set visits

Transparent Goes Out With One Last Crazy Dance

On the set of the musical finale’s closing number, “Joyocaust.”

Photo: Jessica Brooks / Amazon
Photo: Jessica Brooks / Amazon

“Let’s have one of the most memorable days of our artistic lives!” Standing in Griffith Park among a grove of cedars overlooking Los Angeles, Transparent creator Jill Soloway bellows a kind of invocation to a crowd of approximately 150 people, more than half of whom are dressed in Technicolor costumes. The cast and crew are here on this chilly January morning, along with several busloads of dancers and extras, to help Soloway bring the series to an end with a movie-musical-style finale: an all-hands-on-deck song-and-dance number called “Joyocaust.”

“Breathe in the knowledge that you’re in the exact right place,” Soloway continues, as heads bow all around them. “There’s no right or wrong, no getting in trouble. Channel the feeling of utter joy onto your face and body because that’s what this is—a dream of a future world that we’re living in today.”

“If we could also take a moment to acknowledge that this land belonged to people before we were here,” producer and co-star Shakina Nayfack adds, “and to ask for permission from the spirits to honor them in this thing we’re creating.” The chorus of cheers is so loud a crew member must deliver one final order of business via megaphone: “There is an imminent threat of poison oak! Please don’t be reaching out and touching anything.”

In some ways, it seems like any other day on a Transparent set. Ever since the Amazon series premiered in 2014, Soloway has tried to create an environment that would allow the cast to feel comfortable with the intimacy expected of them. “We don’t talk about it a lot, but Transparent was a hard show to do,” says co-star Jay Duplass, who plays the feckless Josh Pfefferman. “From crazy sex scenes to baring your soul—it’s very rigorous.” This morning’s benediction is an abbreviated version of a long-standing tradition the showrunner calls “box,” in which everybody is invited to share experiences from their daily lives. “Vulnerability works like glue,” says Soloway, who came out as gender nonbinary in 2016 (they prefer the third-person pronoun). “That kind of connection makes the day go faster.”

That circle of trust was broken last year when the show’s star, Jeffrey Tambor, was fired after being accused of sexual harassment by two of his trans colleagues—his former assistant Van Barnes and his co-star Trace Lysette. For four seasons, Tambor anchored Transparent as Maura Pfefferman, a father who comes out as transgender and inspires her family members to examine their own uneasy identities. Though there was skepticism from the start about casting a cis man in the role, the show was widely embraced by critics as groundbreaking. It won eight Emmys. Two of them were for Tambor’s performance. Now Soloway had no choice but to kill off the series’ protagonist, along with the series, and they had decided to do so in a movie-musical finale. “Everything burned to the ground,” Soloway says simply.

The act of staging a musical quickly became part of the healing process. “The whole thing is so meta,” Soloway muses. “Joyocaust” in particular is about finding new ways to cope with pain. It is the series’ fait accompli, a powerful, exuberantly orchestrated ensemble piece in which pleasure is presented as a form of resistance to living in terrorized spaces. The song also closes in on perhaps the show’s greatest legacy. Over the years, as Transparent interrogated gender identity and challenged taboos, the horror of the Holocaust remained in its DNA; the idea of inherited trauma was often presented as inseparable from the characters’ suffering. Previous seasons flashed back to Nazi Germany and sent the Pfefferman family on a fraught trip to Israel. Soloway wonders if “the whole reason we did the show was so we could do ‘Joyocaust.’”

Indeed, it might seem almost too on-the-nose that Transparent would end this way, with an over-the-top reverie about the Holocaust, complete with Munchkin-worthy costumes. In the movie, the song follows the shiva for Maura. Mourners pass through a portal, which is actually just a hole in a chain-link fence behind the Pfefferman home, to rejoice with loved ones in a radical queer paradise. Their mournful black attire abruptly transforms into a rainbow of outfits. Maura’s ex-wife, Shelly—Judith Light, clad in a lemon-yellow tuxedo—leads the procession with Barnum & Bailey bravado, singing, “Take the concentration out of camps / And concentrate it on some song and dance.” It’s Peak Transparent—earnest, absurdist, with a wink of self-awareness.

But it’s also an ending that could only make sense post-Tambor. The lyrics look forward, offering a promise for moving through the #MeToo era. “This time, if something’s wrong,” Soloway says, paraphrasing the song’s message, “I want to know. I won’t look away.”

At the time the accusations came to light, Soloway was dreaming up story lines for season five. Changes were in store for all the characters: Maura was going to befriend a group of hackers and try to recapture her youth; her daughter Sarah, played by Amy Landecker, was expanding her marriage to become a throuple. Several more seasons were assumed to be on the horizon. “I bought a house, and my Realtor tried to convince me to spend even more because she’s like, ‘You’re on a hit show,’ ” recalls Landecker. “Honestly, thank God I’ve been so frugal my whole life.”

Over the next three months, an investigation into Tambor’s alleged behavior followed. Soloway treads carefully when discussing this period. “The complexity of what went on is so nuanced,” they say. “All of us had a lot of mercy for everybody involved. It was deep. We did a lot of processing.” Lysette, who plays Maura’s friend Shea, remembers those months as the “black-sheep period.” Lysette went public with her story, telling The Hollywood Reporter that while filming a scene in the show’s second season, Tambor pushed himself against her and said, “My God, Trace, I want to attack you sexually.” (Tambor has denied the allegations.) In their 2018 memoir, She Wants It, Soloway admits to initially feeling injured by the public nature of the allegations. Lysette recalls the two of them having “a full-on shouting match” on the Paramount lot. Eventually, she says, the two reconciled. “It just took time for everyone to see the truth,” Lysette says. “Once [the investigation] came together, I started to feel a shift from Amazon and Jill. I was getting reaffirmed, like, ‘Hey, you did a brave thing.’ ”

The idea to end the series with a movie musical was first broached on a walk Soloway took with their sister, Faith, who served as a writer and consulting producer, in Griffith Park, shortly after Tambor was fired. Music had always played a big role in Transparent. The fourth season featured songs from Jesus Christ Superstar, and Faith had been composing songs for a stage production ever since the show premiered. In the summer of 2017, before what both siblings refer to now as “the reckoning,” she hosted a two-night performance at Joe’s Pub prophetically titled Should Transparent Become a Musical?, featuring a mix of ballads, choral numbers, and vaudeville inspired by the musicals she and Soloway loved as children growing up in Chicago: Hair, Fiddler on the Roof, Sweet Charity. “We started to realize that a regular season wouldn’t be enough,” says Soloway. “People sing when they can’t find the words.”

In June 2018, the cast gathered for a workshop at Nayfack’s Musical Theatre Factory in New York. It was the first time they’d all gathered since the scandal broke. Gaby Hoffmann, who plays Ari, the youngest of the desultory Pfefferman children, remembers it as a crucial step forward. “A lot of people needed to say a lot of things and be heard and explore different feelings about the whole process,” she says. “For me, it was nice to just be together. That was everybody’s initial response to things starting to come apart––just, like, can we get in the same room?”

Though the Pfefferman family had stayed in touch throughout the ordeal, moving forward was a fragile prospect. “There’s no getting around how devastating it was,” says Landecker. “We felt like, Well, what’s the show without Jeffrey?” Alexandra Billings—who, along with Lysette, is one of two recurring trans cast members—still hasn’t fully dealt with her emotions. “My whole energy was wrapped up in standing with my trans sisters,” she says. “It’s going to sound a little psychotic, but Maura and Jeffrey are two different entities for me. I’m still coming through my mourning process.”

In December 2018, they gathered in Los Angeles to shoot the finale over the course of 20 days. “We all wanted to have a different ending that wasn’t trauma,” Soloway says. “This was a way to process the loss.”

The atmosphere on this final day of production is like a “happy funeral,” as Duplass puts it. Soloway calls “Joyocaust” “the ‘Everybody in Springfield’ number,” because a surprising number of guest stars returned for it. When the music starts, a spry Cherry Jones goes skipping around a tree, joined by Tig Notaro, Melora Hardin, Bradley Whitford, Alia Shawkat, Michaela Watkins, and Jason Mantzoukas. “Everywhere you look, it’s someone who could have their own show,” says Landecker. “But they just showed up to dance in the woods for love of Transparent.”

Cast and crew alike are wearing name tags with their preferred pronouns. Between shots, Hoffmann sits on a chair in the middle of the woods, breastfeeding her infant son as the hair and makeup team flutter around her. “I did have a couple of moments where I realized, Oh, I totally take for granted that I’m being supported not just as an artist but as a person, as a mother,” she says. “That should be the status quo.”

To help corral the crowd, Soloway begins dividing the mourners into two categories: “the Interestings” and “the Absurds.” The Interestings include Leslie (Jones) and Lyfe (Folake Olowofoyeku)––former lovers of Ari who could conceivably be attending the Pfefferman shiva. The Absurds are people from the past, some deceased, whose memories have haunted the series, like Rita (Brett Paesel), the Pfeffermans’ childhood babysitter who committed suicide in season three. In the dream logic of Soloway’s Shangri-La, Maura’s late grandmother (Watkins) plays in a klezmer band with Magnus (Whitford), a friend from her cross-dressing days. Eventually, they follow the Pfefferman clan to their individual hora circles in a swirl of lollipop hues.

Landecker is standing in a huddle with Notaro and Hardin, who played an amusingly querulous couple on the series. “Tig’s jazz hands are more like seal arms,” she quips. Sure enough, when it comes time to shimmy through the portal and start exalting, the comedian and star of the Amazon series One Mississippi touches her shoulders and gestures to the sky with comically low energy.

In general, the finale — choreographed by Ryan Heffington, whose credits include the movements for The OA — leans into the relatively amateur abilities of the cast. “The goal was for each actor to really sing as their character, not perfectly like Broadway stars,” says music producer Anne Preven. Still, the unfamiliar territory of musicals led to some stressful moments. “I was very scared to sing, and I was kinda pissy because I felt really vulnerable,” admits Landecker.

A little before lunchtime, Light looks for direction from Soloway. “Shakina reaches to me desperately and I don’t know what to do,” she frets. The mourners are twirling their way through the woods, and Light wants to know how to react after she emerges from the portal with Nayfack. “You’re recognizing a loved one you haven’t seen in a while,” advises Soloway.

Nayfack’s casting is especially poignant. In the finale, Shelly mounts a production about her life. This show-within-the-show allowed the Soloways to bring in professional singers from a previous Joe’s Pub engagement Jo Lampert, Lesli Margherita, and Erik Liberman — to serve as doppelgangers for the Pfefferman brood. Nayfack, who is trans, plays Maura. To some extent, Nayfack’s role redeems what was considered Soloway’s original sin: casting a cis man to play Maura in the first place. “We were always grappling with [that], and none of the things we said were excuses were really excuses,” says Soloway. Nayfack adds, “I appreciated the cultural revolution that Transparent ignited; however, I felt angry and betrayed [by Tambor’s casting], and I was very open about that when I was brought into the project. The moment when I appear as Maura –– that is absolution and restitution. It’s like the chef kiss of the movie.”

Billings considers the finale a gift for the same reason. “[Jeffrey’s] ability to access this human being from inside his soul was remarkable,” she says. “The good he left behind was the fact that he finally caught up with himself in his own behavior. And because that happened, the cis man playing a trans character went away.”

For Lysette, who did not attend the New York workshop, the finale marks the first time she’s returned to set since she accused Tambor of sexual harassment. “The vibe was certainly different, and I think that’s in part due to the fact that Jeffrey was no longer there—it was a little lighter,” she says. She can be seen during “Joyocaust” spinning around in a sleek red dress at the center of a hora circle. “It felt like the family reunion I always wanted but never got.”

Heffington calls everyone over to demonstrate some warm-up exercises. For a few minutes, Röyksopp and Robyn’s ethereal “Monument” wafts over the loudspeakers as the crowd stretches and practices exhalation exercises. When they’re finished, Landecker announces she has some “very powerful” CBD cream: “Anyone who might be in pain, come see Feel Good Dr. Sarah.” Several cast members flock to her. As the winter sun begins to set, the crowd poses for a group photo, smiling widely. The remaining Pfeffermans––Light, Hoffmann, Landecker, and Duplass––pull each other close. “We were laughing and crying and whispering to each other about how much we loved each other,” Hoffman recalls. “And we stayed in that hug for so long that when we came out of it, nobody else was around.”

Transparent: Musicale Finale is on Amazon Prime September 27.

*A version of this article appears in the September 30, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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