“A Strange Loop” changed history in many ways at last weekend’s Tony Awards ceremony, winning Best Musical and Best Book of a Musical. The awards and accolades racked up have proven that writer/composer Michael R. Jackson’s dream of bringing a “Big Black Queer Ass American Broadway Show” to the masses is resonating with critics and audiences alike.
The musical follows troubled protagonist Usher, an overweight black gay man in his twenties, on his odyssey to embrace his identity and battle his demons. The latter are represented by six other cast members, aka the Thoughts, who personify his doubts, insecurities and self-loathing. It’s a meta-musical in which Usher, a NYU student and usher from “The Lion King,” works and writes his autobiographical musical as the show unfolds. He struggles with his dreams, with his relationships, and with parents who support his musical theater aspirations but do not accept his homosexuality.
The story incorporates real details from Jackson’s own life, but doesn’t provide straightforward answers or sweet Broadway sentiments. There are lines of raw, unfiltered dialogue that cut deeply into Usher’s emotional core. The cast is also made up entirely of gay black men, another Broadway first.
The musical – which received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2020 – was nominated for 11 Tony Awards at this year’s ceremony. As recipient of the award for best musical, co-producer Jennifer Hudson achieved EGOT’s coveted dream, becoming only the 17th performer, the second black woman and one of the youngest to do so. Co-producer RuPaul also picked up his first Tony, while cast members Jaquel Spivey (Usher) and L Morgan Lee (Thought 1, Usher’s mother) received nominations.
Years before his 2019 off-Broadway tour at Playwrights Horizons, Jackson first performed an incarnation of the play in 2006 — a monologue titled “Why I Can’t Get Work,” which gestated during his time at NYU early to mid 2000s. A strange loop turned into a musical production, though it wasn’t until director Stephen Brackett came on board in 2012 that they decided to cast all black queer men.
Talk to ThrillistJackson — an NYU grad who actually ushered in “The Lion King” for many years — broke down the show’s eclectic influences, including the animated series “Jem and the Holograms,” various musicals, the movies of Tyler Perry and the “white chick” rock Tori Amos and Liz Phair.
Perry’s work is often mocked on the show: Usher’s mother would like him to create a Tyler Perry-esque series, and when he gets the chance to work on a Perry production, he turns it down. In real life, Jackson was so appalled by what he saw as the filmmaker’s moralizing and mishandling of AIDS in Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor that he had to talk about it on his show. And he does it with a very intense HIV gospel number that’s a call for empathy that also taps into the rage against the homophobia of Usher and Perry’s mother (something the filmmaker has often been accused).
Liz Phair’s music and lyrics had a profound influence on Jackson. “I was so into his writing style and his humor,” Jackson told Thrillist. “There is poetry that is so striking and beautiful, in addition to doing what I call character work. The characters of herself or anyone in her songs were so interesting and complex.” In fact, Phair has a song called “Strange Loop,” which is also a concept by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and computer scientist Douglas Hofstadter.
Jackson’s opening monologue was inspired by Phair’s “style of stream-of-consciousness and speaking without filters,” he said. “But there’s also Tori Amos, who is like my origin, an inner white girl. With someone who, in the same way but even in a more raw way, would lay bare everything.” (Usher frequently refers to his “inner white girl” onstage.)
Musical director Rona Siddiqui — a songwriter and musician with a musical inspired by her Afghan and Italian heritage in the works — has been on the show since 2018. An NYU graduate, Siddiqui has connected musically with Jackson on Phair, Amos and R&B from the 90s.
“We have the same kind of understanding of groove, so it’s very joyful for me to be a part of it,” Siddiqui told GRAMMY.com. “When I’m deciding what I’m going to do with direct music, I have to say to myself, ‘Are these people that I want to be in the room with? Can I learn from them? that I want to be influenced by this?’ Because you have to immerse yourself in the music. You have to go all the way.
While his Broadway run was massively adoptedSiddiqui recalled the trepidation she felt before their first off-Broadway audience: “I was like, ‘Are people just going to hang out?’
“The fact that it’s been so well received shows how hungry we are for honest stories. And complex, vulnerable characters. I think that’s why it resonates on all levels,” she postulates. . “It’s so great to see fat, black, queer people represented in a space they’re typically excluded from. But it’s the universality of that vulnerability and that need for connection and acceptance that we all have that makes that every single person feels what Usher is. get through it.”
The show’s sound designer, Drew Levy, echoes those sentiments. “Obviously, I’m nothing like Usher or what the show is about,” said Levy, who is straight, white and thin. “But I think the beauty of Michael R. Jackson’s play is that it’s so real that you don’t have to be those things to see it and feel it.”
As musical director and keyboardist of “A Strange Loop,” Siddiqui runs the show every night. She says her mission is to update Michael R. Jackson’s musical vision and improve it as best she can.
“I get as deep into his psyche as possible to bring out the music in a way that even he doesn’t know how to say,” says Siddiqui. “It starts with teaching the actors the music, and it comes down to the details of the phrasing, how we pronounce certain words and why… Every decision is drama-based and very, very clear” and also explained to the group . .
When asked if Jackson had learned anything from his, she replies, “Michael always says he knows his musical knowledge ends at a certain point, and that’s where I take the bullet for him.” She recalls that while they were mixing the Broadway cast’s original album, she was the one making the most notes and the ones that “Michael didn’t even catch…now I’m the one who knows best. And it’s a journey for me….There’s a point where he trusts me so much that I take the ball.”
“A Strange Loop” upends conventional notions of a mainstream musical and breaks new ground with its outspoken sexual language – meaning it’s likely to be a tough sell to the tourist crowd. “You can’t bring your kids. So we’re not going to have the longevity of the ‘Six’ or the ‘Wicked’, unfortunately,” Siddiqui says.
That being said, many teenagers and young adults come to terms with their identity and feel the same as Usher, and that could inspire an audience to pass the show on to future generations in a different way.
“I hear about these young people sometimes, and it makes me so happy that they see themselves and feel seen,” says Siddiqui. “It makes me really, really happy.”
The show’s subject matter, directness, and deeper introspection will likely be “A Strange Loop’s” strongest legacy. It’s not a safe mainstream musical, but it’s a safe space for its audience, even as it challenges both its protagonist and its audience to continue to grow despite life’s constant challenges.
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