I had the good fortune to see the cartoonist Alison Bechdel give a talk at the Rochester Institute of Technology in 2010. Mostly, she talked about the process of creating a comic strip or graphic novel, but one thing she said stood out to me, and made me think of musicals. Unfortunately, that talk was not recorded and put online, but it must have been similar to this part of a talk she gave at Cornell a year or so earlier, which was put on YouTube: “I had the somewhat unusual experience of being raised by parents who loved music and books and art and who really wanted me to become an artist or a writer…It’s a double edged sword because you still have to rebel against it. So I think I came up with a pretty good way of rebelling: instead of becoming an artist or writer, like they wanted me to, I became both at once.”
Bechdel’s parents were both teachers who had artistic sides. Her mother had been an actress, and her father loved to restore old houses. The family also ran a funeral home, the kids’ abbreviation of which is the source of the name of Bechdel’s graphic memoir turned Broadway musical, Fun Home. While they hoped their daughter would become an artist or a writer, they probably did not expect, as she put it, that she would become “both at once.” Writing and creating visual art are old and respectable forms of expression, but creating comics, while older than widely known, is not so regarded. It is mostly associated with superheroes and silliness, even today, more than twenty years after one such work, Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale – My Father Bleeds History, won a Pulitzer Prize.
You can see where I started thinking of musicals. Opera, music, dance, theatre: these are forms that go back hundreds, even thousands of years. Musical theatre, technically, has yet to break a century. And while the high arts take a ribbing in popular culture, they also get a respect that musicals don’t. If a story takes a turn toward one of those forms, it represents culture and sophistication. If someone mentions musicals on television or in movies, watch for the accompanying jazz hands and raised eyebrows. Not to diminish jazz hands, but musicals are so much more, just like Bechdel’s chosen form of expression. “I feel like I’m able to explain something through this combination of words and pictures that I can’t in any other way. Cartoons are like maps to me in the way that they distill not just the chaos of the 3D world, but also the passage of time into a layer of pictures and a layer of words.” In musicals like Evita and Oklahoma and West Side Story, someone will be singing while others will be dancing, and they comment on each other. Older forms can have layers, but they aren’t as distinct as, say, a monologue over a song over a choreographed ritual, as in “A Bowler Hat” from Pacific Overtures.
Fun Home isn’t the first graphic work to land itself on stage. There are two musicals based on the Peanuts cartoons, and who can forget the Superman and Spiderman musicals? Both forms have a history of helping the wider culture to swallow harder stories and lessons, as Spiegelman’s Maus and John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Cabaret do with the holocaust. Musicals and comics are the descendants of music, dance, theatre, writing, and art, they are simply another generation, and in time they will probably be held up as high. Maus remains the only graphic work to win a Pulitzer, but eight musicals have in the drama category, essentially one per decade since Of Thee I Sing in 1932, and Fun Home, the musical, was a finalist for the 2014 prize.
As she drew her likeness, which is part of her signature, on the cover page of my copy of Fun Home, I told Bechdel of the epiphany I’d had during her talk, and while she seemed taken aback, I do remember her verbal response very clearly: “You’re right!” I don’t want to take undo credit, but this was a few years before the musical adaptation was announced. Maybe my comment crossed Bechdel’s mind as her book was being translated for the stage, maybe it didn’t, but when it was announced that it would be happening, I thought how perfect an outcome it was, and when I was fortunate enough to see it at the Public Theatre in 2013, it did not disappoint.