Published in KPBS On Air Magazine September 1995
He’s frequently played Devil’s advocate, but now he’s cast himself as the Devil. In the upcoming all-star album of his new musical-comedy, “Faust” (world premiere production at the La Jolla Playhouse September 24-October 29), Randy Newman sings the role of the Devil, while James Taylor plays God, Don Henley (of Eagles fame) is the heavy-metal bad-boy Henry Faust, Linda Ronstadt is Faust’s main squeeze, Bonnie Raitt is a good-time girl who attracts — and dumps — the Devil, and Elton John gets one mournful ballad as a disenchanted English angel. None of these heavy-hitters will be in the stage version, but Newman wrote some of the tunes just for them.
He’s been working on the 17 songs for ten years. It’s his first foray into stage musicals (he also wrote the libretto), though in his 27 years in the music business, he’s released ten extraordinary albums and written the soundtracks for numerous movies (including “Ragtime,” “Parenthood,” “Avalon,” “Awakenings” and “The Paper”).
Like much of his work, the score for “Faust” is satirical, cynical, intelligent and multi-layered. His lyrics have often been contentious (“I don’t like controversy,” he avers, “but I can’t help the way I write”). And his songs have always told stories, the monologues of misfits of one sort or another. What he hates most is prejudice, and he’s attacked it from every conceivable angle, confronting rednecks, racism, homophobia, spousal abuse and other hot-potato topics, by skewering them from the inside. But, as happened with his biggest seller, “Short People” (1977), people often miss the bitter wit, the sarcasm. They take those credible first-person lyrics to be those of the writer, not the character he’s created. Newman is bound to antagonize a few people with his latest oeuvre.
Very loosely based on the legend of the 15th century German necromancer, which has spawned literary works and operas galore, Newman’s “Faust” is a modern-day affair, replete with a handsome, oily Devil and a slick, all-knowing God. “The Devil is my kind of devil,” he says, “and the Lord is my kind of Lord. They have a pretty fair rapport. They come from the same place. They were friends as boys. When I first wrote [the Lord], I had George Romney in mind, just a perfect-looking old guy. Like Gerry Ford, only a little better looking.”
When writing the Devil, he imagined “a flashy-looking guy. Like Tony Curtis or Bruno Kirby. He isn’t as smart as he thinks he is. All the time, the Devil doesn’t understand why he loses. The Lord’s desk is empty. He plays golf. He doesn’t pay attention to business necessarily. And yet He always wins and the Devil always loses. He can’t stand it. He thinks the Lord is out of it, when they’re really both out of it. They don’t understand people today at all.”
He admits it’s all bound to antagonize someone (Buddhists and Canadians take a rap), but, says Newman, ” It’s contemporary, but I was very careful. I had rules. I didn’t have the Lord do anything that I consider unLord-like… But just depicting Him at all will cause problems for some people… I don’t believe in God, but I take religion and people’s beliefs very seriously. I would think people who do have some belief system are better off. I’ve just never been hit by that feeling that, well, there is something else. I think when you’re done, you’re done… But once you realize that you’re gonna die, and you’re the only animal who really knows that, maybe [God and the Devil] are a necessity. If it’s an invention, as I believe it is, it’s a brilliant hit.”
“Randy’s show poses some wonderful questions,” says director Michael Greif, artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse. “Like ‘Do God and the Devil exist?’ And ‘Is mankind essentially good or not?’ But they’re asked with great generosity. It should be presented and received in the spirit of irony. I think people who are staunch believers might take offense. But they’ve heard those questions before. Probably some real Goethe scholars will take offense, too. [Early in the 19th century, Goethe wrote the immortal dramatic poem, “Faust,” about the middle-aged intellectual who sells his soul to the Devil].
“Randy has always ridden a dangerous line,” Greif continues. “This play reflects his point of view, his fierce intelligence, and great irony in the style of music and lyrics, and the way the story is being told. It’s thoroughly modern and completely irreverent.”
Newman, 52, developed his point of view in a sort of bicultural way. From his mother, a Southern Jewish legal secretary, he got his New Orleans rhythm and roots. From his father, a Jewish/atheist doctor, he got a Los Angeles upbringing and three movie-composer uncles. These disparate sources of musical influence are reflected in “Faust”, where the Lord sings gospel, the Devil sings the blues, and Faust is a hard-rockin’ kid of 19 (inspired by Newman’s sons, now age 27, 24 and 17. He also has two toddlers, from his current marriage).
While he tinkers with “Faust”, he’s writing the score for the new Disney holiday release, “Toy Story,” working on a project for Hanna-Barbera, and hoping next year, after six nominations, to win a best-song Oscar. His future fantasies? To write a book, and conduct a major orchestra as a vocation. But now his attention is on Heaven and Hell.
“I feel it’s some of my best stuff,” he says of “Faust”, in his honest, direct and unprepossessing way. “It’s as well as I can write right now. I don’t know about the show’s future. But I wish I knew it would be a big, tremendous success, and I could do another one.”
©1995 Patté Productions Inc.