The Big Finish
“We didn’t know how to go on,” Jill Soloway says of the dilemma facing cast and crew on her ground- breaking Amazon series. But “the idea of music came to us,” and Transparent’s musical finale took shape. Says star Judith Light: “It made us feel alive.”
"I've heard people say that in musicals, people sing when they can't speak." says Jill Soloway. "That when there are emotions that are too intense for conversation, that's when people sing."
It's fitting, then, that the fifth and final season of Transparent, the Amazon Studios series for which Soloway is creator, executive producer and two-time Emmy-winning director, takes the form of a one-shot movie musical rather than a multi-episode arc.
The Transparent Musicale Finale, which premiered September 27, wraps up the story of the Pfefferman family after the sudden death of lead character Maura, the former husband and father who came out at age 70 as a transgender woman in a fictional turn of events based on Soloway's own father.
Certainly there were intense emotions leading up to season five, when star Jeffrey Tambor, who'd won two Emmy Awards for lead comedy actor as Maura, was accused in late 2017 of sexual harassment by two transgender women on the show. Tambor denied the allegations and said he felt he couldn't remain with the show; in February 2018, after an internal investigation, he was fired by Amazon.
With Transparent already renewed for a fifth season, the what-to-do dilemma facing Soloway, the production team and the remaining cast was as visceral as any the Pfeffermans had faced trying to make sense of their own lives.
"For a while, we weren't sure if we were going to be able to come back or not, emotionally," Soloway recalls. "We didn't know how to go on. But there's something about the idea of music that came to us as a way to readdress the family, but to do it with a sense of mercy and love that can possibly only come from song. Sometimes you just need a little bit of poetry instead of the usual conversation."
Soloway looked no further than their own family to provide the songs (identifying as gender non-binary, Soloway prefers the pronouns they and their ). Their sister, Faith Soloway, a folk-rock songwriter-musician who has also produced and written for Transparent, composed the music and lyrics for the 11 songs in the finale; she also joined her sibling as an executive producer.
"Little by little, it was pretty evident that people wanted to keep going," says Faith. "We came up with a way that would pay tribute to the show, to our family, the deeper part of what connects these characters. It gave us a chance to go in a completely different direction. It seemed like a good ode — to loss, to the love of family, to newness and transition.
"People loved the idea of it being a musical. It wasn't a hard sell for anybody, even though our actors are not singers first. They wanted the challenge. And I think it was kind of a cleansing thing for them, emotionally."
In the film, Maura's death throws her survivors — ex-wife Shelly (Judith Light) and adult children Sarah (Amy Landecker), Josh (Jay Duplass) and Ali, now identifying as gender non-binary Ari (Gaby Hoffmann) — into turmoil, coping not only with the tragedy but its unforeseen consequences.
Tambor does not appear in the show, but there's a new character in the form of marijuana dealer Ava (transgender singer-actress Shakina Nayfack), who helps the grieving Pfeffermans in some surprising ways.
The songs run the gamut from a tender love ballad to a razzle-dazzle song and dance to an "Age of Aquarius" romp of joy, pain and ultimately, hope; Ryan Heffington did the choreography. As it happened, Faith Soloway had already envisioned the possibility of Transparent as a stage musical and had tried out some songs in public performances. Some numbers made it into the finale, while others were new.
When it came to working with the cast, "All songs started in the recording studio with [music producer] Anne Preven, the genius behind this," Faith recounts. "We got people comfortable with singing first, solid with their songs. At the same time, Ryan was working on choreography. We worked at incredible speed and in a comprehensive, condensed amount of time. Then we shot it."
During the 20-day shoot, the Soloway sibs focused on the musical numbers rather than dialogue. ("These guys are old pros" with the latter, Faith says of the stars.) Songs were tweaked and dance breaks added.
When it came to directing those numbers, Jill says, "I found that, even though I'm not musical, I was able to apply the same techniques to the songs that I use to make sense of whether a scene is working, asking myself, 'Do I believe this? Is it true?' I wanted to feel connected to the characters' yearnings and desires the same way I would if they were doing a written scene.
"Even though I can't sing on key, my experience thinking about what a character wants came in handy."
The same approach applied to the dances. "With every dance step with Ryan," Jill recalls, "I asked the same questions I would have in a scene: 'What are they doing? What are they doing to get what they want? When did they start trying something altogether different?' I was trying to make sure that I knew how to shoot the dances and understand why people were dancing — so it wasn't just a musical number where everybody starts dancing."
Bearing much of the musical mantle is Judith Light as Pfefferman matriarch Shelly, who was seen at the end of season three performing Alanis Morissette's "Hand in My Pocket" on a cruise ship during a family vacation. That number represented Shelly's finding and reclaiming her voice — literally and figuratively — after having been sexually assaulted by a music teacher when she was a girl.
Light, who'd had minimal professional experience in musicals, was all-in at the idea of a musical finale.
"I'd seen several incarnations of some of the music at Joe's Pub [in New York], where Faith had done cabaret events," she says. "Then Jill and Faith put together a workshop where we all came in and talked about what could happen. Please remember, you're talking about Jill Soloway, who is brilliant and has an extraordinary kind of vision, and we have trusted them from the very beginning for Transparent.
"So, all of those pieces together made me feel that this could be quite special — and quite funny."
Light studied with a top New York vocal coach. During the shoot, she says, "The dynamic was so supportive, making everybody feel that they could do their best work."
Using song and dance rather than dialogue was "more expressive, more visceral, more intimate," she adds. "There was an alignment and a powerhouse feeling and a joy, like this was coming from the depths of your soul. You're giving everything, and that's for the audience. To do that over and over again is very daunting. And yet we weren't exhausted. It made us feel really alive."
Light shares a standout number, "Your Boundary Is My Trigger," with Amy Landecker. The mother-daughter face-off is a call for respect from both sides.
"What I love about the song is that it's incredibly funny and absurd and brutal, but at the same time, it's extremely moving," Landecker says. "It's about a mother and daughter trying to be honest with each other: 'My entire happiness is tied up with you.' 'You're crossing my boundary.' Where do boundaries stop and where does codependency start? Who's too enmeshed with whom?"
Meanwhile, the three siblings "are [finally] becoming adults," Landecker observes. "We're all trying to grow up and not just be self-centered kids. Sarah's journey is about forgiving herself for being an imperfect parent by forgiving her mother. For me, the whole movie was about this forgiving of the matriarch — which is also Maura."
(The show certainly affected Landecker's own journey: In July, she married Bradley Whitford; they met when he made a guest appearance on the show, for which he won an Emmy.)
Not all the important finale moments are musical, such as a heart-rending scene when the Pfeffermans say their final goodbyes to Maura. "We were in a real crematorium, and there was a real crematorium employee in the scene, who was amazing," Landecker says. "You could hear the noises [of the equipment]. Jill didn't have us rehearse it for the first take."
Transparent has always been rooted in authenticity, with the obvious exception of casting a non-transgender man as the lead. In addition to taking inspiration from the Soloways' "Moppa" – their name for their parent — the production hired transgender performers, producers, writers, consultants and crewmembers.
"I was along for the whole ride, from beginning to end," says transgender multimedia artist-actress-producer Zackary Drucker, who was hired with her partner Rhys Ernst as a consultant on the pilot and rose to be supervising producer on the finale. "Transparent was the first production to bring in trans folks to author our own stories."
Drucker worked closely with Jill Soloway, executive producer Andrea Sperling and casting director Edye Belasco as well as the art department. She was also a liaison between Amazon and the production, consulting on such elements as marketing, publicity and social media.
Meanwhile, since the pilot, Ernst worked his way up from associate producer to coproducer and producer, while also designing the title sequence for every season (he did not produce the finale due to a schedule conflict with the feature film he was directing).
Across its 2014–19 run, Transparent hired 80 transgender or non-binary crew and named cast members, along with numerous day players and background talent.
"Many of the people got into unions and are now working on other productions, opening doors for others," Drucker says. "And onscreen, Maura [as well as] Davina and Shea [transgender actresses Alexandra Billings and Trace Lysette, respectively] and their community were represented in a humane way that television had never seen before.
"We'd never seen trans people within a larger narrative about a family; up till this point they were satellites floating out there on their own.
"Being on the show legitimized the careers of trans talent," she adds. "Now on [casting resource] Actors Access, you can self-identify as transgender. Transparent was really a leap in terms of representing our community. And that is continuing, on shows like Pose and Jessica Jones. We've come a long way in a very short amount of time."
It's not only previously undiscovered talent and crew who benefited from the show. "Transparent literally changed the trajectory of my life — not my career, my life," says Billings, who was one of the first transgender actors to play a transgender character on television, in the 2005 telefilm Romy and Michele: In the Beginning, and on Transparent played Maura's friend and mentor.
"It taught me to navigate through my personal chaos," Billings says, "and it gave me the great gift of empathy and understanding. It provided me a platform, and continues to, that never would have existed. It wasn't just a television show — it was a fertile ground of learning and experimentation for me. I am a different human being because of that show."
In Billings's view, "Transparent has a permanent place in television history, much like All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Carol Burnett Show — groundbreaking television about marginalized human beings."
The show also affected its creator personally: during its run, Jill Soloway realized they no longer identified as straight and femme, proceeding from gay to butch to now, non-binary. The realization really hit home when viewing photos taken at awards shows and feeling, "That's not me."
"A lot of the ways I was expected to be feminine and professional felt like a costume to me," Soloway explains. "Being around so many non-binary people and being so in awe of the idea that there could possibly be a third choice — that's how I evolved."
Both Jill and Faith Soloway hope that the finale will evolve into a full- fledged Broadway musical. As for Transparent the series, "It feels like an absolute and complete honor to me," Jill says, "to not only have had that writer feeling of, 'Wow, I finally have a show,' but the much, much bigger thing of, 'Wow, this is having a real cultural impact in a way that I can feel people's hearts shifting.'
"It's not really about professional success anymore. I get blown away by the ways in which the trans community has been able to be seen more, and by all the joy we've had making it, and being part of the trans and queer communities. It feels like a miracle, honestly. An absolute miracle."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 9, 2019
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