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After critically acclaimed runs in NYC and DC, the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical A Strange Loop transfers to Broadway's Lyceum Theatre, with performances beginning April 6, 2022. This interview was conducted during the show's Off-Broadway run at Playwrights Horizons.
Michael R. Jackson on his unconventional tuner at Playwrights Horizons
Michael R. Jackson's new musical A Strange Loop, currently at Playwrights Horizons and produced in association with Page 73, focuses on Usher (Larry Owens), a young, black, queer aspiring artist trying to navigate a messy, biased world. As he writes and rewrites a musical about his life, he dates men and attempts to self-actualize. All the while, Usher's inner thoughts -- embodied by six actors who also play his parents, critics and lovers -- keep invading the stage and his life.
Delightfully meta and sui generis, A Strange Loop has a kind of Russian Doll quality, not only because of the way the story keeps folding in on itself, but also due to its earworm songs. ("Memories," the elegiac penultimate number, has a deceptively simple melody that builds into a looping aria. Days later you'll still be humming it.) TDF Stages chatted with Jackson about the evolution of the show, Liz Phair and cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter's connection to the piece, and the life-saving power of musical theatre.
Eliza Bent: I understand A Strange Loop began as a monologue. How did it become a musical?
Michael R. Jackson: After I graduated from NYU with a BFA in playwriting I was a bit lost. I was living in a little old lady's house in Jamaica, Queens, looking for jobs and applying to grad schools. I wrote a personal monologue called "Why I Can't Get Work." It was about a young, black, gay man walking around New York and reflecting on his life and family.
Then I went to grad school [NYU for Musical Theatre Writing]. I grew up playing piano and was in an all-city choir. So all these musical ideas I had been carrying around since middle school and high school, lyric writing gave those musical impulses somewhere to go.
"Memories" was just a stand-alone song, but it went over well in class. Eventually it became a one-man show, but I realized it wanted it to be a musical, even though I knew it would be unconventional. It turned into A Strange Loop and we had readings that were cast across race and gender. When Stephen [Brackett, the director] came on board, he said, "What if we did this with all black and queer-identifying people?" That opened up so many possibilities and almost everyone from that time is still in the show.
Bent: You call the show "self-referential" instead of autobiographical. Why is that?
Jackson: For me, autobiography suggests a formal conceit that's linear. I am not writing I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. My show draws from personal experience but is very much art and fiction. No one knows what's 100 percent true and what's one percent true. So autobiographical wouldn't be totally accurate.
The show is about self-perception versus reality. So when you say, "This is something that happened to me," it is actually my perception of what happened. In the piece, Usher is dramatizing his own self-loathing. He can only see life the way he sees it. How reliable are his perceptions when he's in a place of such self-hatred?
The piece is emotionally true. That's the most important thing, not whether a specific thing did or didn't happen. When you're a young person everything is heightened. You might think everyone is against you. But if you could be in the third person and watch yourself, you might learn that not everything is as you think it is. Or maybe it is and you just need to change your perspective on it.
Bent: Usher's inner thoughts include an "Inner White Girl" and a "Self-Hating Gay Black Man," among many others. How do they fit into his story?
Jackson: They are caught in the loop. Until Usher's perspective changes, he can't change. By the end of the show he wants to change. But the moment he realizes he doesn't need to change is the moment he changes. That's the paradox of the show and of self-hood itself, which is specific to Usher and his body, but also to anyone. You are not your thoughts. And yet your thoughts are within you.
Bent: What's your relationship to psychology and philosophy?
Jackson: [Laughs] I am just someone who has lived a life and has been trying to understand himself for a very long time. That process is married to my relationship with musical theatre and playwriting. I draw from both art and life for dramaturgical reasons because for Usher, his art and life are inseparable. He draws from life in order to make art, and draws from art in order to deal with life.
The dramaturgical conceit is that he is bragging about himself in real time. But for me as the actual person writing it, I couldn't achieve what he wanted until I got away from it. Years of therapy and making mistakes and ranting and raving on Facebook and talking to my parents, making new friendships -- so many things had to happen for me to understand this young person trying to write about himself and where his actual story of this loop would end and begin. The industry was not ready for this piece in earlier years and now it is. But I wasn't ready either. I couldn't understand who this young person was until I had perspective on him.
Bent: How would you describe A Strange Loop's music style?
Jackson: Most people would say pop rock. But the piece features six- and seven-part harmonies and that comes from my love of gospel music. The Clark Sisters are a big influence, as is the music I grew up with: Motown; The Three Degrees; Earth, Wind & Fire; The Temptations; the Four Tops.
Liz Phair, Joni Mitchell and Tori Amos are three women whose audacity and willingness to open themselves up really inspired me. As confessional singer-songwriters, their brutal honesty and openness are huge. Liz Phair's album Exile in Guyville for a time was the main engine for the piece. The album is about her experience of being a young woman in Chicago and men not treating her well, both in relationships and also on the music scene. That album really knocked me out. In early versions of A Strange Loop I wondered: How can I make my own accounting of my experience as someone who feels erased and is a queer black man? Someone who is lost and feels ignored by the world?
There used to be a whole other narrative conceit in the piece where Usher wrote these mash-up songs to Liz Phair. Then I realized that Liz has a song called "Strange Loop" and I didn't know what it meant. When I googled "strange loop" the Douglas Hofstadter theory came up and I was like, "Holy shit! That's what the piece is trying to do." So I researched that dramaturgical phrase to create the thing that my show already was! From Liz Phair who references Douglas who references self-reference.
I also love musical theatre. I have my own ode to A Chorus Line, I love Company and Passing Strange. I love Raisin, a musical adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun. It's not very well-known even though it won the Tony in 1974.
I am not only a creator of musical theatre but also a consumer. I have studied the guardians of musical theatre. I have very strong opinions about art. I don't hate musicals and am trying to write one. I love musicals and think they can do everything and you can push the envelope and do so much. When I was younger and experienced being a marginalized person, musical theatre was a life raft for me. I can put everything into it. It's my sword and my shield.
Top image: Antwayn Hopper and Larry Owens in A Strange Loop. Photo by Joan Marcus.
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