All the songs in 'A Strange Loop' on Broadway
Learn about all the music in Michael R. Jackson's Pulitzer Prize-winning show.
A Strange Loop was an instant phenomenon upon premiering off Broadway in 2019. It's rare that a show gets a cast recording before heading to Broadway — and even rarer that a show gets a Pulitzer Prize before heading there. In fact, A Strange Loop's creator, Michael R. Jackson, was the first musical writer to achieve that honor. His show is now also the recipient of 11 Tony Award nominations, the most of any show in 2022. A Strange Loop won two Tonys, including Best Musical.
A Strange Loop, inspired by Jackson's own life experiences, tells the story of a Black, gay young man named Usher who battles relentless self-loathing as he's trying to make it big in theatre with a musical about a Black, gay man writing a musical. And at an intermission-less 100 minutes, it's the songs that keep the story driving forward.
In keeping with the theme of loops, circles, and repetition, many of the songs in A Strange Loop parallel other songs in their lyrics, themes, or significance in the show — for example, there are multiple voicemails from Usher's mother, and two ballads that reflect on the songs right before them. This doesn't make the musical feel repetitive in a tired way, though. Each song reveals something new about Usher's perception of himself, his career, or his family, and how he learns to accept those things for what they are and ultimately succeed.
We've broken down all the A Strange Loop songs right here, with information about their place in the show and Jackson's personal connections to the music. Once you've gotten to know Usher and his music, loop back around to the top of this article and get your tickets to A Strange Loop on Broadway.
No, intermission song doesn't take place before or during intermission, or at least not during the intermission of A Strange Loop (which doesn't have one anyway). It does take place, however, at the intermission of The Lion King on Broadway, where the lead character Usher works as (you guessed it) an usher. While working, his thoughts wander to the musical he's trying to write, and to his self-doubt that he'll be able to succeed in the industry as a fat, Black, queer man.
Parts of the song echo classic musical theatre tunes of the past. "Intermission Song" opens with the various Thoughts calling Usher's name in a way that sounds like the characters who call out "Bobby! Bobby! Bobby baby, Bobby bubby!" in the opening song of Company. And the many questions that are asked (and not answered) in the song, one right after the other — "How many minutes 'til the end of intermission? Is that how the show should open? Should there even be a show?" — echo "I Hope I Get It," the opening of A Chorus Line where the auditioners sing questions like "How many people does he need? How many boys, how many girls? Who am I anyway? Am I just my resume?" without getting answers.
Jackson describes the meta nature of "Today" best on Genius: "'Today' was an early song that was written to be as much of an 'I want' song as made sense within the structure of the show. Usher is writing a musical called A Strange Loop. In that musical, there is a character named Usher writing a musical about a character named Usher who wants to change himself and break out of the stasis he’s in. This song is a reflection of that desire." The song is as much a reflection of the character Usher is writing, as Usher himself.
In the song, Usher sings about the everyday minutae of his life: going to work, meeting with his landlord, dealing with tourists, and the like. He's often interrupted by his thoughts, who cheerfully introduce themselves as things like "your daily dose of self-loathing" and "the supervisor of your sexual ambivalence" and pester him about investments, new writing projects, and his own feelings of inadequacy. This constant stream of debilitating thoughts is the very cycle he hopes to break from.
"We Wanna Know"
"We Wanna Know" is a voicemail recording that Usher's mom leaves for him. All six Thoughts sing the song to show how big of a presence Usher's deeply religious mom has in his mind. "She" starts the call by asking how he's doing in New York but quickly pivots to guilt-tripping, reminding him how much money she spent on his college education and saying he should have a writing job by now. She ends the call by telling Usher he should write a "nice, clean," spiritual gospel play "like Tyler Perry," and if he doesn't, it's clear that he doesn't love his mama. "Or the Lord!"
She also points out that Perry "knows how to bring everything together with all the stories, and all the singing, and all the different people talking," which Jackson shows a knack for in this song. But A Strange Loop as a whole isn't a homage to Tyler Perry's work, but a criticism of its homophobia, as Jackson experienced it.
"Inner White Girl"
In "Today," Usher mentions his "white girl music" as the only positive thing that distracts him from his self-deprecating thoughts and his unfulfilling job. Similarly, his "inner white girl" is his term for the confident, desirable part of him he's trying to bring out. White girls, Usher sings, "can do anything, can't they? ... They get to be cool, tall, vulnerable, and luscious. They get to be wild and unwise. They get to be shy and introspective. They get to make noise. They get to mesmerize." It's his outward Blackness, he also sings, that holds him back from being these things, though through no fault of his own.
Jackson's concept of the confident "inner white girl" is mainly inspired by the rock musician Liz Phair. A reference to her song "Supernova" is in the lyrics of "Inner White Girl": "She lets him feel like a human supernova, like he could conquer the Earth." Jackson also got the musical's title from Phair's song "Strange Loop."
"Didn't Want Nothin'"
Like "We Wanna Know," "Didn't Want Nothin'" is also a voicemail, this time left by Usher's dad. He tells his son that he went on "Googles.com" and found the phone number of TV/film/Broadway producer Scott Rudin. He condescendingly points out that both men are gay and encourages Usher to reach out to get his writing sold. The joke Jackson's making with this song, of course, is that breaking into the business is not that easy, and neither is actually contacting an extremely powerful producer.
"Exile in Gayville"
This song chronicles Usher's disappointing experiences trying to put himself out there in the gay dating world. He tries to put on his "inner white girl" persona but finds himself "exiled" by the mainly fit, white, traditionally attractive men he finds on dating apps. When they reject him, he lashes out at them back, further alienating him and making his self-doubt creep back up.
The song includes lots of pop culture references, like mentions of Beyonce and and gay radio host Dan Savage; popular gay neighborhoods in New York like Hell's Kitchen and Fire Island; and dating apps like Adam4Adam. Like much of the musical, "Exile in Gayville" is inspired by Jackson's real-life experiences that he mashes up for the song. The title is also a reference to another Phair album, Exile in Guyville.
"Second Wave" is one of the few A Strange Loop songs that Usher sings without backing from any of the Thoughts. The ballad is a direct follow-up to "Exile in Gayville"; Usher is trying to comfort himself after striking out in the dating world. Usher repeats the line, "the second-wave feminist in me is at war with the dick-sucking Black gay man," another way of phrasing how he feels that his Blackness hinders people from seeing his "inner white girl." He laments how people don't seem to find him sexy or attractive, but hopes that "it's all for the best" and someone will take interest in him as a long-term partner someday.
"Tyler Perry Writes Real Life"
Back in "We Wanna Know," Usher's mom tells him that "Tyler Perry Writes Real Life" in her voicemail, urging him to write a play like Perry's. And this song is the moment where her dreams might come true. Usher gets a call from his agent, offering him to be the ghostwriter for Perry's newest gospel play. "Just write a sassy, matriarchal, lonely spinster who loves God," his agent says, the lyric being Jackson's way of satirizing Perry's writing. "Throw in a few Color Purple quotes!"
Usher doesn't want to take the gig, as he finds Perry's work "simple-minded hack buffoonery." But during the song, a group of Black historical figures including Harriet Tubman, Zora Neale Hurston, and Whitney Houston "appear" to him to say he's a "race traitor" for knocking Perry's work, which provides jobs and visibility to Black people. They aggressively insist he should take the gig.
"Writing a Gospel Play"
Spoiler alert: Usher takes the job, desperate to kickstart his writing career. As the title may suggest, this song shows Usher brainstorming an idea for the play, titled "Show Me How to Pray: A Spiritual, Urban Drama." The Color Purple references — as well as a nod to Rihanna's "Bitch Better Have My Money" — make it in. He and the Thoughts act out the parts of the stock characters Aunt Patty, Shaneatha, and Michele, who learn that the way to achieve what they want in life is to pray. Since he's not thrilled about the topic, Usher's writing has a sarcastic edge: "So keep your knees bent in prayer, and the Lord Thy God will send you a lightskin man with no education who'll put you in the split-level mansion of your dreams!"
"A Sympathetic Ear"
"Sarcastic" isn't the vibe that Perry's play was meant to have, so Usher still finds himself working as a Broadway usher to pay the bills. "A Sympathetic Ear" is sung entirely by Thought 1 as an audience member who's talking to Usher. This elderly lady from Miami (like The Golden Girls ladies, she sings) helps him through his writer's block and encourages Usher to put himself and his dreams first, something she learned from never doing the same. The song ends with a nugget of wisdom: "If you're not scared to write the truth, then it's probably not worth writing. And if you're not scared of living the truth, then it's probably not worth living."
The "Inwood Daddy" of this song's title is an older, meth-addicted white man who Usher meets for sex. The explicit song takes audiences through their sexual encounter, in which the man demeans and fetishizes Usher's race and size. The Thoughts urge Usher to "just do what he says because at least someone wants you," but the experience leaves him feeling even worse about himself than he did when he consented to have sex with "Inwood Daddy."
Just as "Second Wave" is a reflection on the hurt Usher experienced during "Exile in Gayville," "Boundaries" is a reflection on the hurt he experienced in "Inwood Daddy." He regrets his encounter with the man and wonders, "Why did I do that? What did that do for me?" He acknowledges how he's always putting himself down and doing what others tell him he should do, and concludes, "I can't know freedom without clear boundaries, 'til I draw boundaries."
He's singing about sexual boundaries, but the song also applies to his career, like how he took the Tyler Perry ghostwriting assignment to please his family even though he despises it.
"Periodically" is another voicemail from Usher's mom. Like "We Wanna Know," the song begins innocently enough, with her wishing him happy birthday. "You turn 26 on the 26th, and this will never happen again, so enjoy your day!" she sings cheerfully. But this voicemail, too, turns into a guilt trip. Her mention of how his birth is a miracle from God soon turns into a lecture on how "man is for woman and woman for man," making clear that she doesn't support his sexuality.
According to notes from Jackson on Genius, "Periodically" is one of the oldest songs in A Strange Loop and was partly pulled verbatim from an actual voicemail from his mom on his own 26th birthday. Jackson said of the song, "It’s meant to be an emotional rollercoaster of the deep love and homophobia that Usher’s mother feels and Usher’s perception and perhaps internalization of that love and homophobia.”
"Didn't Want Nothin' Reprise"
This short song is the final voicemail of the musical and the second from Usher's dad. He gravely tells Usher how some of the people from church found Usher's music and were appalled. Usher's dad implies that Usher shamed his parents by writing about queerness so publicly and being gay himself.
"Precious Little Dream / AIDS Is God's Punishment"
The "Precious Little Dream" of this song's first part isn't Usher's dream, but his mother's. One of the Thoughts, as her, lets out all his mom's anger and homophobia toward Usher, lamenting how he didn't fulfill the dreams she had: to get grandchildren, to have a religious child, to be free of his college loans. She even sings at one point, "Why couldn't you just be the daughter I always wanted?" She also breaks the fourth wall of A Strange Loop, asking Usher why he'd write her and his dad's characters into the show the way he did if he loved them. His answer is that he wrote them that way because he loves them.
The song then transitions to "AIDS Is God's Punishment," a scene from Usher's gospel play. The song is set at the funeral of his cousin Darnell, who died of AIDS after not taking medication for it. Jackson has the priest say things like, "[Darnell] was an abomination just like me ... if I ever acted on my lust for another man, I would meet the same fate as Darnell, lying in that there box. And those words have kept me HIV-free but completely terrified ever since, because I realized then and there that the only thing worse than dying of AIDS was living with it." The song is a satire about homophobia in the church.
The song also has a deeper meaning for Jackson. Shortly before A Strange Loop went into Off-Broadway rehearsals, a friend of his died of AIDS-related complications. He had written the song before that happened, but it took on a sadder and more meta significance.
"These are my memories of one lone Black gay boy I knew who chose to turn his back on the Lord," Usher repeatedly sings in this song. He sings about small things he remembers from his childhood, like sneaking a cupcake from the gym in high school and watching The Young & the Restless on TV all the time. He also sings about the guilt and shame he remembers feeling growing up in the church, but the song becomes his way of finally overcoming that shame.
Jackson uses Biblical references to describe Usher's feelings, such as in the lyric, "Flapping both my wings so hard to keep me from dying with a crown of godforsaken thorns on my head." "Memory Song" is the first song Jackson wrote for A Strange Loop, even though it's the second-to-last song in the show.
"A Strange Loop"
The musical's title track closes out the show. Usher breaks the fourth wall, starting the song with, "I am the story's writer; I'm barely scraping by. I wake up every morning, I tell myself to try." Fittingly, the song closes out the "loop" of the musical, as Usher is back where he started at "Intermission Song," still writing to get by. The difference, though, is that he's become more comfortable in his Blackness and queerness and doesn't feel he needs to change.
Usher goes from a place of loathing himself for who he is, to accepting himself, even though he hasn't fully gotten where he wants to be. A Strange Loop leaves his journey unfinished — but since Usher is a stand-in for Jackson, we know where the Black, queer writer's journey leads. It leads to success, to Broadway, and to the Tony Awards.
Photo credit: The cast of A Strange Loop on Broadway. (Photos by Marc J. Franklin)