“A Strange Loop,” an explicit and personal Broadway musical

To say that Michael R. Jackson’s “A Strange Loop” pushes the boundaries of what constitutes a commercial musical is to understate it.

A deeply intimate story about a young man named Usher writing a Broadway musical about a young man named Usher writing a Broadway musical (et cetera, et cetera), this is probably the most sexually explicit musical ever produced. Not in terms of voyeuristic erotica, which he has no interest in, but in terms of the raw, vivid details of gay sex, especially as they reflect the psychological mindset of a “black” man. , queer” in his environment. 20 years old, looking for love in New York.

Usher is, indeed, an usher, at the “Lion King”. This is where any similarity to Disney ends.

Jackson, the immensely talented creator of books, music, and lyrics, isn’t the first songwriter to write a show about trying to write a show. Jonathan Larson did it with “Tick, Tick…Boom”, which no one would produce until “Rent”. Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell did it with “[title of show]», a humble but friendly company. Young artists are advised to write what they know. And they usually do, at first.

But none of those efforts landed on Broadway with a Pulitzer Prize for Drama already under their belts. That’s the situation here, though I suspect Jackson’s best work still lies ahead of him. In previous generations, Jackson would have been forced to make adjustments for the market. Here, his uncensored self made it all the way to the Lyceum Theatre, a feat impossible just ten years ago.

Jackson’s alter ego, brilliantly played here by Jaquel Spivey, tries to define himself in opposition to the pervasive influences on his life.

One is his own neuroses and self-doubts, represented here by Thought 1 through Thought 7, characters from the series’ talented little ensemble. Another is his upbringing — by a traditional black family who stretched to send Usher to NYU and want him to write Gospel-themed musicals for Tyler Perry, which Usher finds obnoxious, and quit. to live his gay “lifestyle”, which his father finds abhorrent.

Usher is a fictional character and Usher the writer sometimes calls Usher the writer-character, but the harshness of these sequences always reminds you of Philip Roth’s quote about how having a writer in your family means everyone is tough .

But it’s also a show about the intersection of race and sexuality and it supports the position (similar to “Slave Play” earlier this season) that Usher’s sexual fantasies involving white men are a consequence of white supremacy, not a personal desire that can be unhooked from racism and inequity. It is a position as fascinating as it is radical.

Under the direction of Stephen Brackett, “A Strange Loop” presents a dilemma for critics. It has plenty of jaw-dropping sequences and, more than any musical in years, charts a brave path determined to confront not just the assumptions of the genre, but their impact on those who take on the role of writing them. But that won’t appeal to a large swath of the theater crowd. It’s not for children. This will likely offend black conservatives. And some gay theatergoers won’t mind his self-hate amplification, or his determined argument that racism is still in the bedroom.

Even those sympathetic to his politics might find him elitist in his assumptions: he certainly takes the troubled psyche of a highly educated protagonist and uses it to castigate those he considers less enlightened, which you could also define as ordinary people doing the best they can with what they have. As with so many shows this season, opinions will be mixed.

I found “A Strange Loop” more interesting in its determination to take us inside Usher’s head and on his journey. It’s less compelling towards the end when it dissolves into a parody of lower-middle-class reality. He is enlightened in his understanding of a mother’s love, even in the face of disapproval, and in the notion of impostor syndrome, which so many people feel today. Its creator is too young to know that we worry less about sexual desire as we get older, that we then tend to seek love rather than division and that we no longer want to be in the center so much. of its own history.

This is all to come for Jackson, a breakthrough talent, accelerated to the main stem. He’s a wonderful songwriter – his lyrics are rich, funny and, well, I’d honestly be writing if it wasn’t such a cliché. You might want to go there or wait for the next one from him.

But I’ll end with this: his stated goal in “A Strange Loop” is to amplify, with music and ideas, what he feels like to be a young black gay man in the creative fray of New York, increasingly removed from much of the rest of America. In this he succeeds like no one before.

“A Strange Loop” plays at the Lyceum Theater 149 W. 45th Street, New York; strangeloopmusical.com.