Melody played a huge role throughout the entire work, which was not a surprise given its theatrical purpose. The way the music was structured, everything hinged on the success of the melody (I’ll get into my thoughts about that terrible idea later). More often than not, the melody ended up being a detriment to the music because of its lack of inspiring and thoughtful shape, though not by much. Nicer choruses and more coherent lines came in when the story being told got more dramatic. In songs like “Ring of Keys”, “Days and Days”, and “Telephone Wire”, their choruses and repeated material became more substantial, even though they still lacked pacing and powerful shape. Ultimately, the poorest and most detrimental melodies of the work were balanced out by the couple of surprisingly incredible lines in the songs that may have seemed like fluff to the story. Songs like “Changing My Major” and “Maps” had very forgettable, weak, and rather annoying melodies that sadly sounded very familiar to the musical theater norm. However, Fun Home only kept this awfulness to two songs and didn’t let its musicality falter any further. It was made up for in the score by the two songs “Come to the Fun Home” and “Raincoat of Love”, which both had remarkably compelling melodic shape that was easy to enjoy. These two songs hardly had anything to do with advancing the story’s narrative, but that’s actually a good thing. If someone is trying to tell a story through music, then they must be fully committed and find emotion through that music instead of relying on the narrative alone. Fun Home did well to balance this, and the two songs that didn’t have much to do with character or plot development ended up being the most intriguing pieces. I only wish that level of intrigue could have been found more consistently. I applaud Tesori for using small repeating motives to give the work more cohesion and understanding, but the motives themselves weren’t that enjoyable. After a while they began to sound like a musical theater blueprint rather than thoughtful musicality. Everything evened out in the end, but there was potential for much more.
The harmony was always in a constant power struggle with the melody, and I desperately wanted harmony to win, even though it never did. It was mostly a battle between the conventional, uninspiring melodic lines and the fervent, restless harmonic structures. Overall, the harmony had some brilliant moments that gave the music identity. Its decisions were all strictly musical, which I said earlier gives more emotion and weight to the drama than trying to be dramatic in the first place because of the narrative. Lots of musical theatre works have background harmonic structures that try to relate directly to the visual action. Save that for film music. Jeanine Tesori seemed to recognize the power of telling a story through music to an extent and wrote some great creative underlying harmonies. Most every song had stirring modulations and neat two-chord passages that provided excitement and a need for the listener to pay attention. Songs like “Welcome To Our House On Maple Avenue”, Party Dress”, “Raincoat of Love”, and “Ring of Keys” really took me aback with the exceptional harmonic twists and turns while maintaining coherence. What it sorely missed throughout the work was presence. The harmony always seemed to do its one job at bringing the music to the next section and then get overrun by a sung line that couldn’t continue the same powerful feeling. They needed more bite to go along with their wonderful movement. A musician cannot rely on timbre alone to provide that bite, especially in this context. Tesori may have missed on her musical priorities, but she showed a great deal of musical passion through her harmonies that the modern musical theater world should take note of.
I may never understand why composers employ such a large force of instruments for such a small purpose when writing for the stage. With what was trying to be accomplished, this piece would have sounded better with piano and guitar alone rather than adding lots of orchestral instruments to fill up the pit. One obviously cannot just bang on the piano with every added tone that’s wanted and consider it successful (as the atrocious musical styling of Jason Robert Brown so eloquently exemplifies), but Tesori showed some nuance and creativeness in her writing that allows me to believe she could make a smaller instrumentation work very well. There were a couple of nice solo clarinet spots, but not enough to rationalize the use of an entire wind and string pallet as simple accompaniment to a singer. The timbre never once provided any sense of character of heightened emotion. It never played with the melody or helped with the form in any significant way. The sound was only there so the singer could stay on key. Only “Raincoat of Love’ had instrumentation and found a voice of its own. Going back to what I said previously about the musical structure, this piece had way too much focus on melody and way too little focus on the actual sound being presented. Good music needs balance and cohesiveness, and Fun Home could not provide that. With that being said, there was still a solid basis of accompaniment for which the music could survive on. It could have been much more effective with better instrumentation or role changes, but it at least achieved the goal it set out to do.
The 2015 Tony Award winner for Best Musical has gotten great reception, and has now begun to tour the world. Most every theater geek knows it and loves it. Even though it’s a new story, its important social themes lend itself well to gaining a bigger audience. It will be remembered as the first Broadway musical with a lesbian protagonist, and that itself might help its longevity. It is also rather musically fresh and different from much of the crop due to its harmonic creativity, so there’s definitely a place for it in the music world. I’m not sure where it’s popularity and importance levels will finally settle after the dust clears, but I bet it will be rather high.
NOTE: I only gave scores to each actual song, not to the interlude scenes that were mostly dialogue.
Final Score: 102/180