When it arrived in 2014, the issues broached by Transparent put it at the vanguard of the fight for improved LGBTQ+ representation on screen. It broke new ground in tackling ideas pertinent to today’s climate of accountability and inclusivity, which makes its premature ending all the more saddening. Almost two years ago Jeffrey Tambor, the show’s lead actor, was accused of sexual harassment by his co-star Trace Lysette, and former assistant Van Barnes. Tambor was fired after an investigation and creator Jill Soloway was left with a Maura-shaped hole in the already commissioned fifth season. After much retooling, we finally get a denouement in the form of the Transparent: Musicale Finale, an over-the-top, flawed and ultimately thrilling experiment, which takes the dramedy to fresh heights.
It’s been over a year since we discovered Transparent was going to change up its storytelling by embracing the movie musical format, and if you’re not over that fact now, then Musicale Finale likely won’t win you over. As a piece of entertainment, it’s a strange beast, an engrossing mishmash that marries ruminations on grief and Jewish guilt with songs that include lines like “… take the concentration out of the camps and concentrate on some song and dance” and “… as you stretch out my vagina, my boundaries stretching wider!”. In one light, it’s all deeply inappropriate but in another it’s so very, very Transparent.
After ‘Sepulveda Blvd.’, a melancholy pop-rock opener about the monotony of everyday life, we soon discover what’s taken Maura, our heroine and the trans parent of the title, off screen. We knew that Jeffrey Tambor wasn’t going to return but that doesn’t stop the absence of Maura – the imperfect, courageous character we’ve watched come into her own – from hurting. Rather than letting its ensemble flounder without a lead actor, Transparent has them mourn her absence because despite the circumstances of Tambor’s exit, we loved Maura, and it’s almost a creative challenge in this finale asking us to separate the art from the artist.
There aren’t a great deal of surprises here, which makes sense because the behind-the-scenes circumstances of this Musicale Finale forced Soloway and the production to show their hand a long time ago. It mostly dances around the character development of the original planned fifth season whilst raising some new questions in light of the Pfeffermans’ situation. Shelly is still trying to thrive, remaining active in the improv community and harbouring a love for theatre while her children are, as always, a whiny whirlwind of privileged moral superiority.
Sarah is emotionally stunted in her monogamist relationship with the dreary Len, Josh is on the road to recovery in sex addiction therapy, and Ali has fully embraced gender nonconformity, identifying now as both non-binary and as ‘Ari’. Because there’s only 100 minutes to bring this five-year show to a close we only get morsels of individual character growth and it’s disappointing, but given the Pfeffermans’ self-seeking ways, that they’ve settled into a more mature form of narcissism is a blessing on its own.
Where Transparent: Musicale Finale has the most value is in the new things it brings to the table. It makes connections between the selfishness of grief and the already deeply self-involved Pfefferman clan, who are unable to unite in the absence of their Moppa. It culminates with a kaleidoscopic, woodland-set showstopper about reinventing the painful history of Judaism entitled ‘Joyocaust’ (“Don’t worry, we will never forget!”).
It uses generally excellent musical numbers in lieu of direct character development because, as it’s a finale, we deserve something theatrical and because it’s an innovative storytelling technique for a show that has always put emphasis on the quietest moments. Where it stumbles is when it can’t justify every musical number, which occurs two or three times. Almost every song here is a good time – the songs, written by Jill Soloway’s sibling Faith, and choreographed by Ryan Heffington, are expertly done: funny, precise and catchy – but the moments included to pad Transparent: Musicale Finale out to 100 minutes are obvious. The majority of this works but a tighter edit would have been appreciated.
Transparent: Musicale Finale soars in the moments when it can smartly and successfully bring together every creative strand. The songs with the greatest oomph happen to contain Shelly because Judith Light is and always has been Transparent’s most valuable asset. One highlight is a gaudy burlesque style aria called ‘Your Boundary is My Trigger’ in which a nude bodysuit-clad Shelly thrusts about the stage and laments her children’s cruelty. It’s an ostentatious, ridiculous musical diatribe but one that successfully hammers home the Pfefferman matriarch’s entirely understandable exasperation with her offspring. It’s delightful to watch Light, a two-time Tony winner, tap into her theatrical background and she absolutely sparkles. Being on the stage is what Shelly was born to do and Light visibly relishes every moment of it.
Transparent was born a gamechanger, a tipping point in trans representation across pop culture and while flawed (should Tambor, a cisgender man, have ever been cast?), it has earned its place in history. Whether this is the last time we see the Pfeffermans is unclear – there have been mutterings of taking it to Broadway – but it’s as good an ending for them as can be, given the circumstances. That Transparent goes out with such an extravagant bang is so on-brand for a show that has always been a true pioneer.
Transparent: Musicale Finale will air on Amazon prime from 27th September. Read about all the new British dramas on their way in 2019 and beyond.