October 20, 2019

A Very Jewish and Musical Finale for ‘Transparent’

Gaby Hoffman, Kathryn Hahn, Judith Light, Josh Duplass, Alexandra Billings. Amy Landecker; Photo courtesy of Amazon Prime Studios

After four groundbreaking, critically acclaimed seasons, and surviving the shock of a sexual harassment scandal involving its star, “Transparent” bids farewell to the Pfefferman family with a musical movie that’s celebratory, healing and very Jewish.

Created by Jill Soloway, whose own parent came out as transgender, the series starred Jeffrey Tambor as Maura Pfefferman, until harassment allegations led to his firing in 2018. Soloway opted to kill off the character with a “Musical Finale” episode that allows Maura’s loved ones to deal with the loss and reflect on living — in song.

“After everything happened with Jeffrey, we were looking for a way to surprise ourselves, try something different and go in a new direction. And from the ashes arose this thing we never would have expected,” Soloway told the Journal after a screening of the film. “My sister Faith is a songwriter, and we have always wanted to write a musical together. This was our chance to have fun together and make all of our dreams come true.”

Maura’s death and the ensuing arrangements and memorial are cause for much discussion about Jewish ritual, guilt and the Holocaust, and sets up the return of Rabbi Raquel Fein (Kathryn Hahn). “It’s very Jew-y. There’s a lot of Jewishness in there,” Soloway said, noting the perfect timing of the movie’s Sept. 27 premiere. “We come out at the end of September so people are talking about it during the High Holy Days.”

Jill and Faith Soloway and several cast members subsequently participated in a panel at the Television Critics Association press tour, where Jill further elaborated on their journey with “Transparent,” calling it “a kind of thrill ride for neurotic people.”

“We could have just said ‘goodbye’ and backed away and waved and been grateful for the love and the transformation around trans liberation. But as storytellers and as artists, I think this was actually not just the finale, but it was our chance to heal together,” Soloway said. “I think making it into a musical in some ways just rescued it from being overly serious. We didn’t want to tell a story of Maura’s death that was a complete mourning, a sad farewell. We had to find our way back to joy, and the musical allowed us to do that.”

“I’ve been writing songs about our family, my gender expression, my sexuality, Jewishness and my family all my life, and I’m in my 50s,” Faith Soloway said. “To get the chance to do this is a dream come true.”

Judith Light in “Transparent.” Photos courtesy of Amazon Prime Studios

But the actors weren’t exactly thrilled about the prospect of singing, especially at (first. “[Sarah] sings first, which scared the crap out of me. I don’t have musical theater experience,” Amy Landecker said. “I was full of fear, but I had courage because I was supported. I would literally bring Faith next to me and make her sit in the studio while I sang.”

“We had to express ourselves in a whole new way, and it totally made sense,” added Jay Duplass (Josh). “Not that we weren’t kicking and screaming and terrified the whole way, but that’s what makes the show what it is.”

Although she has a musical theater background, with shows including a Los Angeles production of “Company” and a European tour of “Guys and Dolls” on her resumé, Judith Light (Shelly) was similarly apprehensive about singing. “Like Amy, I had Faith standing next to me at the microphone when I was laying down the tracks. I wanted to make sure that I was going to give everything I had, my best self,” Light said. “Facing this fear and being able to do this in this way with this kind of safety changed everything for me.”

In the movie, Shakina Nayfack, a transgender Jewish woman, plays the actress Shelly casts as Maura in the play she’s producing about her family. An actor best known from “Difficult People” and founder of the Musical Theatre Factory in New York, Nayfack embodies a spiritual guide to the Pfeffermans. “We were looking for our new North Star, and Shakina guided us in believing that we could believe in something again,” Jill Soloway said. “We always seem like we’re on this kind of spiritual journey here at ‘Transparent.’ It feels like so much more than a TV show for us.”

Gaby Hoffmann (left) and
Kathryn Hahn in “Transparent.” Photos courtesy of Amazon Prime Studios

After the presentation, Light confided she will miss “Transparent” and Shelly, “But the arc is completed now in a very beautiful way. I will miss being in this space with these people. They have become my family and I’m trusting our relationships will continue. That’s dearly important to me,” she said. 

From the outset, Light studiously avoided making Shelly a Jewish-mother cliché. “It was always my and Jill’s intention to never make her a stereotype or a caricature in any way,” Light said, noting she has “always felt connected” to her own Jewish heritage. 

Light, who next will play the mother of Richard Jewell, the wrongly accused suspect in the Atlanta Olympics bombings in Spectrum’s “Manhunt: The Unabomber,” will sing on the “Musicale Finale” cast album.

As for the Soloways, plans are underway for a Broadway version of the movie, and Jill is writing and will direct the superhero movie “Red Sonja” and is “working on some new TV projects for Amazon.”