Why 'A Strange Loop' is the musical you need to see on Broadway this spring
The Pulitzer-winning musical celebrates Black queer life.
Following an extended, sold-out pre-Broadway run at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington D.C., Michael R. Jackson's hilarious meta-musical, A Strange Loop, is finally making its Broadway debut.
The premiere comes nearly three years after the show concluded its original Off-Broadway run at Playwrights Horizons, which won A Strange Loop the Drama Desk, Obie, Drama Critics Circle, and Outer Critics Circle Awards for Best New Musical and Book, as well as the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
A Strange Loop follows an aspiring composer-lyricist named Usher who also works as a much-abused usher at The Lion King on Broadway. When Usher isn't engaging with his demanding family or the peculiarities of dating in NYC, he's trying to complete his musical... which is also titled A Strange Loop and is about a Black musical writer. In other words, A Strange Loop is a highly personal and comedic look at artistry versus commercialism.
That might sound like navel-gazing, but as Jackson said in an interview after he won the Pulitzer, the show "is self-referential, not autobiographical, though I have felt everything Usher felt in the piece."
Speaking of the Pulitzer, only 10 musicals have ever won the award for drama, and Jackson is the first openly gay Black man to receive the award. But even besides this groundbreaking achievement, there are many other reasons why A Strange Loop is one of this season's hottest tickets.
The original cast and creative cast reunites, with one remarkable addition.
Jackson has reunited with his original collaborators ― director Stephen Brackett and choreographer Raja Feather Kelly ― to remount A Strange Loop, as well as his original cast of talented wonders: L Morgan Lee, James Jackson Jr., John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison, Jason Veasey and Antwayn Hopper. Each ensemble member serves double duty as Usher's family members, lovers, friends, and evil thoughts.
The only significant change is that Larry Owens, the original Usher who immortalized his Drama Desk Award-winning performance on the original cast recording, has stepped away from the show to further his TV career. But don't fret: His replacement, 23-year-old phenom Jaquel Spivey, is just as good. According to a review in The Washington Post, Spivey gives an "electric" and "funny, emotionally raw performance [that] gives the production a heartbreaking core." He's making his Broadway debut with the show, too!
The A Strange Loop cast album is a streaming hit.
When the Off-Broadway cast album of A Strange Loop hit streaming platforms in September 2019, it became an instant hit. Maybe you've heard snippets make the rounds on social media or already added the songs to your musical theatre playlists. Even if you haven't yet, you're going to want to see them live — you know the songs are going to be hilarious when they have titles like "Exile in Gayville," "Inner White Girl," and "Tyler Perry Writes Real Life."
The musical achieved tons of Pulitzer Prize firsts.
There are even more than what's mentioned above. Besides being only the 10th musical to win, A Strange Loop is also the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize before premiering on Broadway. And besides being the first openly gay writer to win the prize, Jackson became the first Black musical writer to win.
A Strange Loop offers a candid look at dating.
Jackson hasn't shied away from his funny, perverted, and awkward experiences as a Black gay man dating in NYC. This show isn't for your corny uncle or innocent niece ― A Strange Loop is decidedly "grown folks" territory, with Usher being a lusty blend of young, dumb, and insecure but too proud to admit it. Think of A Strange Loop as the kinkier and more outrageous ― but true to life ― cousin of POSE and Sex & The City, except with a cast of amazing singers and dancers who love to tell it like it is.
The musical is a gut punch to stigma and homophobia.
There's been a lot of buzz about how Jackson openly mocks Tyler Perry in A Strange Loop. In fact, after he won the Pulitzer, Jackson said Perry called to congratulate him and to say that he was going to kick his ass. But Jackson is really criticizing the demonization of people living with HIV, which he saw in Perry's work. In Jackson's words:
"The song 'AIDS Is God's Punishment' literally came as a direct response to the images and narratives in [Perry's movie] Confessions of a Marriage Counselor, with 'AIDS' as an indictment of homophobia and the church's demonization of sexuality in a satirical sense."
But it goes even deeper than that. During an emotional conversation, Jackson revealed that he wrote "AIDS Is God's Punishment" not only to reject HIV stigma, but also to honor a close friend who died from untreated HIV because he believed that the virus was a punishment for his being gay.
An NYTimes Magazine article about the Off-Broadway production reads that the show "exposes the homophobic subtext lurking in Perry's work and calls out the moralistic finger-wagging the shows — and by extension the people who love them — do." Though A Strange Loop is full of jokes about over-the-top sexual engagements, one of its most important messages is that sexual shaming, homophobia, and stigma have no place in the world.
A Strange Loop celebrates Black queer life.
The show has joyfully marketed itself as a "Big, Black, & Queer-Ass American Musical!" Some people fear that they'll feel excluded if they don't fit these categories. But because Black and queer culture has shaped so much of our world, you'll find that everyone is welcome and will recognize themselves in these characters.
Instead of hiding in the closet or keeping their true selves on the "down low," A Strange Loop invites anyone who has ever felt ashamed or shy to shake off their dread and revel in discovering who they want to be. It's essentially a dose of entertainment and evocative therapy wrapped up in one fabulous singing telegram.
The show has Black humor that loves Black people.
Some jokes about specific communities can be downright hateful. While A Strange Loop's humor is pointed, Jackson delivers it from a place of love for Black people, and he celebrates regional flaws and eccentricities. Rather than looking at the characters as slack-jawed yokels, like in the television show Beverly Hillbillies, Jackson has made his characters the smartest people in the room.
They are also deeply flawed and conniving, but there is nothing cringey about them ― except for when Jackson is using them to knock down stigma, in which case he is ruthless. But because there is so much love infused within every laugh and punchline, there is no fear of political incorrectness. This is a show where everyone can laugh because we are all in on the jokes.
A Strange Loop doesn't take itself too seriously.
There's plenty of sad theatre out there, which is cathartic and has its place, but we could all use a little comedy, too. Rather than wallow in dread with A Strange Loop, Jackson turned his sour feelings into jokes so people could see themselves — as well as their absurd family members — in the characters and laugh. For example, John-Andrew Morrison plays the mother figure in A Strange Loop with a full mustache, bad wig, and deep voice that turns the trope of a "man in a dress" on its head.
And then there are his "thoughts," who appear as Harriet Tubman, James Baldwin, and other luminaries from Black history to torture him by pointing out his flaws. The entire arrangement is so zany that you can't help but laugh out loud from start to finish. Even when A Strange Loop dives into serious territory as the characters confront shame, the show does so with the type of jokes that most of us are too shy to make.
In other words, A Strange Loop embraces everything you're too afraid to say to the world and defangs it with raunchy, punchy humor. A Strange Loop is a reminder that laughter is often the greatest form of medicine. After these last two years, we all need as many laughs as we can get.
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