Randy Newman’s Soul

The songwriter revisits the musical-theater career he might have had, for one night only, with Faust.

Randy Newman’s Faust.

Image courtesy of New York City Center

In 1995, Randy Newman’s already three-decade tunesmithing career reached a fork in the road, and he tested out both paths. In the fall, he premiered an original stage musical, his own freewheeling adaptation of Goethe’s Faust, at the La Jolla Playhouse in California; and that Christmas, a few of his old-fangled rags, croaked out in his signature bluesman-on-Novocain voice, were indelibly twined into the DNA of Pixar’s first and finest franchise, Toy Story. No more than 50,000 people saw Faust, which later made it to Chicago’s Goodman Theatre but never to Broadway (though a few more thousand, at least, bought his “concept album” version of the score featuring James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt). Meanwhile Toy Story and its sequels achieved culture-wide ubiquity, and Newman’s score and song “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” were both nominated for Oscars.

But for all the soft smiles and hard cash he’s generated with his latter career as the Irving Berlin of family films, the animated-movie racket has been its own kind of Faustian bargain for Newman. His studio-album output, for one, has slowed to a once-a-decade crawl, while his game stab at an old-fashioned Disney animated musical, The Princess and the Frog, was mostly a factory job. When Faust reappears on Tuesday for a one-night-only concert at New York’s City Center, with Newman himself as the Devil, it is likely to be both a festive and a sad occasion, a New Orleans funeral march for a brilliant musical theater career that never was. Faust, which I was lucky to catch at La Jolla, was a jokey, imperfect vehicle, but what it carried was a fresh, fecund theatrical voice. Newman could’ve been a real presence on Broadway in the past 20 years. In his absence, the American musical wandered and sputtered, then picked up steam. Indeed, the Broadway of The Book of Mormon and Violet looks and sounds more than ever like the kind of place a pop showman of Newman’s gifts and sensibility might thrive.

It’s easy to forget now, but Newman’s songwriting in his prime—mostly on a pair of albums from the early 1970s, Good Old Boys and Sail Away, though all his studio albums have highlights—once made him seem like his generation’s most obvious heir to the musical stage. It wasn’t just his Tin Pan Alley song stylings that suggested the possibility; if anything, his ambling piano shuffles and mock-classical Americana might have been a liability in the age of the rock opera. No, it was Newman’s nose for character, for specificity and idiosyncrasy, for both subtle lyrical turns and wild, shaggy-dog leaps. In an era of confessional singer/songwriters and storytelling troubadours, Newman was up to something sneakier, more dramaturgical. Consider the lament of a square on the make, in “Lover’s Prayer”:

I was entertaining a little girl up in my rooms, Lord
With California wines and fresh perfumes, Lord
She started talking to me about the war, Lord
See, I don’t wanna talk about the war

That’s a rambling Robert Altman improv rendered in just four lines—and from the point of view of the schlubby Ned Beatty character. Who else writes songs for that guy?

Faust played on a broader, more archetypal canvas, and as such wasn’t as deeply felt or as finely textured as Newman’s portraits of the South or of Southern California (he split his formative years between L.A. and New Orleans). But it fully engaged other of his gifts and proclivities: for cheerful profanity and showbiz strut, for big questions treated with acid wit. It was less Newman as character man than Newman as social satirist à la “Short People” or “Rednecks.” The show opened with a smiling, officious God singing an altar call, backed by a gospel choir of angels, only to have the Devil cut in:

If I might intrude
Just for a moment
If only to inject a note of reality
On this festive occasion

In all my life
I don’t believe I’ve ever heard such bullshit
Even from You
A master of bullshit
You know it
I know it
It’s bullshit

All of the faith and prayer in the world
All of Your dumb show and circuses
You know it’s a lie
It’ll always be a lie
The invention of an animal
Who knows he’s going to die

The rest of the show offers theological sketch comedy along these lines, with some pop-culture and genre parody tossed in for good measure. Its point of view can be captured in the offhand way it cracks the Faust legend’s central moral nut: When the Devil offers Henry Faust—a shallow slacker undergrad at Notre Dame—anything he wants in return for his soul, Faust replies, unblinkingly, “So what’s the catch?”

Into this gaggy premise, though, Newman pumped a series of some of the most inspired songs of his late career: the limpid ballad “Feels Like Home,” a series of soaring if ironic gospel anthems and marches, even a honking Busby Berkeley staircase number, “Love Time,” which the Devil delivers before deflowering a virgin suicide. Newman had no idea what he was doing, really, producing less a coherent book musical than a gimcrack chain of old-school entertainment tropes twisted into perverse and pointy new shapes—but he sounded like he was having the time of his life, and that creative joy palpably rippled through the cast.

It’s easy to see why that particular bill of goods didn’t blaze a trail of triumph to Broadway—though if it had, it might have had an outsize impact. The American musical in the mid-’90s was up for grabs aesthetically, not to mention commercially. In the wake of the earnest pop spectacles of the 1980s, producers began testing formulas that are all too familiar by now: jukebox collections of oldies (Smokey Joe’s Cafe), popular movies turned into musicals (Footloose, Big), revivals without end.

With Rent in 1996, the tide began to turn toward a new generation of American composers, though it was slow to rise, as most of this crop—Jeanine Tesori, Jason Robert Brown, Adam Guettel, John Cameron Mitchell, and Stephen Trask—took the next few decades to crack the Broadway mainstream. In the meantime, pop artists (Cyndi Lauper, Sting, Sir Elton) have rushed in where Newman—and his songwriting peer Paul Simon, who spent millions of his own fortune micro-managing The Capeman into and out of a short, fractious run on Broadway in 1998—failed to tread.

It’s entirely speculative, but if Faust had made it to New York—my guess is that it would have been a divisive critical darling/noble failure, which about now would be getting a meticulously stripped-down revival by John Doyle, or at least a full Encores! run rather than a one-night concert—it could have done its part to broaden the range and reach of the Broadway musical. Sure, Sondheim had already fired off the coruscating Assassins (Off-Broadway), and Tom Waits had mounted The Black Rider with Robert Wilson (so far from Broadway it was Brooklyn). But Newman was a pop dramatist aiming his quiver straight at the heart of the Great White Way. Even a fizzled Faust on Broadway would have made a big, blowzy splash, and would surely have given succor to the new, pop-fluent generation of musical theater writers.

In fact, many of them—in particular Tesori, who organized Tuesday night’s concert—are devotees of the Faust concept album. And even without Newman to lead the charge, the American musical has ventured into what might be considered Newman-adjacent territory: the religious lampoon of The Book of Mormon, the bittersweet L.A. tales of Passing Strange, the Southern-Jewish blues of Caroline, or Change. Indeed, next to these shows, the winking blasphemy of Faust will likely seem a bit tame. But even if he never writes another musical, Randy Newman’s Faust offers a tantalizing glimpse of the time before he sold his soul.