8:00am PT by Jackie Strause
How 'Transparent' Finale Pays Tribute to Transgender Matriarch (Without Jeffrey Tambor)
[This story contains spoilers from Amazon's Transparent: Musicale Finale.]
After a critically acclaimed four-season run that helped launch a TV movement — and after seeing the exit of its star — Transparent has signed off with a feature-length musical.
The Jill Soloway-created Amazon series released Transparent: Musicale Finale (a sing-song title meant to be said in rhyme) on Sept. 27, two years after the fourth season released on the streamer. In the time between, Soloway was hard at work dreaming up the right way to wrap their personal family tragicomedy after star Jeffrey Tambor was fired over accusations of sexual misconduct by two trans women, including on-set claims from co-star Trace Lysette. (Tambor has denied the claims.)
"It’s still painful, what we went through as a family," Soloway tells The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the series finale's release. "We went through so much pain, but to be able to express a journey this directly and have the kind of space that Amazon has given me.... I often look at my career and think I am so lucky."
The end result of Soloway's creative journey is a 100-minute Musicale Finale for the Pfefferman family, which includes Jewish matriarch Shelly (Judith Light) and her wandering children Josh (Jay Duplass), Sarah (Amy Landecker) and Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), the latter who now identifies as nonbinary and goes by the name Ari. In addition to writing some of their own transition into Ari's story (Soloway identifies as nonbinary and uses the pronouns "they/them"), the creator — along with their sister Faith Soloway, who wrote all the music (and makes a brief cameo) — mined the grief the cast and crew experienced offscreen over the situation surrounding Tambor's departure into the story for the finale of the groundbreaking TV offering, one that cemented Amazon's current role in the content business.
The Musicale Finale opens with the news that Maura Pfefferman, the trans septuagenarian woman played by Tambor who came out to kick off the series, has died of an aortic aneurysm — a callback to the character's heart issues revealed in season three. Maura, who was a character inspired by Soloway's own parent coming out as trans, is indeed mourned by the family and surrounding players, who include Davina (Alexandra Billings), Shea (Lysette) and every actor who has recurred throughout the series (from Melora Hardin and Tig Notaro to Cherry Jones and Bradley Whitford) who returns for Maura's funeral and shiva, filmed amid a 20-day shoot and fittingly releasing in time for the Jewish High Holidays.
Tambor does not appear in the finale. Instead, Soloway and company took the opportunity to address the series' swirling criticism over casting a cis actor to play the transformative role of Maura. The spiritual essence of Maura, who is affectionally called "Moppa" by her family, is captured by trans actress Shakina Nayfack, who functions as a stand-in for Maura throughout Musicale Finale. In the end — after much experimentation with the musical genre — the Pfefferman family does find joy in mourning as the series wraps with a lively, cast-wide song-and-dance number titled "Joyocaust" (which is explained as an "equal and opposite reaction to the Holocaust"), and Shelly bring her family-inspired show to the stage where they scatter Maura's glittery ashes.
"When everything happened with Jeffrey, there was stuff in the press that said, 'And now it’s time to recast Jeffrey with a trans woman.' And I would be thinking, 'I’m not recasting Maura, that’s crazy!' But then the plot that Shelly was recasting her family [for her show] brought it back in through the backdoor in the most perfect way — and it worked," says Soloway.
Below, in a chat with THR, Soloway explains the big swing they took with the musical finale (“This is 100 percent batshit, but we’re gonna go for it. I believe it’s going to be beautiful,” they recall of their pitch) while opening up about how they both grieved and strived to move on after Tambor's exit. The creator, who is working on a Broadway or theatrical sequel to Transparent, also shares their original vision for the series and what they plan to do next: "The movie is a farewell message. I think the experience of not only making it but also watching it and watching it with people is the best way to say goodbye to the TV show."
What did you set out to do with this musical finale and now that it's released, do you feel like it accomplishes that goal?
Well, I guess we’ll find out! But certainly the process of making it accomplishes the goal, which was to move in a new direction. Jay Duplass kept saying, "Up, up and away — we’re going up, up and away." To my son I would say, "Is this crazy?" And he would say, "At least you’re swinging for the bleachers." And he’s right. We made it into something different. I didn’t want it to be about the tragic last season — the tragic, final goodbye. “The Pfeffermans say goodbye to Maura in this tragic final movie….” It had to transform, and it definitely did.
Would you describe this as a "grief-com musical that ends with a Joyocaust"?
(Laughs.) A grief-com musical...perfect! I love that. Even before Maura died, one of my stock and trade moves was to go from the awful to the mundane, and back and forth again. In the pilot, Ali (Hoffmann) and Josh (Duplass) are at Canter's ordering food and talking about a certain kind of schmear, and she’s asking about abortions. So, it’s Holocaust to food and back to Holocaust; or abortion, calendar plans and back to abortion. Going back and forth vigorously from the incredibly sad to the incredibly mundane has always been one of my techniques. But now we’re doing it on a gigantic scale. You see the "Boundaries Are My Trigger" performance and you are laughing so hard, but it’s also so emotional because you’re understanding this Jewish mother aria [solo] in a way you’ve never heard it before. And then you go into the cremation of Maura — that scene always kills me and makes me cry, because even though there are moments that are incredibly silly, here is a moment where this family is able to process their pain with a Jewish ritual that Ari (Hoffman) knows how to lead. It cracks me.
When the dust settled after Jeffrey Tambor’s exit and you came back to the table to figure out how you wanted to wrap up Transparent, what was the road to deciding that you wanted to go out with a musical movie treatment instead of another season?
Faith was kind of always there writing these songs — like a drumbeat in the background of everything. We had this idea that one day we were going to Broadway. And I had my sisterly love. When things go absolutely wrong in the world or in your career, your sister is just like, “I’ve got you.” I felt so lucky and privileged that we had those moments where we could lean on each other. In some ways, that feeling of being able to lean on your sibling after you’ve had one of the worst days at school is kind of what happened with the movie at large. Faith was always writing amazing, beautiful songs since we were kids. She’s well-known in the lesbian and feminist circles in Boston and in the improv circles in Chicago, but she hadn't brought her musical genius to the sort of larger culture. And we were going in the musical direction with the show. In season five that was to be written — the abandoned season five — Shelly (Judith Light) was writing her own show and we were going to start to bring in some songs and the musical aspect as a way of taking a little bridge toward Broadway, in what we thought was going to be a three-year bridge. In seasons five, six and seven, the show was slowly going to become more musical. We had that idea.
You say "the abandoned" fifth, sixth and seventh seasons. Was seven seasons what you had envisioned for the series?
Yes. But then once everything toppled, as it were, Faith was doing a residency at Joe’s Pub in New York and I remember around Passover of 2018 we went and watched Faith’s show — me and my mom, and actually Judith was there as well. It was so beautiful to see these other Pfeffermans and in some ways, it was like Faith was Shelly. Maura died in our life — Jeffrey was no longer with us — and so Faith said, “OK, I’m going to put on a show about the Pfeffermans.” I think that’s always been our way of dealing with trauma, is to turn it into art. Obviously — that’s what the show is about! It was to give Faith and Shelly some shared story, which is: If you can’t speak, then sing. If you can’t process your emotions with your real family, make a fake one. Which is what I did over the past few years! It was really natural with Faith’s music and the story of how we got there just felt right. I went to Jen [Salke, head of Amazon Studios] and it was really when Jen had first gotten there. I think Jen came into Amazon thinking, “All right, we’re going to need to put Transparent aside a couple years and maybe we’ll get back to it.” And I was probably thinking, “Yeah maybe we’ll get back to it. Who knows?” But it felt like, "if we don’t do this now, then we’re never going to do it." I wanted to challenge myself, and I couldn’t stop singing the songs. It just felt like a hot air balloon we could all get in.
So you had to wrap three seasons of ideas into 100 minutes. Did you have a series finale and ending you wanted to deliver before Tambor's exit?
Not really, no. Six Feet Under is a model for me and in that show, the dad dies in the pilot and in the last episode, everybody died. So I thought, would the Transparent model be that the dad came out in the pilot and at the end of the series, everybody is trans at the end of seven seasons? (Laughs.) I didn't really have that. Ari [comes out as nonbinary in the end]. And we worked so hard to make sure that Sarah (Amy Landecker) and Josh’s stories felt complete, and Davina’s (Alexandra Billings). That we were able to add up what had happened and what everybody had experienced into a big goodbye.
You said you and your cast were able to funnel the grief of what happened into these characters losing Maura onscreen, and express that through song. In what ways did this experience of both the finality of the show and the grief you experienced as a family bleed into the Musicale Finale? How did you find joy in mourning both Tambor and the end of the show?
I think you get from grief to joy with awkward, embarrassing laughter. You’re grieving, trying to process and are in shock. Then you try to do the rituals around grief and, whether it’s a funeral or memorial, you get the church giggles because somebody does something really banal in the face of something really important. Suddenly, you reconnect over the next version of life. Awkward, suppressed humor is kind of a quick detour when you can’t really feel the pain. But, we were living it. For example, the song “Sit in It” came out of a conversation with my therapist when I asked, “Is this really what every therapist is telling everybody over and over again, that when they feel pain instead of avoiding it you have to sit in it?” And she was like, “Yep, you have to sit in it.” Rabbi Susan Goldberg, our spiritual adviser, came to watch the rehearsal and said, “You can’t run away from it because it will find you!” And that’s a lyric! So, we were living it. We were choreographing, dancing, singing, writing to understand the pain. And for that reason, I often look at my career and think I am so lucky. We went through so much pain, but to be able to express a journey this directly and have the kind of space that Amazon has given me where they said, “Do what you need to do. What’s this piece of art that is going to end it?” And for me to say, “This is 100 percent batshit, but we’re gonna go for it. I believe it’s going to be beautiful.”
We were going to have a table read for the Amazon execs when we had finished writing a script and had a little bit of choreography done. Then I had this idea: why don’t we do it more like a stage reading? We’ll have microphones and people will stand up when it’s their song. We found a space at Paramount that felt a little bit like an empty theater and there was space to dance. We had all the people from Amazon there who were seeing it for the first time and you could feel in the room that it was working. Because it was really funny and we were all laughing so hard — not all of our sensibilities are the same — and we’re all sobbing. Jen was sobbing. We didn’t know if the extreme tonal shift had added up, and it really worked. I think people are starting to do that. When I look at Fleabag, for example, it’s like, “Is this funny or is this sad?” It’s really both in every moment. And family life is so awful that it’s hilarious, instead of sad. What a gift that we got to make this movie as a way to say goodbye.
How did you settle on the way Maura dies? And what was trickiest about finding the balance of how to treat Maura’s death; how to move on from it while also honoring the character?
We had set up that she had heart issues two seasons before. When they went on the cruise, she said to Ari, “I’m not going to be able to get my surgery,” because her heart wasn’t right for it. So we were glad to put that into play. The question was: Do we start it and have it be the very first thing of the movie? Or do we have it be the end of the first act? All the fans knew that Jeffrey was no longer there, so we felt like there was no reason to wait. Let’s just do it in the way that it happens in real life, where you get a phone call you weren't ready for. It’s still painful, what we went through as a family. So it just worked to get into it right away and then see: how does this family heal, grieve and learn? And make mistakes and try again.
Maura does not appear in the finale (except for one blink-and-you-miss-it old clip during the Brady Bunch-themed scene). Instead, the character of Maura is spiritually played by new Transparent star and trans actress Shakina Nayfack. How did you decide to pay tribute to the character in that way — in an almost rebirth and authentic piece of casting — and was that an easy role to cast?
Shakina played Maura at Faith’s Joe’s Pub residency. Faith had already been in the mode of asking: If we were to go to Broadway, who would play these characters? We had Erik Liberman and Lesli Margherita and Jo Lampert [as the Pfefferman kids] — they performed at Joe’s Pub. I remember when I first saw Shakina singing Maura’s song in a rehearsal in New York and she sang that line, "Oh my children, this part of me is so forbidden / I’m reaching for you from a prison." To have a trans woman singing as Maura to the children from this faraway place that felt a little bit like heaven. Jeffrey was gone, we knew Maura was gone and it was like, "Wait a minute, this feels like Maura." And because Shakina is Jewish and trans and very familiar, and felt very much like family to me and Faith, we knew this was Maura. She at first had to process with all of us what it felt like as a trans woman to have this amazing show that felt so familiar to her as a Jewish trans woman. But then also have that feeling — which I think a lot of trans women felt — that it didn’t feel fair or right to have a cis man as Maura. Even though I want to make sure when I do talk about that, that I remind everybody that Jeffrey’s performance as Maura was astonishingly beautiful and we’re all so lucky to have that Maura, because that Maura was so beautiful. When everything happened with Jeffrey, there was stuff in the press that said, “And now it’s time to recast Jeffrey with a trans woman.” And I would be thinking, “That is crazy. Do you really think we can do what they did in Bewitched and say, 'The part of Maura is now being played by….'” Or the old soap operas where they would announce a new actor and we all had to go with it. "I’m not recasting Maura, that’s crazy!" But then the plot that Shelly was recasting her family brought it back in through the backdoor in the most perfect way — and it worked.
Do you have any contact with Tambor — how do you anticipate he will feel when he watches?
No. Of course I would love to know if he is going to watch it. We’ve all been kind of taking our space right now. Everybody is in pain, still, about it.
Everyone outside of Tambor comes back for this finale. Was it easy to get all the Transparent recurring stars back? Anything you had to shift or couldn’t do because of scheduling?
It took a little bit of scheduling work, but it was amazing. When we did Ari’s "bart" mitzvah, or shiva or the "Joyocaust" number, anytime that we had everybody together, it was really hard to focus on shooting because it felt so much like a reunion and a party. That montage sequence where they are all getting ready for the bart mitzvah and carrying the makeshift Torah shelf onto the table and making a little bimah? That was basically us saying, “OK everybody. Now let’s turn the backyard into a theater.” I remember one of the ADs watching Cherry Jones basically do background work, not have any lines and move that furnishing (laughs) and go, “I have never seen above-the-line talent go in so hard!” It did feel like a party because we were all so excited to see each other — Melora [Hardin], Tig [Notaro], Cherry Jones, Jerry Adler, everybody just turned up and said, “Where do you want me to go?”
There are also new faces of all kinds (the “queerdos” and the “bubbies”). How many LGBTQ actors did you cast and did you set out with a goal of inclusivity?
Ryan Huffington is the choreographer and Zackary Drucker is one of our producers. We made a little Instagram post that said Transparent is looking for trans and nonbinary talent. We had a bunch of auditions and it was like A Chorus Line. You sit there and watch — and you feel awful when you have to cut people! — but we knew we wanted a chorus. We knew that between the bubbies, the queerdos and the Rosh Hodesh girls at camp, that we wanted a company of people who could turn up at shiva as Pfefferman guests but also be background on the street and be Shelly’s friends from whatever she was doing, ball yoga, or something, in the beginning. They were all the company.
Looking back on that last day of filming — how were things different? And when you compare the last day to when you started Transparent, what feelings does it bring up?
I have one thing about the premiere all those years ago and this premiere, where I look at those pictures and I am 100 percent dressed like a lady. I was wearing this awful black dress and I had long hair. I’m wearing all this makeup and I’m just standing there, with my hand on my hip trying to be a lady on the red carpet. It’s so funny to be like, "Wow." And now, to go to the premiere and to feel completely comfortable in my own skin and comfortable in what I’m wearing and not having that dissociative feeling of, “I’m dressed up and I don’t know who I am right now.” Which was part of my transition over the past however many years.
The other thing that connects the first day of production on the pilot to the first day of production on this movie is that we had no idea what we were doing in the pilot. It was my first TV show to run and direct. Every single department head had been second in command, but this was our chance. Sometimes I watch the pilot and think, “What is this thing that we [half-launched?]” And it’s so simple because Jim Frohna, the cinematographer, comes from this documentary world where he’s really feeling the emotions and shooting the feeling. And I’m coming from this post-Six Feet Under, yearning for a family show that has a different, more vulnerable or emotional story than I had seen before. I wanted to take the feeling that I saw in Louie and Girls and make it about a family and blend that kind of sad-com with that Thirtysomething, Eight Is Enough family one-hour. In my head, I was blending those two ways of making television, so we were totally flying blind. We didn’t know if this was going to work, and we didn’t even know what Amazon was. "Was this a web series that we were shooting?"
And it was the same with the musical where I went, “I have no idea how to do this. I have no idea how to use a crane to shoot the choreography moves. I have no idea where the camera goes when you’re dancing. Does it go on feet? Does it go on a wide? I have no idea how to live in that moment right before somebody decides to sing, with a camera." Because that moment when somebody decides to sing is most tenuous part of making musicals. You want to understand why they’re singing and you don’t want to laugh, unless you are supposed to be laughing. Each song and dance number had a slightly different way of getting into it. Sometimes it was, “Of course they’re going to start singing and dancing right now.” And then other times it was, “I can’t believe they’re going to start singing and dancing right now.” Like in the "House Is Mine" song, where it just comes out of nowhere where Richard Kind is leading a dance! So I was in that same feeling with the finale where I literally was learning by doing. In some ways, we felt like we got to go back and have that feeling, because that is the biggest gift as an artist. To not feel like, “It’s perfect in my head and now I’m going to get it perfect on the set.” But instead to say, “I don’t know what’s going on, but we’re going to film it.”
Last season, you spoke about how personal the story had become and how you were writing some of your own journey into Gaby Hoffmann’s character. How much of Ali’s evolution into Ari is based on your story?
In every season there’s been more or less the same amount of me mixed in with the Pfeffermans and the writers room. It’s always been kind of the same, where there is a lot of me in it and there’s a lot of not me. I wouldn’t say this season is any more. Ali transitioning into Ari, it did feel like we were headed there; we were always headed there.
This show has always tackled privilege. You’ve spoken a lot about how if Transparent were being made today, a cis male star would not have been the lead. But Tambor gave it the attention it needed to become a launching pad. How do you hope Transparent will change the landscape of Hollywood when it comes to authenticity being portrayed onscreen and roles for the trans community and beyond?
It’s definitely come a way since Transparent started — not a long way. How long has television been around — almost 100 years? The history of television is also the history of patriarchy. So the progress that needs to be made for women, people of color, queer people, nonbinary people, people with disabilities is gargantuan because we’re all living in this false reality where patriarchal privilege is finally being exposed. Growing up in patriarchy creates a lot of misunderstanding where men assume their will to be centered. I look at the trauma of being anything other than white and male in society and how hard we have to work to just center ourselves enough to understand our reality. A lot of what comes up with these questions about consent is that women sometimes don’t understand their reality because they’re so used to creating a reality around men to feel safe. Have we made strides? Yes, we have made some minimal strides. But there is so, so, so, so, so much work to do to not have one trans actor, five trans actors. There aren’t any trans people at networks and studios. People will give notes like, “I’m really interested a little more in this,” and it’s about the characters who are like them, who are cis. It’s a giant revolution of shifting the gaze over, slowly but surely — slowly, slowly, slowly, but surely — and we’re probably about 1 percent of the way there. But it’s amazing to look around and see what other shows are doing and to see things changing. I don’t mean to be totally negative.
That brings me to a two-part question. You end with the "Joyocaust" finale number, which Judith Light's character sums up by singing to the camera, “We’ve crossed the line.” It's also Rosh Hashanah weekend. Can you talk about that timing and the message?
We have always come out between [the Jewish High Holidays] Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I don’t think it’s been intentional, but I’ve always noticed where you see your people at Rosh Hashanah they go, “Have you seen Transparent?” or “I just saw it” or “Are you watching?" And then on Yom Kippur, you come back and talk about it. The Jewish holidays allow a lot of people to tell others to watch and then come back and talk about how they did!
What do you hope people take away from that finale number and, as the final note for the series, what do you hope Transparent’s legacy is as a show?
We are hatching some plan to do a theatrical version. So, who knows? For me, what I hope people walk away thinking is, “I have to listen to these songs again. I have to play them.” They can download them; we have an amazing cast album. The simple fact that “Your Boundary Is My Trigger” has been written has already sparked so many conversations. Saying “your boundary is triggering me” is such an important sentence to say between parents and children. I love Faith’s conception that this was going to be about being free to be you and me, where "Sit in In" or "Your Boundary Is My Trigger" are songs that are made for processing emotion, and I would love for them to be used in that way. For people to think that this is a familiar feeling and the idea that these lines could live on as an emotional musical. I have a secret dream where I will make 100 copies and give them to our cast and crew to just tour around to JCCs [Jewish Community Centers] with karaoke sets. (Laughs.) And make a career out of sharing the movie with groups of people.
I think what Faith says about "Joyocaust" is that it’s a celebration of the pain. There’s still pain and suffering — the lyrics say, “breathe in through the pain…let it in…and promise not to look away.” It’s like Faith found a way to say that if you can’t do that [at birth with your family, then do the next best thing]. We realized that toward the end. Here was Ari’s Torah portion, which basically says, "go from your father’s house." And we knew that Ali was being told: you must leave your parents home to become yourself. And then as we were writing songs and coming up with numbers, we realized this whole thing is about being able to investigate the pain, share the pain with family, tolerate it and move on. Instead of moving away. That’s the gift of Faith’s music and how it is so alive through this family and this trauma.
A lot of people might say, “We’re doing a musical episode!” And say we wrote some songs and we found some songs and we threw some songs at it. But these are songs written by Faith about our family that is also very much the Pfefferman family, and she’s been writing them her whole life. We have been able to unearth this kind of musical nervous system that’s always been there for the show — musical blood and veins and a heart. Jim, our cinematographer, said, "I used to think that we made the whole series so we could get to the movie. But now I believe we made this whole series and this movie so that we could get to 'Joyocaust.'" And I just love that. I did feel so much joy when we were filming that scene and feeling that emotion, and looking at everybody in their beautiful colors and being able to say something beautiful came of all this pain.
Are you actually going to bring this to Broadway?
Can’t tell you! But, you know, keep your eye out.
Before everything, you said you had many seasons of ideas and that the Pfeffermans were just getting started. Would you spin off or continue the story?
Yeah, well, we’ll see. We’ll see what comes off it. Let people see this version and then see what happens next.
So, talks are happening.
What else is next for you? Do you want to stay with Amazon, do another streaming series?
I would love to make another show for Amazon. I’m also starting to move into the world of features. I’m working on a couple and writing some scripts for some feature projects, so that feels good to be in that place as well. I don’t know how to do downtime!
The Transparent Musicale Finale is now streaming on Amazon.