By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
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Randy Newman's publicist is on the phone one more time apologizing for the delay: Newman wants to do the interview, she explains, but he's locked in a room trying to finish his songs for the upcoming Disney film Toy Story. The first movie made completely with computer animation, it features the voices of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen.
Then Newman has to fly from Los Angeles to La Jolla, California, twice a week to put the finishing touches on his musical, Faust, a modern-day retelling of Goethe's play about the Devil and the Lord fighting for one puny man's soul. The musical is scheduled to open September 19, a week after the release of the Faust album, Newman's first nonfilm soundtrack record since 1988's Land of Dreams; Faust, the album, "stars" such folks as James Taylor, Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt, Elton John, and Linda Ronstadt.
So Newman's busy, she explains, real busy.
"Oh," Newman says when he finally comes to the phone after several days of postponing, "I'm not that busy."
The man on the other end of the line is amiable and easy -- relieved, perhaps, to concentrate on something other than writing songs for cartoon characters. He is happy to talk about a work that has been his obsession on and off for more than ten years, willing to discuss those songs that have made him one of the U.S.'s most important songwriters in the second half of the century.
Thirty years ago he was writing hit singles for the likes of Three Dog Night and Peggy Lee and Judy Collins; today he's the lost conscience of Everyman -- male or female, black or white, Jew or gentile, Yankee or Southerner, Devil or God. He's been working on Faust for more than a decade -- so long, he aurally shrugs, that often he considered putting it down and never again picking it up. At the very least, he figured, it might become an album, but an actual stage production? Maybe, but probably not.
The songs for Faust were composed over a span of years during which Newman also wrote the autobiographical Land of Dreams and soundtracks for films such as The Natural, Avalon, The Paper, and Awakenings. Most likely that's why the music for Faust sounds like a summation of the 51-year-old Newman's career -- sweeping and grand orchestral moments alongside faux hard rockers, intimate songs sandwiched in between sarcastic and lurid lyrics. The album was recorded at a handful of studios from February 10, 1993, through June 1, 1995; during that period, a production of Faust was staged in New York City in a rough workshop format. Newman and director James Lupine clashed over the production, however, and it was left for dead until Warner Bros. wanted to try it again in a "more fleshed-out way," as Newman describes it. The La Jolla Playhouse version is being financed by Warner Bros. and produced by Saturday Night Live creator/Newman's old friend Lorne Michaels.
Whether it will play on Broadway, as Warner Bros. and Newman hope, is another question: Unlike Tommy and Big River, two other musicals that had their debut at La Jolla before moving to the Great White Way, Faust -- which will star a cast of unknowns on-stage, not the superstars who appear on the album -- isn't exactly filled with sentimental and rousing feel-good material. Rather, it's a celebration of sin in which Newman's Devil sings of a "Happy Ending" filled with "destruction and corruption and reproduction," and in which Don Henley's Faust imagines a world in which he can walk into any restaurant with his bodyguards and say, "That's Mr. Faust's chair your big ass is in. Don't you understand, motherfucker?" A play in which, at its conclusion, Faust is allowed to ascend to Heaven after betraying the woman he claims to love and proving himself soulless and selfish till his last breath.
"It's a musical comedy, which hasn't been goin' on on Broadway for many years," Newman says of Faust. "It isn't what they do there now, but it isn't so abstruse and difficult. There are the lowest kinds of jokes imaginable in it, and it's not like a cerebral outing. I don't know. I get the same kind of feeling when I go see Broadway outings -- this is something I don't exactly understand. I haven't done anything remotely like it, and I wouldn't be surprised if it doesn't have any life past San Diego."
Newman was drawn to the source material in the early 1980s, he explains, because he had always been fascinated by depictions of Heaven in old comedies such as the 1936 film Green Pastures, which featured an all-black cast and depicted life in Heaven under the kindly guidance of Rex Ingram's "de Lawd." In Goethe's original Faust, only the prologue is set in Heaven; in Newman's version, the pearly gates are a rotating door, with the Devil coming and going as he visits his old friend and nemesis, God.
"The Devil and the Lord just sort of speak in a companionable way," Newman relates, referring to his Faust. "The Devil says at the end of the prologue, 'It's nice of the Lord to be so kind to me,' and that's what mine is about A it's about their relationship more than anything else, the fact they have some sort of commonality of experience and are equally frustrated with trying to play this game again with the type of people we've got inhabiting the world today. They just won't do what the Lord and the Devil have learned to expect from people. They haven't been paying attention lately."