by Jim Gladstone
Kuhn’s work as Helen Bechdel, long-suffering wife of a closeted gay man, in the show adapted from lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s autobiographic novel, is indelible. While Fun Home might easily have played primarily as a father-daughter story, the distillation of intensity, bewilderment and loss Kuhn brings to her show-stopping performance of Helen’s soliloquy song, “Days and Days” adds astonishing dimensions to the show as a whole. It presses audiences to reconsider the entire story from a third perspective.
It is a wrenching portrayal, and one would hardly blame Kuhn for taking a hard-earned hiatus for purposes of rest and relaxation alone. But the 57-year-old’s six-week break was long-planned to allow a much-needed hip replacement surgery.
But for Kuhn, creation and recuperation went hand in hand. In the midst of her successful recovery—“We are so lucky to be living in a time when this is not such an ordeal and you can be walking on crutches in days,” she said during a recent phone conversation—Kuhn put finishing touches on her new concert’s repertoire.
The program, an evolution of Kuhn’s one-night American Songbook show at Lincoln Center last year, brings together songs from a single family’s three generations of composers: Richard Rodgers, daughter Mary Rodgers (Once Upon A Mattress), and grandson Adam Guettel (The Light in the Piazza, Floyd Collins).
“I first heard Adam’s work,” says Kuhn, “through my friend Tina Landau who directed the premiere of Floyd Collins. I’m actually not the kind of person who has ever spent much time listening to cast albums. But I listened to that one over and over, I just found it so compelling.”
“At some point, I found out that he was Richard Rodgers’ grandson and I was so fascinated. When I thought about the opening of Floyd Collins [set in an Appalachian coal mining community] and the opening of Oklahoma, I could see a connection. There’s this idea of American optimism and the search for what you’re meant to do, a sense that ‘Something really good is about to happen to me.’”
“And then, when you bring in Mary, you see that all three of them are romantics. They write the most beautiful ballads that express people’s need for connection. In the past, we’ve seen multiple generations of actors and authors, but I’ve never seen this sort of thing with composers.”
Whether exploring the Rodgers family or the Bechdel family, Kuhn, who also works as an acting teacher, says she doesn’t like to make a distinction between her acting and her singing.“It’s all storytelling,” she says. “Sometimes we use music to help tell the story. Shakespeare used verse.”
“I always start with the lyrics. I don’t know how to do a song without a good lyric. Language is the leading element, its what needs to be communicated,” says Kuhn. “Then I think about what the composer has done with the music to lift the lyric up. What are the musical cues the composer is offering me as a storyteller. There are some highly trained singers who have never been asked to focus on anything but perfect sound.”
“I’ve never been interested in doing any writing,” says Kuhn. “I never wanted to learn to play the violin. I like being a detective and trying to understand how to best tell a story.”
Feinstein’s at the Nikko
222 Mason Street, San Francisco
June 3, doors: 6:30 p.m/Show: 8
June 4, doors: 5:30 p.m./Show: 7 p.m.
Jim Gladstone is a San Francisco-based creative consultant and writer. A book columnist and Contributing Editor at PASSPORT, he is the author of an award-winning novel, The Big Book of Misunderstanding.