TheWrap Emmy magazine: “It really felt like, we have to do this on our terms — not on Jeffrey’s terms, not on MeToo’s terms, not on ‘Transparent’ fans’ terms,” says the showrunner formerly known as Jill Soloway
A version of this story about Joey Soloway and “Transparent Musicale Finale” first ran in the Limited Series & Movies issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.
“Transparent” creator and showrunner Joey Soloway, who identifies as nonbinary and recently changed their first name from Jill to Joey, was faced with an untenable situation when the series’ star, Jeffrey Tambor, was accused of sexual misconduct in 2017. Tambor was at the center of “Transparent” as Maura Pfefferman, who late in life comes out to his wife and adult children as a trans woman, a plotline inspired by Soloway and their sister Faith’s experience with their own father.
The solution to ending the show without Tambor turned out to be “Transparent Musicale Finale” — not a final season, but a single, movie-length episode, and a musical to boot.
Were you initially thinking of doing a whole fifth season, rather than a single show?
We weren’t thinking of ending at all. Initially we were thinking that maybe there would be many more seasons. And then when it became clear that going forward without Jeffrey or going forward with Jeffrey, that neither one of those were really an option, the first idea was to walk away.
The feeling was just, “This is all too much. We can’t fix all these things. There’s too much to process. Maybe someday we’ll come back to this.”
But it felt really sad to have the show just be gone. And for people who are trans and queer and Jewish, we really felt like Maura is not going down like that. We had this amazingly beautiful, funny Jewish trans woman hero, and we didn’t want to say goodbye to her with this legacy that something went horribly wrong. We need to rescue all of the love and the beauty that had gone into making this show. It really felt like, we have to do this on our terms — not on Jeffrey’s terms, not on MeToo’s terms, not on “Transparent” fans’ terms. Sometimes I feel like we were kids who were losing the game, and then they pick up the game and throw all the pieces in the air and walk away. We threw all the pieces in the air, but instead of walking away, we reset the board.
Considering that the final episode was a full-fledged musical, you didn’t just throw the pieces in the air and walk away — you threw the pieces in the air, caught them and started juggling.
Yeah, exactly. (Laughs) Can you say that I said that?
So, why a musical?
Well, my sister Faith and I grew up making musicals, writing songs, listening to the “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Hair” and “Fiddler on the Roof” cast albums and dreaming of having a career in the world of musicals. And when my parent first came out, and Faith and I were facing this new family that we were in, our first instinct was to make a musical documentary about our own family.
My sister is just as “turn life into art” as I am. And we actually started filming a documentary where we would be involved in something real in our family, and then we’d swing the camera over to Faith and she would start singing. We had a pretty wild idea of an improvised musical documentary, but luckily the TV show got off the ground first.
So yes, we’ve always been thinking about music, and we were actually in the midst of making an announcement about “Transparent” becoming a theatrical musical that would hopefully aim toward going to Broadway one day, if there’s such a thing as Broadway. My sister was workshopping some of the songs for a play at Joe’s Pub in New York.
Maura dies offscreen at the beginning of the movie, so you didn’t try to recast Tambor’s role — but Shakina Nayfack plays a new character, Ava, a trans woman who fills that role in certain ways.
We met Shakina when she was working with Faith on the Joe’s Pub cabaret version of “Transparent,” and she sang some of the Maura songs. Here we had a woman who was Jewish, who was trans and whose name was Shakina, which means goddess in Hebrew. And she could sing for Maura. I just felt like Maura was alive again, that somebody else could carry her heart — and that in many ways Shakina could be more Maura than Jeffrey, because Shakina was a trans woman.
That’s one of the things that was exciting for me, that we did find a way to quote unquote recast Maura and have people see a beautiful statuesque trans woman was really fast to her Judaism and let the audiences leave realizing that it wasn’t about the problem of a man who did something wrong. It was about the beauty of this character taking flight to live again.
But there must have been big challenges to wrapping up four years in two hours.
Yes. Yes. I had thought about the things that were each gonna take a year or more to happen. We were talking about Ali transitioning into Ari and becoming a rabbi. But we thought that those things would take years to happen. And Josh and Raquel finding their way back to each other. We felt like, you know, Raquel deserves more than one song to take him back, but we had to do it.
Where there moments when you thought, “How are we going to pull this off?”
Moments? Every moment. We were all learning how to do these new things. We were learning how to choreograph and how to prerecord songs and how to shoot musical numbers. I think that was my learning curve of trying to invent something that felt organic. And I really was excited to play in that space where we can kind of make it our own.
Looking at how the TV landscape has changed since “Transparent” came on the air in 2014, the issues that you’ve been exploring have been embraced far more than they had been.
Not just television, but also the world. There’s so much more consciousness about trans people and trans rights and nonbinary people, which wasn’t even an idea when we first started. It’s crazy how quickly the world has changed.
Somebody mentioned to me that the show is almost like a Zen koan where the show would make trans visibility and trans protagonism so possible that the show would become unnecessary. Not that the show would become unnecessary, but the show where you needed a cis male actor to play this role. The more the show learned about transness, the more we realized that having a cis male actor playing a trans woman was problematic. And the way it unfolded was really tragic for everybody involved — but in many ways, it felt strangely inevitable. You look back and you go, “Could we have gone on with Jeffrey playing Maura for three more years in this culture?” I think it was getting to a place where it just had kind of outlived its original spark of creation.
But for all the progress that has been made, you still have J.K. Rowling stirring up a furor with her tweets about trans people.
Yes, that’s true. I think that’s because of what’s happening with questions of intersectionality in this moment of uprising. A lot of movements will now say our movement is only as powerful as the least powerful person in the movement. And for most movements, that would be Black trans women. So the struggle for Black lives often includes talking about transness, because activists are really trying to make sure that the most marginalized people are centered.
Intersectionality means that if you’re a woman, if you’re a person of color, if you’re disabled, all these different ways in which you don’t have access to white supremacy or patriarchy start to add up. I think people are just realizing that the ways in which people get marginalized is about being otherized, and we’re all in the struggle together.
To read more of the Limited Series & Movies issue, click here.