A Misunderstood Genius

Long before the term \"politically incorrect\" graced the vernacular, sardonic singer-songwriter Randy Newman elicited considerable anger for songs that satirized sadists, lechers, liars and bigots.
May 25, 2000

Long before the term “politically incorrect” graced the vernacular, sardonic singer-songwriter Randy Newman elicited considerable anger for songs that satirized sadists, lechers, liars and bigots. Back in the 1970’s, radio stations banned his “Short People,” a parody of prejudice that some listeners took literally. Midgets picketed his concerts; Newman received death threats. “Every time I turned on the television, I saw people throwing eggs at a picture of me,” he told People magazine.Even Newman has been nervous about performing his song, “Rednecks,” which makes liberal use of the n-word.

“My music has a high irritation factor,” admits the author of bluesy-pop ditties with such titles as “Davy the Fat Boy” and “I Love L.A.” “You can’t put it on and eat potato chips to it and invite the neighbors over for a barbecue. It’s got …’wop’ in it, and ‘I’m gonna take off my pants.’ “Jerry Patch, the dramaturg of South Coast Repertory (SCR) in Costa Mesa, puts it differently: “Randy’s music has always been misunderstood,” he says.

It’s not surprising that SCR, producer of the most groundbreaking new theater in America, has turned Newman’s edgy work into a musical, “The Education of Randy Newman.” It’s hardly the standard Broadway-bound fare. As befitting a composer who despises Andrew Lloyd Webber, Newman’s musical has no book, no dialogue, no show-stopping numbers, no boy-meets-girl scenario.

Rather, the co-conceivers have created a fantasy, loosely based on Newman’s life, told solely through some 40 of his songs. The piece begins as a middle-aged singer-songwriter reflects back on his life, including the anti-Semitism he encountered while growing up in the South; his move to Los Angeles; his foray through the perils of show business; his marriage and divorce and remarriage.

The audience will hear tunes like “The World Isn’t Fair,” in which the narrator chats with Karl Marx about the phenomenon of rich old geezers married to gorgeous young blondes who look like Gwyneth Paltrow.Not a single lyric has been altered to avoid offending theater audiences, not even the phrase in “Rednecks” that proclaims “We’re too dumb to make it in no Northern town and we’re keeping the n— down.” “The most dangerous song is ‘Rednecks,’ ” Patch admits. “In workshops, everyone in the audience freezes at that point in the show, as if they were hit in the back with an ice-cold poker. Yes, people are uncomfortable with the song, and they should be. The terrible thing would be if they had a good time and applauded.”

“The Education of Randy Newman” began when composer Michael Roth approached SCR co-artistic director David Emmes, an avid Newman fan, in the late 1990s. Roth, a frequent SCR musical director and composer, had arranged Newman’s songbooks and had orchestrated his “Faust” at La Jolla Playhouse and a revue of his songs in the 1980s. Roth reminded Emmes that it had been some 15 years since the last Newman revue; another was long overdue.

Enter Patch, who spent the next three months listening to Newman’s work and concluded that the musician deserved more than the standard four-singers-and-a-piano treatment. Newman’s songs were, well, theatrical. Each was narrated by a character who spun a yarn that was “a perfect one-act play,” according to one observer. Patch, for his part, “realized we could arrange the material in such a way to tell a story, not only of Randy’s life but of this country.”

The challenge was to find a framework with which to structure the musical; Patch then thought of a book he had read in college, “The Education of Henry Adams.” Adams, Patch realized, was an observer and chronicler of the last half of the 19th century, while Newman is an observer and chronicler of the last half of the 20th century. The book inspired the title and plot of the show. As the dramaturg and the musical director began to develop “The Education of Randy Newman” in a series of workshops, they intermittently drove up to Pacific Palisades to work with Newman, 56, in his “mansion on a hill.” The resulting show is the most expensive in SCR’s history, with a budget in excess of $750,000, a live band and seven actor-singers who have been admonished not to sing “too prettily.” South Coast, no doubt, is banking on Newman’s national acclaim to draw attention to the production. “To respect Randy’s music,” Patch adds, “we just couldn’t ‘cheap out.'”

Newman, who has written13 Oscar-nominated film scores, from “Ragtime” to “Toy Story 2,” along with about 10 albums as a singer-songwriter, was born into a dynasty of Hollywood musicians. His uncle Alfred Newman, winner of nine Academy Awards, scored many of 20th Century Fox’s most famous films from the 1930’s to the 1960’s. Uncle Lionel, who ran Fox’s music department, shared an Oscar for “Hello, Dolly,” while Uncle Emil conducted the music for most of John Wayne’s movies.Young Randy grew up idolizing his uncles and watching them conduct orchestras on the Fox sound stage. He began playing the piano around the age of 6 and learned to love the blues during summers with his mother’s Jewish family in New Orleans, where he also learned a thing or two about racism and anti-Semitism.

“I saw those signs on the ice cream wagons,” he said in an interview. “It was hot and raining, and there was [the word] ‘Colored,’ spelled wrong. And I remember it very well, a shocking thing.”In his song, “New Orleans Wins the War,” Newman explores how his father, a physician, felt uncomfortable as a Jew in the South.

The family was, nevertheless, highly assimilated: When 8-year-old Randy was invited to a country club for a cotillion, the girl’s father called to cancel on the night of the ball, according to SCR’s newsletter. “I’m sorry, Randy, my daughter had no right to invite you, because no Jews are allowed [at the club],” he explained. Randy replied, “That’s all right, sir,” hung up the telephone and turned to his father. “Hey, dad, what’s a Jew?” he queried.

The story could well be the impetus for Newman’s song, “Dixie Flyer,” in which the narrator recalls how his mother’s “brothers and sisters drove down from Jackson, Mississippi, in a great green Hudson driven by a gentile they knew. Drinkin’ rye whiskey from a flask in the back seat, tryin’ to do like the gentiles do. “Christ, they wanted to be gentiles, too,” the song continues. “Who wouldn’t down here, wouldn’t you? An American Christian – God damn!”

While the language of songs like “Dixie Flyer” is off-color, Patch says he isn’t worried about the expletives or even the inflammatory rhetoric. What concerns him, in short, is the music: “It’s rock and roll, so I wonder whether it will be accessible to many theatergoers, who are along in years,” he explains.Newman’s concern, meanwhile, is that audiences realize he is not the “stupid bigot” he often describes in his songs. So who is Randy Newman? “Sort of a pseudo-intellectual, well-fed Westside [Los Angeles] liberal,” he says. “I’m … an American, if [people] would only allow Jews to be Americans.” He pauses, then adds, mischievously, “[I’m] an atheist, until I really get sick.”

“The Education of Randy Newman” will premiere June 2 through July 2 at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. For tickets, $28-$52, call (714) 708-5555.

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