Tonys: How Three 'Fun Home' Actresses Become Alison Bechdel Each Night
Nominees Beth Malone, Sydney Lucas and Emily Skeggs discuss how they forged their symbiotic performances in the Broadway musical.
Sydney Lucas, Emily Skeggs and Beth Malone haven’t seen each other in 48 hours, and it feels like a lifetime.
It’s Tuesday afternoon, and the actresses, who all play cartoonist Alison Bechdel at different points of her life — childhood, college years and adulthood, respectively — on Broadway in Fun Home, the musical based on Bechdel's graphic memoir, can't wait to catch up.
The three arrive at the citizenM hotel, across the street from their Circle in the Square stage, and immediately hand their phones to a publicist — not necessarily so they won't be distracted during the interview, but more so their calendars can be synced. They'll have less and less time apart in the next month, as all three received Tony Award nominations and they have a stack of related events to attend in the run-up to the June 7 ceremony.
Beyond performing eight shows a week since March, the trio have known one another for much longer. Malone has been with the project since a reading at the Public Theater in 2011. Lucas joined for the Public Lab rendition in 2012, when she was 9; she’s now 11. And Skeggs joined as an understudy, later stepping in as a replacement during the 2013 Off-Broadway production, also at the Public.
Based on Bechdel’s 2006 book, the show, written by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, follows Alison’s coming-of-age, as she explores her relationship with her closeted father and comes to terms with her own sexuality in the wake of his suicide.
Having multiple actors play the same character at different life stages is not an unusual tactic onstage, and even less so onscreen. This is Tesori’s third time employing the device, after Shrek the Musical and Violet.
“We get to make choices on our own because people change and grow,” says Skeggs, who plays the teenage Alison. “But I’ve had a really good time watching Beth, because that’s where I’m going, and watching Sydney, because that’s where I was.”
The difference between Fun Home and other stories that rely on flashbacks or younger selves is how the non-linear story hinges on memory, as Alison is writing her book and recalling certain life moments. The Public Theater production took place on a proscenium stage, but at Circle in the Square, director Sam Gold reconfigured the piece to be presented in the round, with the adult Alison at the center.
“Things are swirling around me, and it’s a lot easier for audiences to see it’s really generating from the mind of this character,” Malone explains.
Tesori and Kron also wrote similar material for all three characters, and Lucas points out that their blocking is the same at certain points, particularly when they’re onstage together. "The one main thing that all three Alisons have in common is we want a relationship with our dad,” says Lucas, who plays the child Alison. "We all have that want."
Lucas is one of the most mature 11-year-olds you will ever meet, and even Malone and Skeggs seem fascinated by her poise. During the interview, her co-stars ask questions about her relationship to the material, now that she’s almost three years older than when she first started.
“Well, I read the book,” Lucas responds.
“Like, fully?” Skeggs asks, somewhat incredulously.
“Just recently,” Lucas says.
“Did your mother sit next to you when you read it?” Malone asks. “I accidentally watched The Accused with my father when I was a teenager. It scarred me for life!”
“It didn’t scar me,” Lucas says. “I thought it helped me get a greater understanding of Alison.”
For the Broadway production, Kron and Tesori also wrote a new scene in which small Alison doesn’t want to wear a dress to a party, and performing it every night is not a stretch. “Don’t even get me started — I hate dresses!” Lucas exclaims.
Adding a new scene also affects how the other two approach their characters. “It’s like taking the rug out from under and putting a new rug [down],” says Malone. “It’s a ripple effect if it comes from Sydney.”
The only scene in the musical in which adult Alison steps into her younger self is during the song "Telephone Wire," when her teenage self has just come out to her family via letter and is visiting home for the holidays. She goes on a drive with her father, and Malone’s Alison sings the song about what she wishes she had done in that moment, versus what she actually did. "At that point, memory has taken the reins, and that’s why I’m stepping into that narrative," explains Malone.
In rehearsal, however, Skeggs sang it once with Michael Cerveris, who plays her father, because both actors wanted to know what it was like to have the age-appropriate Alison in that spot. It also helped Skeggs experience the moment, just as her character would have. She also sings excerpts of "Telephone Wire" in the finale.
While Alison herself — or TRAB (The Real Alison Bechdel), as the cast calls her — attends the show and has definitely been available as a resource and drinking buddy, she hasn't been involved directly in the creative process. However, both Skeggs and Malone were able to travel with Bechdel and other cast members to her childhood home in Beech Creek, Pennsylvania. (Malone tells Lucas that they’re trying to plan another trip so she can go, and Lucas cannot contain her excitement. “We haven’t talked to your mom yet!” Malone tells her.)
“We have Alison from the book and Alison from YouTube, and then we have our own perspective of Alison in real life,” Skeggs says of how it affects her performance. “It’s like an archive for me.”
“If she didn’t like what was happening, it would filter to us in some form,” Malone adds.
On the surface level, all three had to cut their hair for the show, and after spending so much time together, even they admit they’re starting to look alike. “It’s taken time for our faces to morph into each other’s, like people who look like their dogs,” Skeggs says. “We’ll take pictures together, and we’re like, what is happening?!”
The show marks the Broadway debut of both Lucas and Skeggs, and the Tony nominations are a first for everyone. However, while many might see major awards attention and Broadway roles as a star-making opportunity, they quickly reject that notion.
“I can’t stand that mindset,” Malone says. “It feels very right that we’re each nominated. … You couldn’t have built this show on stars. You needed ego-less people who wanted to work.”
Being the youngest Tony nominee this year, Lucas is curious about her co-stars’ experiences. She politely interjects to ask Malone and Skeggs what they love about performing. And she listens raptly, as they tell her they love making money doing what they love and spending time with people they enjoy.
She then turns to her two fellow Alisons and acknowledges the whole company's contribution to her work in the show. “I mean,” she says, “You guys got me nominated.”