NEW YORK (AP) — There is a coffin sitting onstage. A lesbian is the narrator. There are no movie stars in it. And we are promised a suicide by Page 9 of the script.
“Fun Home,” which goes into Sunday’s Tony Awards tied for the most nominations, doesn’t sound like it has the makings of a hit in New York, much less on the road.
While in the past most shows waited until Tonys were handed out before planning a tour, “Fun Home” announced a national tour during the 2016-17 season weeks before the ceremony, a sign that appetites for challenging fare is on the rise.
“We are living in an exciting time,” said Kristin Caskey, a “Fun Home” producer. “I don’t know if this would have existed 10 years ago.”
The poignant show, based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel memoir about growing up as a lesbian with a closeted dad, coincides with the Supreme Court preparing to rule on whether to allow same-sex marriage nationwide.
“The show is capturing something about the cultural consciousness that is about this present moment,” said Sam Gold, its director. “This is the moment for a show like ‘Fun Home.'”
Broadway bookers and producers have had nervous moments before such recent edgy shows as “The Book of Mormon” and “Kinky Boots” hit the road, but they went on to considerable success.
“We all, as an industry, have underestimated or been condescending maybe about what the American public has an appetite for,” said Meredith Blair, president of The Booking Group, one of the top agencies.
Blair, whose 12-member team is planning the tours of “Fun Home,” ”Something Rotten!” ”An American in Paris” and “Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” among many others, learned plenty when she booked the tour for “Rent.”
“That was my first lesson that, wait a minute, why do we think they want to see it in New York and they don’t want to see it in their hometown?'” she said.
Naturally, more mainstream shows like “The Sound of Music” or “Wicked” are popular, but she said there’s always a place for edgy and provocative, too.
“The presenters really do try to balance their seasons out. Having an entire season of old classics or revivals, their audiences are going to be bored,” she said.
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Laura Kepley, the artistic director of the Cleveland Play House, said theater professionals have to be bold and provocative or risk losing audiences to film, TV and video games.
“As a producer, I always think, ‘Why aim for the middle?’ I don’t want people to go, ‘Oh, that was nice.’ That’s not changing lives. That’s not changing attitudes. That’s not changing your community.”
Gold said he’s often approached by people stunned that they connected with “Fun Home,” despite its very specific story. “It’s not because everyone has a closeted father who kills himself. It’s because everyone has a father,” he said. “Everyone has a crazy family.”
At the moment, the road is full and several shows are pulling in $1 million a week. The coming season promises new tours of “Finding Neverland,” ”On the Town,” ”The King and I,” ”Into the Woods” and “The Bodyguard,” as well as shows already out there, like “Motown,” ”The Lion King,” ”Jersey Boys,” ”Pippin” and “Cinderella.”
Good reviews are nice, but they don’t guarantee a hit, as “Honeymoon in Vegas” learned this season. “The road responds more to the box office in New York than they do the reviews,” Blair said. “If you’ve got both, man, it’s a home run.”
“Fun Home” got both, and its creators and producers are proud that a musical with a lesbian character as its lead — unprecedented for Broadway — will tour the nation.
“Many people asked us, ‘Is this commercial?’ ‘How are people going to respond to this?’ We felt that as much as it was Alison’s unique story, there was also universal ideas and themes at work here,” Caskey said.
“What’s been incredibly gratifying is that those universal themes are resonating, and that’s why the show is getting the response that it’s getting.”
The 69th Annual Tony Awards air live from Radio City Music Hall, Sunday, June 8th at 8pm ET (delayed PT).
For more Tony Awards coverage, click here.
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