Amazon recently released its fourth season of Transparent, Jill Soloway’s dramedy about a Jewish American family whose patriarch is transgender. The show has been met with critical acclaim and many awards and nominations. This season, one of the show’s supporting stars is Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s 1970s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar.
The musical is featured heavily throughout the season, varying from a single cast member whimsically singing an acapella tune from Superstar in a flashback scene, to the Pfefferman family singing “What’s the Buzz” on a tour bus as they drive to Jerusalem, to original versions of the songs opening or closing out multiple episodes—as with the season finale moving seamlessly from a cast rendition of “Everything’s Alright” into Yvonne Elliman’s original folksy rendition of Mary Magdalene’s calming refrain.
What gives? In 1972, Glenn R. Wittig called the musical “a whopping financial success,” noting that “its message is fresh, as well as iconoclastic.” Foster Hirsch also reviewed Superstar, pointing to the music as a major part of its success, noting “Weber’s score is by turns witty, parodistic, melodious, dissonant, quiet, overwrought.” And in fact, Hirsch reminds readers that Superstar was first “born as a record,” and because of its immediate popularity was translated to Broadway and later film.
Much of Transparent’s season four is set in Israel, nodding to the film version of Superstar which was also filmed predominantly in Israel at ruins such as Avdat and Beit Guvrin National Park. In Desmond Forristal’s 1973 review of the Superstar film, he wrote that the director Norman Jewison “used only what the Palestinian desert had to offer: a handful of Roman ruins and a wilderness of fantastic fretted mountains, incomparable grander and more awe-inspiring than anything ever dreamed up on the drawing boards of Hollywood.”
But besides the appeal of the score, the original casts’ vocals, and the beauty of Israel, Transparent also mimics other underlying themes of the musical in unique ways. As Hirsch notes, a key to Superstar is the unique retelling of the story leading up to Christ’s death and resurrection. “Rice’s variation on the New Testament has Judas as its hero…It is Judas who is primed to receive our sympathy.” And likewise, Christ, the “superstar” and son of God is shown as wildly and even tragically human, “unable to cope with all the demands upon him.”
Others like Todd VanDerWerff have pointed out that at the center of Transparent’s success is “the idea that there are many stories hidden inside any one story.” Largely through flashbacks, Transparent viewers gain insight into its characters, revealing their strengths within weaknesses. Take Shelley Pfefferman (played by Judith Light) who, on the surface, might seem like a controlling mother without any boundaries, but who, viewers learn, has suffered her own abuse to make her this way.
This flipping of the script, where a seeming villain like Judas becomes heroic and gains viewers’ sympathy is a hallmark of the show. Just as we are made to feel compassion for Magdalene and Judas, we also feel for the Pfefferman family, and their wild imperfections.