BURLINGTON, Vt. — The gender studies students sat in a circle, just beneath a periodic-table poster, and, bashful or bored, ran out of questions before class was over.
So Alison Bechdel pulled out her iPhone, hit play and held it in the air. The voice of an actress rang out, clear and pained, portraying Bechdel as an undergrad, trying to find the courage to talk honestly with her father during an uncomfortable car ride shortly before he killed himself.
“Say something, talk to him,” she sings, urging herself to initiate a conversation of more than chitchat. “Say something, anything.”
If the students had been silent and sullen, now they were silent and rapt. They had read a graphic-novel memoir by Bechdel and wondered about that moment of missed connection between father and daughter.
They had asked about the tension between revelation and privacy. And they were mystified about a musicalization: How could a story about a woman who comes out as a lesbian, only to have her father declare that he, too, is gay and then end his life, work as a Broadway show? (It opens April 19 at the Circle in the Square Theater.)
These are strange days for Bechdel, who spent years on the margins of popular culture, the nation’s most prominent lesbian cartoonist, and then found unexpected success with the book “Fun Home,” in which she investigated, using journals, police records and a trove of photographs, the unraveling of her own family, and the construction of her own self-understanding.
The 2006 memoir has sold over a quarter-million copies and is now assigned on dozens of college campuses.
Bechdel and the off-Broadway cast came to Charleston a year ago to present a concert version of the musical in response to complaints by lawmakers and others that the work was pornographic.
The book was recommended reading for College of Charleston students as part of a College Reads! program.
The book captured the imagination of leading figures in contemporary theater: playwright Lisa Kron, composer Jeanine Tesori and director Sam Gold.
Bechdel, raised in an emotionally guarded household, finds herself depicted by not just one but three actresses on a Broadway stage.
“I can’t even use the word surreal anymore, it’s so trite; it’s weird,” Bechdel said during an interview at her home nestled in the Green Mountains outside this college town, where she sketches at a drawing table and writes on a computer, often accompanied by her calico tabby, a female cat named for a male psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott.
The show, with a subject that is not typical musical fare, is a sort of theatrical Russian doll. A 40-something Alison (Beth Malone) tries to examine, for her cartoons as well as her sense of self, her own experience as an Oberlin student (Emily Skeggs) and as a child (Sydney Lucas).
For the actors and creators, there is a fourth Alison, the one they call T-Rab (The Real Alison Bechdel), the 54-year-old cartoonist who has been both observer and observed as the musical has been developed.
The show is not chronological. The stories of the Alisons, their father (Michael Cerveris) and their mother (Judy Kuhn) are interwoven. On Broadway, the show will be staged in the round, suggesting visually that the unfolding events are memories swirling around the cartoonist.
“I do understand that there’s a difference between the play and my life, but it is a very strange and permeable boundary,” Bechdel said. “It’s some kind of hall-of-mirrors thing. There’s been this strange feedback effect.”
How strange? The actresses have read Bechdel’s books and watched her video postings, and two have slept in her childhood home (in Beech Creek, Pennsylvnia, where the play is centered). They examine how she dresses and speaks, noting how her eyes scan when she thinks and how her hands move.
Onstage they sometimes walk in parallel, with the same gait and the same hands in pockets.
“We’ve all negotiated physical mannerisms, and the way she says certain things, to try to be the same, but we also have this task of being this person who is growing. We’re all this one person, but at different stages of her life,” said Skeggs, whose character is called Medium Alison.
Lucas, who last year became the youngest person to win an Obie Award for her portrayal of Little Alison, expressed similar concerns, saying, “Sometimes I wonder if I’m acting the way she acted.”
Lucas has tried to extract ideas from the book (which she read, at age 9, “with my mom covering up pages that I wasn’t allowed to see”) and by searching for similarities to her own experience.
“I know she definitely hated dresses and stuff like that,” said Lucas, who is now 11. “I’m actually sort of like Alison, because first of all I have two brothers, and I really love to draw, like she does.”
Pedigree is a plus: Last year, Bechdel won a grant from the MacArthur Foundation, and the musical was a finalist for a Pulitzer; its premiere, at the Public Theater in 2013, was greeted rapturously by critics and it swept the off-Broadway awards season.
Bechdel initially came to public attention as the author of “Dykes to Watch Out For,” a comic strip widely published in gay newspapers. Now, with the popularity of graphic novels, the ubiquity of gender and sexuality studies programs, and her MacArthur grant, she is much in demand as a public speaker, and has an at-large professorship at the University of Vermont, where she periodically speaks to classes about her book and her life.
But, to her chagrin, she is best known for a concept she says a friend actually came up with. Three decades ago, she wrote a comic strip, based on a conversation with that friend, in which a character declared that she wouldn’t see a movie unless it featured two women having a conversation about something other than a man. That criterion has become known as the Bechdel Test, an informal shortcut for evaluating gender bias in popular culture.
In the home studio where she wrote the memoir, Bechdel compares herself to a hermit crab, pulling research material into her lair, a space piled high with books, cartoon anthologies and a lifetime of daybooks and photo albums and steel pens.
It took her two decades after her father’s death, years of repressed emotions, therapy and searching for a way to tell the story, before she felt ready to write “Fun Home.” That experience, she says, helped her empathize more with her parents.
Now, having watched the theater makers take her life apart and reassemble it as a musical, she is able more fully to see herself as others do, not just as a storyteller but also as a subject.
“The first time I saw it, at a staged reading, I was so overwhelmed I could barely speak,” she said. “Now I’ve been living with the play for five years.”
A few days ago, she texted Malone: “I feel like I have learned something about myself watching you.”