After firing its star in the wake of scandal, Jill Soloway’s ‘Transparent’ rediscovers its voice
On the Los Angeles set of “Transparent,” inside a bustling soundstage at the Paramount lot, a three-person chorus is passionately belting a ditty, a cappella. Judith Light, who portrays the show’s neurotic matriarch, Shelly Pfefferman, is beaming, while Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass and Gaby Hoffmann, who play her children, serenade her — powering, and slightly stumbling, through lyrics like “to another it would be too daunting/to take on three kids so wanting” and “Judith brought the light/and made everything al-right.”
It’s early February and the final day of filming on the Amazon dramedy’s series finale — which unfolds in the form of a feature-length musical — is in progress. All the song-and-dance that’s transpired may explain why, to ring in Light’s birthday during a break from production, her fictional offspring have opted to forgo the humdrum “Happy Birthday” in favor of one of the finale’s numbers, which they’ve revamped to be a tribute to Light.
It’s a joyful moment for a show that was nearly knocked down.
We wanted completion. This is family.
“Transparent” is one of several Hollywood projects that have had to be reworked because of stars brought down after public allegations of sexual harassment.
Nearly two years ago, as the #MeToo movement was solidifying itself as a revolution across Hollywood and beyond, Jeffrey Tambor — who portrayed the show’s central character, a transgender woman named Maura — was fired following allegations of sexual misconduct from his former assistant Van Barnes and costar Trace Lysette. (Tambor has denied the allegations.)
“It was just like being in a washing machine, or in a dryer — or both — and just this constant tumble and not really knowing what to do, where to stand,” says “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway.
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After months of uncertainty about the fate of the series, the Tambor-less “Transparent” returns Sept. 27 with its swan song, the “Musicale Finale.” (Rhyme it out.) It’s an unexpected conclusion to the Emmy-winning series, an early contributor to the increased visibility of nuanced trans stories in Hollywood that helped establish Amazon as a serious player in the original programming space.
“We wanted a completion,” Light says during a break from her performance. “This is family.”
In the finale’s opening minutes, Maura’s family learns of her (off-screen) passing; they spend the remainder at once trying to cope and carry a tune. A central thread involves Shelly writing a musical about the family’s journey — making use of doppelgängers for full effect, to the dismay of her children, Sarah (Landecker), Josh (Duplass) and Ali/Ari (Hoffmann).
“There are certain things that happen in real life where there are no words ... these moments in life where you just need to sing,” Soloway says of the decision to end on a musical note. “You just need to hear poetry, because things are just too complex for regular old conversation, and that’s where music has kind of come in to rescue us all.”
Cast members say a flurry of emotions occurred over the roughly three weeks of filming.
“I’m a big crier, and I probably cried every day at work every day except the last,” Landecker says. “The anticipation of the ending was worse than the real thing. I was so scared of it happening. And then when it finally came, it was oddly sort of festive and joyous and really beautiful. It didn’t feel like an ending. It felt like a celebration.”
For Hoffmann, the musical element made her crave more: “Amy, Jay and I were like: Now we can never do anything that’s not a musical ever again, now that we’ve discovered this,” she says.
The cast and crew were grateful there was something to find joy in: Those involved with the show didn’t know if the allegations against Tambor would be its death knell.
As Amazon launched its investigation into Tambor, Soloway was trying to stay positive about the future of “Transparent” — struggling for months to come up with ways to salvage it with or without him.
“I think I had the idea that there would be a way for Jeffrey to just play [the pre-transition character] Mort in flashbacks,” Soloway says. “Because when the investigation was going on, we were sort of preparing creatively to do a show with Maura, without Maura, or maybe with a little bit of Mort. It was clear that a cis man as Maura was not going to work anymore, no matter how the investigation came out. We were looking for other answers. Sometimes it was Maura being on a road trip.”
When the idea for a musical came together, Soloway met with Jennifer Salke, the head of Amazon Studios, then a few months into the job. There was no hesitation.
“We all felt ‘Transparent’ deserved its ending ... they had been through a lot,” Salke says. “And then [Soloway] mentioned wanting to do a musical finale and I just lit up. I came from developing ‘Glee’ at Fox, and I love nothing better than a big swing. I also felt it would be a really joyful way to end the show, and it proved to be just that.”
Soloway directed the finale and co-wrote it with sibling Faith Soloway, who also penned the music and lyrics. In fact, Faith had been writing songs inspired by “Transparent” for years, debuting some — including Shelly’s standout, “Your Boundary Is My Trigger” — in a one-night New York showcase, “Faith Soloway and Friends: Should Transparent Become a Musical,” in 2017. (The hope is to have a theatrical run for the musical in the near future.)
No matter what happened with Jeffrey on our show, Maura is a really important trans woman.
“Nobody knew how to get back into the show,” Faith says. “With the musical element, it sort of presented an opportunity for everyone to jump into the risk space together.”
“It was nerve-racking and scary,” Duplass says of the endeavor. “I think the toughest part, honestly, was we didn’t know what it was going to be.”
A rehearsal was called in New York so the actors could get their bearings and welcome their Broadway-experienced counterparts into the fold. It became, he says, a form of group therapy.
“We were processing and bringing the Broadway people in and letting them know what we had been through and what this culture was like,” he says. “Doing lots of weird rituals and stuff, and we were sort of improvising, singing with Faith at the piano. It was like [a] real, nascent ‘reinventing everything’ type of feeling. Also, the Broadway folks sang and we were like, ‘Wow, that’s intimidating.’ They knew a lot more than we did. So we were like, ‘Are we extras now?’”
By the looks of this final day of filming, the cast seems to have risen to the challenge. Light, as Shelly, struts around in a flesh-colored body suit, matching bra and fuchsia chiffon skirt surrounded by a throng of dancing doppelgängers in a powerful rendition of “Your Boundary Is My Trigger.” She punches out phrases like “I spackled and sanded my anger and sadness” so effortlessly, energetically and emotionally against the tango-like rhythms that it makes you wonder if she does this every Friday night.
“Look at her. ... She is our Lady Gaga,” Jill Soloway says from behind a nearby assembly of monitors.
While it made sense for Shelly — an improv veteran — to grab the spotlight, Maura’s fate was harder to swallow. Soloway makes a point to say that Maura has not been “killed off,” though her death seemed appropriate since the show had previously set up that the character had heart problems.
“It sounds so punishing,” Soloway says. “We love Maura. No matter what happened with Jeffrey on our show, Maura is a really important trans woman. We say goodbye to our beloved Maura. ... I think it relates to the way death happens in real life. You have lots of plans for when you’re going to see your parent next, or plans for an event that’s going to come. And then one day death happens and, boom, you’re in another reality.”
Originally, Soloway envisioned the narrative of the series unfolding over the course of seven seasons. A fifth had already been ordered before the allegations against Tambor surfaced and would have seen Maura reliving her youth. The character was going to start socializing with the trans students at the college where she used to teach, Soloway says.
“We had her ... meeting the trans community and just kind of really wanting to be free of the expectations of her family and her friends — not really wanting to be seen by Shelly and not really even want to be seen by her kids, and just want[ing] to be with these kinds of more radical trans people.”
According to Soloway, one potential story line included Maura conspiring to hack into Rupert Murdoch’s personal computer.
“That’s where we were,” Soloway says. “She was going to be like a trans hacker, taking down the patriarchy.”
When “Transparent” debuted in February 2014, trans characters in pop culture were most often relegated to minor or secondary roles and/or portrayed in a negative light. The series became a critical darling and awards contender, nabbing eight Emmys — including two for Tambor’s performance. Still, “Transparent” proved to be both groundbreaking and problematic. Praised for presenting a complex portrait of trans women and employing trans creatives on screen and off, it was also chided for casting a cisgender man in the lead role and for being written, at least initially, by cisgender writers. Soloway, whose preferred pronoun is “they,” has acknowledged that if the show were created today, they would approach things differently. But Soloway doesn’t regret the choice.
“Early on, I really began to get a sense for the first time about trans liberation and trans politics,” Soloway says. “I have absolutely nothing but respect for people’s rage and nothing but gratitude for people who forgive the fact that I had to live my learning curve in public, and mostly just hope that the positives of ‘Transparent’ outweigh the negatives of what it meant to have a cis man playing a trans woman.”
But can the series’ legacy and characters — however complicated — remain unscathed by the scandal it got swept up in?
“I still remember shows from my childhood — ‘All in the Family’ and [‘The Carol Burnett Show’] and [‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’] — and I can still remember not only characters but lines from those shows, strangely,” says Alexandra Billings, who plays Maura’s friend, Davina. “So I think shows that break new ground like ‘Transparent’ ... I don’t think it will ever go away. I don’t feel that there is a period on the end of this sentence.”
On this particular day on set, the focus is on finishing. And getting karaoke tracks of the songs — 10, in total — ready for the show’s wrap party.
“If everything else goes wrong,” Soloway says, “I can take this movie and put it on a hard drive and put it into a suitcase and tour JCCs [Jewish Community Centers] for the rest of my life and hand out the lyrics and do ‘Rocky Horror'-like singalongs. And if that’s all I do for the rest of my life — that’s totally fine.”
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