A Modern Family Musical

By Joel P. Engardio

If the U.S. Supreme Court gives gay and lesbian couples the right to marry nationwide in June, not every straight American will magically view same-sex relationships as equal to their own. Some convincing will still be needed in the court of public opinion.

That’s why one San Francisco family – a gay couple, their adopted daughter and a goldendoodle – hopes their story will win over the remaining hearts and minds.

“There is a difference between being legally accepted and being celebrated,” Sonny Vukic said. “Our show is about celebrating the modern family.”

Vukic’s life with Frank Silletti, their 11-year-old daughter Ava Vukic and dog Rita is told through song and dance in a cabaret show called The Book of Ava. It features lyrics from Broadway musicals that reflect how Ava’s two dads met, started a family and raised a precocious girl from infancy to her pre-teen years.

But are show tunes the best way to reach Americans on the fence about gay marriage?

“Some of my friends said straight men would smirk and be snarky,” Silletti said. “But the straight men who’ve seen our show say they are moved because it makes them think about their own fathers. We don’t see this as a gay show. It’s about family.”

The Book of Ava played to a full house at the Rex Hotel in San Francisco last fall. It debuts in Los Angeles March 30 and will return to the Bay Area later this year (they also sang at my wedding last month).

Silletti and Ava are the on-stage performers while Vukic, 48, gets a one-note cameo from his front row seat to make fun of his lack of singing talent. Silletti, 53, pursued a music career before giving it up 20 years ago. Ava, however, was born to sing.

Silletti didn’t think Ava was paying attention to the Broadway albums he often played for her as a baby and toddler. Then at age four, Ava surprised her dads when she grabbed the microphone at a singing waiter restaurant in New York City and flawlessly belted out “Hopelessly Devoted to You” from the musical Grease. Strangers gave her a standing ovation.

“She just jumped up on her own and started singing by memory and in tune,” Silletti said. “We were shocked.”

The realization that Ava is a natural talent led to lessons and music camps, especially as Ava demonstrated strong self-motivation.

“When I sing, I forget about everything else, like a cut on my leg or if I’m tired from school,” Ava said. “If I’m mad I can transfer my feelings in a song. I love singing. When I get an opportunity, I take it.”

While Ava has the potential to go far, her dads guide her carefully.

“We don’t want her to become one of those child stars that go off the rails,” Vukic said.

Silletti no longer wonders if the musical training of his youth was in vain. He used it to write and direct a show where he sings duets with his daughter about their shared story. He also musically coaches Ava.

“Maybe it was cosmic,” Silletti said. “Sonny and I feel like Ava picked us.”

When the couple began the adoption process 15 years ago, same-sex parents were still considered a novelty and a liability. So they got many rejections. Then Ava’s birth mother called, intrigued by a letter that promised a home “filled with music.”

It was an open adoption and Ava sees her birth mother in Arizona every year. The hope is to bring Ava’s show to Phoenix, to win over a more conservative audience with her story.

“How can you argue with love?” Vukic said. “That’s the lesson.”

Also published in San Francisco Examiner March 29, 2015

LGBTJoel Engardio