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Scissors and secrets

Broadway actor Robert Petkoff talks challenges, rewards of ‘Fun Home’


When Lansing native Lisa Kron started working with composer Jeanine Tesori on a musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir “Fun Home,” she knew it was a powerful story but didn’t know how audiences would respond to the intimate coming-of-age musical. When it opened off-Broadway in 2013, she realized that it was going to be something special.

“We were hopeful, but you really never know until it meets an audience,” Kron told City Pulse. “When it started meeting audiences, that’s when we saw that it was doing what we hoped it would do.”

The musical went on to nab 12 Tony nominations and took home five, including best musical and best original score. The duo of Kron and Tesori is the first all-female writing team to win the Tony for best original score.

“Fun Home” chronicles Bechdel’s childhood growing up in the family funeral home and her time in college, where she came to accept and embrace her homosexuality. Central to this story is Bechdel’s father, Bruce. A funeral director and English teacher, he was also a closeted gay man and an abusive father. He was killed by an oncoming truck in an apparent suicide shortly after Bechdel came out to her parents.

“Fun Home” opens at the Wharton Center Tuesday.

City Pulse talked with Robert Petkoff, who plays Bruce in the touring production, about the challenges of the role and audiences’ response to the musical.

What is it like to play a character like Bruce, who leads this intense double life?

It’s one of the most complex and layered roles I’ve ever played. There’s so much to him. You don’t just go “Oh, I understand you!” on the first day of rehearsal. It took weeks and weeks to delve into this, and every day I’m still discovering things about him that I can bring to the performance. He’s a man with a central secret to his life, and that affects the way he deals with everything and everybody. He has one face for the public, one face for his family and one face for his very, very private secrets.

How do you prepare for a role like that?

The very first thing I read was the graphic novel, because Allison is so precise and specific about what’s going on with her father. Even the questions she asks about her father, where she doesn’t feel like she knows exactly what’s going on, those questions are very helpful to an actor, because you ask the same things. There’s a moment when she’s a young girl, and he calls her into the back to look at a dead body, ostensibly because he needed some scissors. She wonders aloud, “What was that about?” Is this how the Bechdel family gets introduced to dead bodies, or did he just need scissors? She’s examining the experience and trying to figure out what’s going on. And for me as an actor, that’s very helpful, because you have to come up with an answer for that. I have to decide one way or the other, and sometimes that changes. I decide to play one or the other, and it all depends on where I feel like I am that night.

What is it about this musical that resonates with so many people?

At its heart, it feels like a story about family. Very specifically, it’s a story about Allison and her memories and her specific family, but like any great of piece of art, and I think this is a great piece of art. It touches on universal ideas.

Over and over on this tour, I’ve met people at the stage door or talked to people after the show who have said, “I didn’t think I was going to like this. I didn’t think I would connect with it, but by the end I was an emotional mess.” And I think it’s because people see their own family, they see their own stories. Whether their father killed themself or they’re lesbian or gay or not, they still connect because Lisa and Jeanine have written a story about family and relationships that are so real and so intimate on stage that people can’t help but see themselves up there.

Are audience reactions to this show different from that of other shows you’ve been in?

People are so much more emotional and raw at the stage door. I find myself hugging people a lot. People want to share stories about themselves, about how they connected with this play in ways they’ve never connected with other plays.

I did “Ragtime” on Broadway, and people were moved by that story, they were emotional, but people are tender and raw after “Fun Home.” People tell me very intimate things about themselves. It’s very touching and very moving to have people be put into such an emotional state by the show, that they want to talk about the show and talk about their own lives.

Does that reaction change from city to city?

When you’re in a city like San Francisco, the reaction is very different. It was almost an anomaly, it was so vocally and enthusiastically received. But whether we’ve been in Detroit or Los Angeles or Cleveland or Houston, the response has still been overwhelmingly positive. People jump to their feet at the end.

It’s wonderful to see. We as a nation feel so disconnected — there’s the West Coast and the East Coast and the Midwest and the South — but everywhere we’ve been, the human connection has been the same. It’s heartening to see, at a time we feel so divided in this country, that we are still united by this common human spirit.

“Fun Home” 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 6-Thursday, June 8; 8 p.m. Friday, June 9; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, June 10; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, June 11 Tickets start at $41/$28 students Wharton Center 750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing (517) 432-2000, whartoncenter.com


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