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Michael R. Jackson reveals the genius behind his hit musical ‘A Strange Loop’

The playwright, composer, and lyricist explains how he sent theatergoers for a one-of-a-kind loop.

Michael R. Jackson reveals the genius behind his hit musical ‘A Strange Loop’
[Photo: Eliott Jerome Brown Jr.]

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On the evening last June when Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop won Best Musical at the Tonys, Broadway fans were hardly surprised. For months, the musical had been generating buzz—and $6 million at the box office—on rave reviews and a 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. And yet, A Strange Loop—for which Jackson composed the score and wrote the lyrics and book—is far from your typical Tony winner: It’s is a post-modern hall of mirrors about a poor, young, Black, queer man named Usher, who is employed as an actual usher at a Broadway theater, even as he struggles to write a semi-autobiographical Broadway musical.

A cast of six supporting actors share the stage, giving voice to Usher’s conscious and sometimes subconscious thoughts, which involve self-loathing, repressed sexuality, and significantly more profanity than patrons of Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre are used to hearing. (As the show progresses, they also play Usher’s pious mother, homophobic father, mercenary agent, and unsatisfying tricks.) The “strange loop” of the show’s title refers to a theory in cognitive science about the development of a sense of self; but, in a self-deprecating sleight of hand, Jackson’s Usher also confesses that it may just be a reference to a Liz Phair track from the ’90s that he loves.

It must be a weird sensation to work on a project for nearly 20 years, and then have it show up in this moment that is, from a market point of view, perfectly timed.

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When it ran Off-Broadway, there was a writer for the New York Times who wrote how A Strange Loop and a bunch of other works were positioned to respond to the Trump era. And I just sort of clapped back on Twitter because I was like, Wait a minute! I started writing this during the first [George W.] Bush term! And kept working on it during the second Bush term, the first Obama term, the second Obama term, and then had my first reading at Playwright Horizons four days after Trump was elected. I don’t think that you can talk about this piece in those small ways. You have to take all of it into account.

Given that you began working on this as far back as the early ’00s, were there any other shows or characters at that time that you looked to for inspiration?

I started writing this show to create a life raft for myself at an uncertain and scary time, but I also wrote it in order to create a rich, complex portrayal—a first-person account—of a Black gay man that I had never seen or heard beyond my own thoughts. I never saw any Black characters that said things that I thought or felt. So I had to create that.

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What are you working on now?

It’s a piece I’ve been working on for a couple of years called White Girl in Danger, and it’s drawn from my childhood-into-adulthood love of soap operas and Lifetime Original movies from the ’90s. It’s about a Black soap opera character who lives in a soap opera town and who wants to be in a white storyline.

Were you a Young and the Restless person or a General Hospital person, or what?

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It was mostly Days of Our Lives and Another World for me.

Ah, the NBC shows. Wasn’t one of those the worldwide leader in the evil-twin storyline?

Yes, Another World had Vicky and Marley, who were famously played by Anne Heche in the ’80s, and one was good and one was bad—although the good one went bad toward the end, and the bad one became good. She was very complicated, but they were very popular.

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There’s a little hint of that dynamic in A Strange Loop, with Usher arguing with his various undermining Thoughts, played by other actors.

Soaps are such a part of my DNA—my storytelling DNA—that I wouldn’t be surprised that there’s a little in there, subconsciously.

Do you think your creative process is changing or has changed as a result of this production, the accolades, and the success?

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Every story I work on is different, so it’s going to have different needs and demands. A Strange Loop was a piece that developed super organically. I just had to follow its evolution until I realized what the actual story was. With White Girl in Danger, I had this firm idea of what it was. It’s a melodrama. There’s a lot of plot—like, a comic amount of plot—in it.

A Strange Loop evolved from a one-man show to a workshop to Off-Broadway to Broadway. How did the vibe of the piece change as it reached a wider audience? There’s a moment in the show when the cast sings an up-tempo gospel song about AIDS, and the actors prompt the audience to clap. Some people clap, some don’t, some start and then stop. It’s such an interesting moment of live theater.

That’s one of my favorite parts of the show because A Strange Loop is a musical that invites you in and meets you wherever you are. At that moment, you were invited to participate. And I, as the author, have no judgment whatsoever on how people choose to participate. You should have an authentic response, whatever it is. What I notice during that moment is that everyone’s looking at their neighbors to see what they’re doing. They have a feeling about whether they should or shouldn’t, and that creates an energy that feeds the loop. And that experience is exactly what it’s like to be a Black person through Usher’s eyes. It’s to feel all of the joy and the ecstasy and the pain of the applause, the music, the judgment, the “What’s your neighbor doing? Where am I? What is this?”

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Is the success of this show informing how you approach the next one, and the one after that?

Particularly because there have been so many conversations about representation and inclusion, I think it’s worth noting that I’ve done slow and steady work on this musical for years. And I bring that up only because it often feels to me that the mere fact of my existence—or a writer of color’s existence—is more important to people than engaging with our work in a real, deep way. And so I’m excited for people to ask me real questions about my work and not just [whether] there are enough “people who look like me” because that’s the vernacular of the day and people are so obsessed with the idea of representation, right? And I’m not criticizing that there should be or shouldn’t be representation, it’s just that I think that there really will be a change when we are spending more time talking about what we’re representing and not just who we’re representing.

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