“A Strange Loop,” the Broadway musical that’s drawn rave reviews and earned 11 Tony nominations, centers on a very unlikely lead character: A young Black gay man named Usher who is working as an usher at a Broadway show, and is writing a musical about a young Black gay man named Usher who is working as an usher at a Broadway show – all while cycling through his own self-hatred.
The entire show – book, music and lyrics – was written by 41-year-old Michael R. Jackson, who grew up in a middle-class family in Detroit. He spent almost two decades working on “A Strange Loop.”
Outside the Lyceum Theater, where a poster heralded his Tony nominations for best book and best score, correspondent Rita Braver asked Jackson, “Doesn’t get any better than that?”
“It doesn’t get any better. Any time I look at it, I, like, sort of have a geek-out moment of unbelievable joy!”
Jackson said the musical is, in part, his own story, having worked as an usher: “That is true. I worked at ‘Lion King,’ ‘Mary Poppins,’ and a brief seasonal stint of ‘Aladdin.'”
But he said the show, which includes some provocative language and graphic content, is more of an emotional than an actual autobiography.
He turns his own self-doubt and hopes into a cast of vexing characters that embody Usher’s thoughts.
Jackson said, “One of the characters is called ‘Daily Self-Loathing,’ who always pops in with a smile to tell him how worthless he is, or how fat and ugly he is.”
The thoughts – all played by actors who describe themselves as queer – also morph into members of Usher’s family, who (as Jackson’s own family once did) struggle with his being gay and a budding playwright.
And the off-stage saga of “A Strange Loop” is just as compelling as the on-stage story, with the team behind the show wondering if it could really succeed.
Braver asked the Tony-nominated director Stephen Brackett, “From your point of view, what’s different about this play than other Broadway shows?”
“Michael has shifted the lens to a character that we never thought would lead a Broadway musical before,” he replied.
But Brackett, who worked with Jackson on the show for ten years, believes the universal message has cut through: “Everybody knows what it feels like to feel imperfect. And to see a character so bravely and vulnerably going through that, one can’t help but put their own story on top.”
In fact, first produced off-Broadway, the play would win the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2020. But then, the pre-Broadway run in Washington, D.C., was delayed for more than a year because of COVID.
Now, both Brackett and Jackson love watching the audience respond to Usher, played by Jaquel Spivey, 23 years old and just out of college, who is now nominated for a Tony for best leading actor in a musical.
Watch an excerpt of Jaquel Spivey and company performing “Memory Song” from “A Strange Loop”:
I am lying on the couch, I dream that I’m flying
Flapping both my wings so hard to keep me from dying
With a crown of godforsaken thorns on my head
Like all those Black gay boys I knew who chose to go on back to the Lord
And all those Black gay boys I knew who chose to go on back to the Lord
All those Black gay boys I knew who chose to go on back to the Lord
I’m one of those Black gay boys I knew who chose to turn his back on the Lord
“I’ve had many people that are not Black and that are not fat and that are not queer come to me and say, ‘Wow, Usher? Huh, I can relate to a lotta stuff like that!'” Spivey said.
Braver asked Jackson, “You’re like a proud father watching his little children get these accolades and these nominations!”
“Yeah,” Jackson said. “Jaquel is the age that I was when I started working on ‘A Strange Loop.'”
And for Michael R. Jackson, it has been a strange loop – mining his own life for a tale of change and self-acceptance.
For more info:
Story produced by Reid Orvedahl. Editor: Steven Tyler.
You can stream selections from the Broadway cast album of “A Strange Loop” (available June 10) by clicking on the embed below (Free Spotify registration required to hear the tracks in full):