disciplines, including production, stage management, design, dramaturgy, music, and performance. 

Exploring the script

Aside from the suggestion that Chicago Splash Magazine readers come to see this play before it gets away, are there further thoughts you might like to share?

I want this production to serve as a catalyst for people to exercise greater compassion towards themselves and others—especially across difference. Through the heightened circumstances of the Bechdel story, I hope audiences see themselves reflected. Bechdel’s bravery in reclaiming her past helps her find a path forward into the future. This optimistic story of self-acceptance and empathic compassion for others is exactly what the world needs right now. This production is lovingly dedicated to everyone on the road to living more authentically and to the LGBTQ ancestors who paved the way.

Come see the show!

Photos: Courtesy of Northwestern University’s Wirtz Center


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