Sara-Kate Astrove & Lux Sommers
“When one person in a family transitions, everyone transitions,” says Shelly, the matriarch of the Pfefferman family, played by Judith Light, during season three of the Amazon series, Transparent. Created by Jill Soloway, the multi-award-winning show centers around a Los Angeles family and their lives following the discovery that the person they knew as their father, Mort, played by actor Jeffrey Tambor, is transgender. But should it become a musical?
That is exactly the question Transparent staff writer Faith Soloway—Jill’s sister—asked a packed house at Joe’s Pub last Monday, in a cabaret style workshop performance, titled “Should Transparent Be A Musical?” As two recluses, venturing out in a summer evening’s deluge to take in some much-needed culture—not to mention social interaction—our verdict was yes.
How does a work of art transition from a critically acclaimed TV show to a Broadway musical sensation? Co-hosting with Transparent cast member Alexandra Billings , Soloway and an ensemble of five settled the score with an original masterpiece that delivered all the elements of great theater. With Soloway on piano, accompanied by a pit orchestra, the songs performed were presented not as a finalized soundtrack but as possible contenders. Soloway introduced each number, explaining its unique genesis. Since the series is based on the actual life story of her own “Moppa”—a term derived from a combination of “mom” and “poppa”—inspiration ranged from episode plotlines to her sibling’s (voluntarily submitted) diaries.
Soloway has a gift for songwriting, one that brilliantly showcased the on-stage musical potential of a compelling small-screen dramedy. The former musical director of Second City and composer of such “schlock operas” as Jesus Has Two Mommies allowed a behind-the-scenes peek into her creative process in an energetic 90-minute revue. Ingenious feats of musical theater ensued: At one point, the word “reminder” was rhymed with “vaginer” (sic). Between songs, audience participation was encouraged. “What rhymes with anus?” Soloway asked the audience, half-joking. A member earnestly replied, “Heinous.” (We were trying to think of one, but sadly were not fast enough).
Rarely does an audience get to witness a work of ekphrasis, not in its polished show-night form but in transition. As walking half-shells of humans ourselves, we were encouraged to see that a work-in-progress could possess so much beauty. What we heard was not a finished libretto but something more interesting, as if we were privy to what could be. The showcase allowed glimpses into the mind that helped translate an idiosyncratic experience—a parent’s gender change—into art that is universal. With prominent producers of Hamilton and Rent in the audience, Broadway didn’t seem like a far-off fantasy. It doesn’t need elaborate set design and dangerous Spiderman stunts; the family drama provides all the verbal pyrotechnics necessary to keep the peanut-crunching crowds ensnared.
The evening opened with an ode to the event’s charity, Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Comedian and writer Megan Amram, dressed in priestly vestments, was joined by a male cast member, wearing a powdered wig (also known as “Perukes”—who knew?). In a titillating dance, the pair likened the separation of church and state to two lovers who after all these years don’t make sense together and never did. But their alto and tenor voices harmonized deliciously.
Next on the program came a highly autobiographical number relating to family transitions, this time, Faith’s own. Preceding the self-disclosures of “Moppa” and show runner Jill Soloway’s gender non-conforming queerness, Faith had already come out as a lesbian. “I Was Lesbian First” sets the record straight. The song tackles the conflict of the timing at which individuals come into their own identities within a family. Sibling rivalry is a common experience; however, what sets this brood apart is that theirs centers around sexuality and gender identity. Nonetheless, the sentiment is one to which all families can relate. Everyone is fighting for the spotlight—the spotlight not being fame, but rather the right to be recognized and heard.
Our favorite song of the night addressed triggers—i.e. when a present day stimulus mentally transports a person to an earlier trauma—something we Sad Girls know all too well. In a mother-daughter duet, Sarah, the eldest Pfefferman, confronts her mother Shelly about how her lack of respect for boundaries is triggering. In response, Shelly realizes that she is traumatized by her daughter having boundaries, thus creating a familial paradox, as articulated in the refrain, “Your boundary is my trigger.”
Transparent is already an excellent television show. Music enhanced it, amplifying emotional depth and aesthetic appeal. The use of rhyme, key change, and recitative added new dimensions through which to express not only the complicated issue of transition but of families in general. There was something cathartic in seeing struggles put to song, often comedically. We shed more than the usual tears into our two drink minimum and were shocked by the unfamiliar sound of our own laughter. If “Should Transparent Be a Musical?” could get two recluses to emerge from their respective lairs, then the answer is yes, it should.
Sara-Kate Astrove received her MFA from The New School’s Creative Writing Program and is working on a memoir. Her work, published under “anonymous” and “S.K.” has appeared in Marie Claire, Elle, Cosmo, Harper’s Bazaar, Redbook, Good Housekeeping, and Yahoo.
Lux Sommers is a New York based writer and musician. She enjoys celestial bodies and having pretend relationships with dead authors. Her poetry and essays have appeared in The Rumpus, the Brooklyn Rail, The Daily News, Honeysuckle Magazine and more.