Opening night at the La Jolla Playhouse near San Diego, and the audience is murmuring expectantly. A pair of 60ish theatergoers are surveying the program for Faust—a 3-hour musical adaptation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's epic drama, featuring Ken Page, a star of Broadway's original Cats. Turning to his guest, the man says, "This looks like a good cast." She frowns. "Yes," she replies, "but it's written by Randy Newman, and you know how I feel about Randy Newman."

As it happens, this Faust is as idiosyncratic as the singer-songwriter who scandalized the masses with "Short People," "Rednecks" ("We're rednecks, we're rednecks, we don't know our a—from a hole in the ground") and other sardonic ballads. Set in South Bend, Ind., it portrays a battle between God, a CEO-type who uses a PowerBook to track his flock, and Lucifer, a foppish cynic; both are angling for the soul of Henry Faust, a slacker in his third year as a freshman at Notre Dame. Not an obvious setting for an opera, but the San Francisco Examiner pronounced the musical (which Saturday Night Live's Lorne Michaels may take to Broadwav) "a hell of a show." And Time's Jay Cocks said of the CD, "The tunes are jaundiced, lyrical and funny.... It is classic pop and prime Newman."

For Newman—whose last album Land of Dreams was released in 1988—Sept. 24 marked not only the premiere of his first musical (whose companion studio album features Elton John, James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt) but his return to center stage. Not that Newman, 51, is giving up the film-scoring that has sustained him in his years behind the scenes—years in which he was divorced, lost his father, remarried and fathered two children. Just finishing the soundtrack for Disney's computer-animated feature Toy Story, he has been working 14-hour days. "I've never seen him this busy," says DreamWorks SKG executive Lenny Waronker, a close friend. "As we get old we have a tendency to shift down, but his output has gone up."

A rumpled misanthrope who is an accomplished procrastinator, Newman developed a fascination for Faust in 1982, when he was reading Goethe. "It's a great story, and I've always been fascinated by anything with heaven in it," he says. Never mind that he had seen only about a dozen musicals. "I wanted to try one, just to see if I could do it," says Newman. "I did a couple of songs and an embryonic version of the book and put it aside until 1993 to earn a living."

While Faust was on hold, and he was composing Oscar-nominated scores for films including Awakenings, Newman was grappling with his own demons. Separated in 1985 from wife Roswitha (mother of Amos, 27 and a record-company executive; Eric, 24, a movie executive, and John, 17, a senior at Harvard-Westlake in North Hollywood), he learned to cope with single life as well as the fatigue and depression engendered by the Epstein-Barr virus, which he had contracted in 1985. While time and a strict diet repaired his body, being on his own, says Newman (who lived in West Los Angeles with his father, Irving, an internist, and "mother Adele, a homemaker, until he married at 23), never got any easier. "My boys could take care of themselves better than I can," says Newman, who shared custody as part of his 1989 divorce. "For me, [it was] Campbell's soup."

When his emotionally distant father died of cancer in 1990 (18 months after Adele's death), Randy and his younger brother Alan, a physician, were thrust into the role of grown-ups, as Newman puts it. The loss was "tough, a big deal," says Newman, who had struggled since childhood to win his father's approval. "We were close, but there was a contentiousness in our relationship."

But Newman's life took a happier turn that October when he wed Gretchen Preece, whom he had met when she was working as a receptionist in a building where he rented an office. "She laughed at my jokes," he says. "That's all it takes." The ceremony was held in the backyard of Newman's Brentwood home, and his three sons served as best men.

Still close to Roswitha, who remarried in 1992, Newman asked Gretchen during their honeymoon in Italy if she would get to know his ex-wife. "I heard what a wonderful woman she was, and I met her and [found that] everybody was right," Gretchen, 35, says of her tête-à-tête with Roswitha at Michael's restaurant in Santa Monica. "Randy sent champagne, and we had a ball." Now, says Gretchen, she and Patrick, 3, and Alice, 2—who live with Newman in a sprawling contemporary house in Brentwood—regard Roswitha, now 51, as part of the family. "It's very Hollywood, I guess," says Randy, "but everyone gets along great."

Happiness (and Faust's success) aside, Newman denies that he has solved any cosmic riddles of late. "I've been lucky," he says. "Life has improved—I'm used to being in a family, and that's what suits me." In the meantime, he allows, he's not about to relinquish his role as devil's advocate. On the Faust album, it is Newman who sings the part of Mephistopheles. For those who know and love him, laughs Gretchen, the role of wisecracking troublemaker "had Randy written all over it."

MICHELLE GREEN
LORELNZO BENET in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Lorenzo Benet.