Sunday, December 4, 2016

Notes from A Jewish Exploration of LGBT Musicals Part 4

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Session 4, last one about *Fun Home*, November 29

During our third session on *Fun Home*, I had meant to bring a printout of the portrait that my artist friend Riva Lehrer painted of Alison Bechdel, but I forgot, so I'll post a couple of links here -- the first to the portrait and Riva's narrative on it and the second, to a link, thanking Riva for giving a recent gallery talk in front of the portrait at the National Gallery. I'm always envious of visual artists because who wants to slog through a blog-post? It's so much more instantly moving to look at a painting, drawing or sculpture, especially by a gifted artist like Riva.

Riva can also paint with words; when we were in our 20s and both living in Chicago, where we met and where Riva still lives, she told me, "You remind me of a Carson McCullers character -- a fierce outsider with her nose pressed up against the window." I think I'm a bit less fierce now ....

The Graphic Memoir and the Play - More Comparison

The coming-out letter aftermath

We looked at pp. 77-79 and listened to "A Flair for the Dramatic". Both covered Alison's exchange with her closeted, gay father -- of whose sexual orientation she was not yet fully conscious -- after her parents received her coming-out letter.

The song version had a great couple of lines, where her father said, "The good news is, you're human."

"What does that *mean*, she asks herself, "What else would I *be*?"

Raising my hand and then speaking as Jonathan nodded to me, "I keep mentioning things my mom [z"l] blurted out to me, but this is reminding me of the time when I was 17 and she found a love letter to another girl that I had left on the kitchen table by accident/on purpose," I said, "Her first words were, 'Don't you marry some man and ruin his life!'"

"You're crazy! It doesn't mean anything!" I yelled desperately.

One of my classmates said, "Your mother had a lot of insight. How did she think to say that?"

"My mother [z"l] was very smart."

Unlike Alison's father, my mom (z"l) was paying attention to my reality, even if I wasn't yet prepared to. Before she was clued in by the letter, though -- perhaps when I was in 8th grade -- we had an informal "birds and bees" talk, but it was really all about my mother (z"l) asserting that I could enjoy myself with boys without spoiling my virtue. I don't recall her also explaining the pregnancy-danger angle.

My mother told me, "There's plenty you can do without having intercourse." I understood that sexual intercourse with a boy would wreck everything in terms of marriageability, but that I was being given permission/encouragement to do whatever else I wanted (with boys) -- not that she explained what that included.

 The scene in the car

We also read pp. 220-21 aloud and listened to Telephone Wire . Alison's and my parents (z"l) gave us so much just by giving us life, but also how frustrating it was to witness Alison's exchange with her dad during college. He was completely self-absorbed and made Alison parent him instead of rising to her occasion and being the parent.

The song version of the scene in the car reminded me of watching the Miss America pageant once with my dad (z"l). I was prepubescent and among my mother (z"l), two older sisters, my dad (z"l) and I, only my dad (z"l) and I watched the pageant; that could have been a clue about my future.

My father (z"l) also died young, at 56, and we, too, never had an explicit discussion about what I wanted for my future in terms of a spouse. In Alison's case, at least she tried to discuss her identity with her father. In my case, I was too scared at 17, which is how old I was when he (z"l) died.

Like Alison, ultimately, I did send a coming-out letter to my mother (z"l) and two more to each of my sisters and I mailed all three on the same day. I was a senior in college and my mom (z"l) must have expected it, since she had found the love letter to my girlfriend four years prior. She called me long-distance from Stamford to Ann Arbor and was purely kind. And for the first time ever, she didn't hurry our conversation due to the long-distance charges.

In the book version of the song, Alison and her dad were heading out to see "Coal Miner's Daughter". Once, when I was five, my dad took just me to see "Gigi" and then out to dinner afterward. It was my first Broadway play. I wonder if we could have experienced "Fun Home" together, and so much else, if only he had lived long enough.

*Fun Home*'s Design

Our instructor Jonathan started the session: Watch these two montages and jot down some differences you see between the Public Theater version and the Broadway version; collectively -- though mostly helped by Jonathan, who was more familiar with the footage and both productions -- we came up with:
  • Cartoon panels were suggested in both productions, but at the Public, there were white frames on the backdrop behind the actors, and on Broadway, they appeared as lit-up, giant squares on the stage-floor.
  • On Broadway: Alison unearthed her memories via the furniture that would emerge/pop up through the stage floor; the actors were lit from four perspectives; and the audience could see the audience's reaction, since it was theater in the round; and the follow spot[light] on the Adult Alison, "... made it look like she was floating through the memories" -- Jonathan.
  • What I caught was less subtle: In the Public Theater version, the male babysitter had his shirt unbuttoned and his chest and underpants band were visible while in the Broadway version, Alison's costume was a shirt and underpants for the college scene, where she had her first intimate experience with a woman.

Jonathan explained that good scenic set designers aim to elicit audience emotions with what they design. We also learned, as an aside, that the Lincoln Center Library has practically every Broadway play and you can sit there and watch any one if you make an appointment. Who knew?

Here are links to the first, second and third in my series of notes on this course. The next four sessions are going to be devoted to *Falsettos*, another LGBT Broadway play that's currently in revival. So far, I'm noticing that the most Jewish parts of our exploration of these LGBT musicals are:
  1. We, who are in the class and our instructor are Jewish.
  2. For the Broadway version of *Fun Home*, the playwright, Lisa Kron, is Jewish. 
  3. For *Falsettos*, the lyricist and co-playwright, Bill Finn, is a congregant of our Synagogue and Jewish.
  4. Some of us share how we're relating to the play we're studying by sharing stories of what happened in our Jewish families that bear any resemblance to the play's plot.

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