A New Standing Order
The creatives of 'A Transparent Musical' on the process behind developing a new musical at the Taper and the power it can have.
“NEW MUSICALS ARE THE MOST REWARDING AND TERRIFYING THING YOU CAN EVER DO IN THEATRE,” Center Theatre Group Associate Artistic Director Kelley Kirkpatrick said.
A Transparent Musical, playing at the Mark Taper Forum through June 25th, is inspired by the award-winning Amazon Prime Original Series Transparent, created by Joey Soloway. Though the characters may overlap, the story is new, serving as an alternate canon separate from the events of the television show that first aired in 2014.
“New musicals are exciting because of their potential,” Kelley said. “The amount of people collaborating towards that one thing is epic.”
What does it mean to develop a completely new musical? On the heels of the global pandemic and financial insecurity, Kelley said it involves a great deal of risk—but it isn’t without reward. “It makes me really proud to work here,” he said. “It’s great to put the spotlight on the radical joy of this show and the community members [whose] stories are being told.”
Many iterations of A Transparent Musical existed before the production currently on the Taper stage, and many creatives collaborated to create it. Co-Book Writer Joey said one of the first iterations of the musical was a 2018 performance at Joe’s Pub in New York City, for which their sibling, Faith Soloway, wrote the songs and lyrics. Director Tina Landau joined later that year. Co-Book Writer MJ Kaufman joined the process when there was a draft of the script and songs that were being rewritten. Choreographer James Alsop joined in 2020 after working with Tina on another project the year prior.
Center Theatre Group received a draft of the script in 2022 and announced that the world premiere production would take place on the Taper stage about a year later. From there, Kelley said there were several development workshops, from short table reads to partially staged workshops. In between these workshops, the creatives reworked the script and songs. After the last workshop in March, a new draft was ready for when the cast started a four-week rehearsal process in Los Angeles in April before opening at the end of May.
Tina feels that five years is not very long when developing a new musical—she spent 10 years working on The SpongeBob Musical. But much has changed since the team began creating A Transparent Musical in 2018. “We started this show pre-COVID, pre-hundreds of anti-trans legislations,” she said. “The world was different—it was the before time.” Despite the myriad of ways the world has changed around the show, Tina feels it resonates, perhaps even more, to audiences in 2023. “I always loved [A Transparent Musical] and its spirit of inclusion, its humor, its subversive sensibility—but I didn’t feel the same necessity and passion about it that I do now,” she said. “It has become increasingly more pertinent and urgent.”
As of early May 2023, there have been 541 bills both nationwide and in 49 states that bar access to healthcare, education, legal recognition, and public existence for transgender, nonbinary, and/or gender nonconforming individuals. Some of these bills impact other intersections of identity, seeking to defund or bar Critical Race Theory, Radical Feminist Theory, Critical Ethnic Studies, and more from higher education.
Both the story and the cast represent and investigate the many intersections of identity beyond gender—of sexuality, race, and religious belief as well. “I would say every cross-section and group or identity in our company is living in a world where some part of how they identify, if not all, is being attacked or made to feel unsafe in the world,” Tina said.
Joey feels that the song, “Jewish and Queer,” at the beginning of Act Two encapsulates the hope transgender and nonbinary individuals felt just a few years ago, through the lens of the queer and/or Jewish people who did not survive the Holocaust. A large part of the show takes place at the Institute of Sexual Research in Berlin in the 1930s—one of the first clinics and research centers for gender and sexuality studies and healthcare in the world that was largely erased from history.
“It points to history repeating itself,” Faith said. They feel that even Jewish and/or queer individuals do not know much about this point in history, and the conversations and studies that were underway, because of how its materials and existence were destroyed.
The television show Transparent began airing in 2014, nearly 10 years before this production. “I don’t think we could have imagined, 10 years later, that things would be actually getting worse for trans people,” Joey said. “We have become an object of hatred for people by putting ourselves out there. It feels good to represent ourselves, but you will immediately become targets.”
Despite this, James feels there is power in visibility. “As hard as you try to erase us, get rid of us, try to silence us—it’s impossible,” she said. “No matter how you see me, you have to see me as human first.”
A Transparent Musical is not just about the experience of being queer, but queerness is inherently built into the show’s approach to genre and storytelling.
“The show we are doing is what I call 'genre-queer,'” Tina said. “You can’t define it, it doesn’t remain one thing, it doesn’t live by or exist by the rules of a binary and it is constantly in flux, surprising, and has the freedom to change.”
This is MJ’s first time writing for a musical—but he has written many plays, often about queer characters who are interrogating the roles of gender, masculinity, and power in the world and featuring nontraditional family structures. Thematically, A Transparent Musical fits well into their body of work.
When writing, MJ said they bring the specifics from the world they live in onto the stage, which makes the show more accessible for the communities they are representing as well as those outside of it. “The Jewish worlds I am a part of are filled with queer and trans people and are very multi-racial, multi-ethnic,” he said. “I think that’s good and important [for audiences] to confront their own assumptions about who can be a Jew and what they look like.”
Faith feels that Judaism has influenced the play itself as well. “As Jews, we are allowed to ask questions, our religion gives us that tolerance and...dares us to push against what’s in front of us.”
James finds that the opening number is a testament to the many ways people challenge the status quo. “Standing Order” is a company-wide song, in which Jewish Community Center members sing about a change to their routine breakfast order. “It means more than just the food,” James said. “It means how people are used to having things a certain way in their life and it's difficult for people to adjust to change...We’ve all wanted to break tradition and start our own.”
Despite some heavy themes, there is a great deal of levity and humor throughout the show.
“The laughing, the crying, the singing is a way to move the ideas through the body without giving a lecture,” Joey said. When commenting on the humor of the show, Joey chuckled. “[Jewish people] have always been the joke writers.”
One of MJ’s favorite lines echoes this sentiment: “I laugh my way through it // Only way I know how to do it.” They feel it speaks to themselves and their work. “It feels so culturally true and easy,” they said. “And speaks to the truth of life and the reality of being alive.”
Joey feels this play is for everyone—including straight and cisgender men. “This is not a play against them,” they said. “This is a play that includes them and welcomes them and tells their stories, too.”
At the heart of A Transparent Musical is a family. The Pfeffermans, yes, but the family of the JCC and the queer community across generations as well.
“I think that’s something the characters in this play learn in different ways, how much family and chosen family aren’t actually a binary or dichotomy,” MJ said.
The familial bond of the show is only natural to siblings Joey and Faith, whose personal experience has been embedded in both the television show Transparent and A Transparent Musical. For Faith, who grew up listening to musicals with Joey and has worked as a composer for many years, A Transparent Musical, “reflects a life of working in music.”
Not only did one of Joey and Faith’s parent’s transition, but they both came out as nonbinary as well.
“Being second-generation trans is a really special experience, because there were a lot of people who weren’t aware of the trans people in their family because people didn’t get to be trans,” Joey said. “It’s a very privileged position and it’s a very powerful position—I hope we can use that position to stand next to all the people who are figuring it out.”
James feels similarly. “It’s not that bad to try something new... to choose love [and] kindness... to respect each person individually as who they are,” she said. “If we take the time to understand [people] and respect them at the bare minimum, we can move through this world much [easier].”
Tina hopes audiences will leave the show with, “an open heart and appreciation, rather than a suspicion, of difference and otherness.”
Joey and Faith feel that the show could inspire change in the world outside of the walls of the Taper. “What I have always wanted to do with this material is feel that electricity with an audience of an awakening of something new,” Faith said.
“The power of solidarity, the power of recognizing that so many of us are ‘other’ and feeling alone keeps us from changing the world,” Joey said. “But once we realize that we’re all ‘other’ and take pleasure in that, I think anything’s possible. There’s still time to save the world.”