The Devil and Mr. Newman

Randy Newman's publicist is on the phone one more time apologizing for the delay: Randy 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 done completely with computer animation and featuring the voices of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen.

Then he's got 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 insignificant man's puny soul. The musical is scheduled to open September 19--a week after the release of the Faust album, Newman's first non-soundtrack album since 1988's Land of Dreams, "starring" such folks as James Taylor, Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt, Elton John, and Linda Ronstadt.

So Randy'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 come out of his workroom for an hour and think about 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 a decade, willing to discuss those songs that have made him one of America's most important songwriters of this 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 the Everyman--black or white, male or female, Jew or Gentile, Yankee or Southerner, Devil or God.

He's been working on Faust for more than a decade--so long, he 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, probably not.

The songs for Faust were written over a span of years during which Newman wrote the autobiographical Land of Dreams and soundtracks for such films as The Natural, Avalon, The Paper, and Awakenings. Most likely, that's why the music for Faust sounds like a summation of 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, and 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 thought 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 and Newman's old friend Lorne Michaels.

(Incidentally, Newman almost staged Faust in Dallas at the Undermain Theater--"It's one of the four places in the United States that people consider for this kind of stuff," Newman says, "and I know people there"--but opted for La Jolla because it's closer to his Los Angeles home.)

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?" And at the end of the play, Faust is allowed to ascend to Heaven after he's betrayed the woman he claims to love and proven 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 kind 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 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.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky