The last time Michael R. Jackson had a job in a Broadway theatre, he worked as an usher for a Disney musical. This time around, he’s the Pulitzer Prize–winning writer/composer/lyricist of one of this spring’s most anticipated new musicals.
That real-life strange loop is just one of the several unexpected journeys associated with A Strange Loop, the musical now circling back to New York three years after an Off-Broadway premiere that brought the show buzzy word-of-mouth, critical acclaim, and a slew of awards, including the New York Drama Critics Circle prize for best musical plus that aforementioned Pulitzer. After an extended pandemic pause followed by a regional run last fall at Woolly Mammoth in Washington, D.C., A Strange Loop has found its way back to New York with a new Broadway home and a new star in young discovery Jaquel Spivey. For Jackson, the journey began 18 years ago when he first started work on the earliest version of the show. Many of his Broadway collaborators have also spent a significant amount of time with the musical. Director Stephen Brackett came aboard back in 2012, and “a lot of the actors have been working on this with us for a decade,” Jackson said.
For most of those years, Broadway was never something Jackson would have envisioned for A Strange Loop.
For one thing, the traditionally white domain of Broadway didn’t seem like natural fit for a show about a Black queer man named Usher writing a musical. “I thought there was no way they were going to let me into one of those old Broadway estates,” Jackson recalls.
Now, in the wake of the national reckoning over racial justice that began in 2020, Strange Loop finds itself in a Broadway season filled with an unprecedented number of shows created by Black artists. Even so, the musical exploration of one Black queer man’s mind, portrayed by a cast made up entirely of Black queer performers, tells its story with a specificity and frankness that stands out.
“The first time I encountered the show, I remember thinking, ‘Wait, have people said these words out in public on stage before?’” says A Strange Loop’s choreographer, Raja Feather Kelly, who joined the creative team in 2018.
“[Jackson] has this balance of making you really feel the heartache of the person who’s singing the songs, and having them sing about watching Sean Cody porn,” Brackett, adds with a laugh. “There’s this amazing combination of heart and transparent, truthful, painful humor.”
The creators of A Strange Loop describe the musical as a portrait of one unique character in all his idiosyncrasies and individualities. But at the same time, they’ve aimed to represent this singular identity on stage with the kind of detailed, fearless honesty that all Broadway audiences will find relatable.
“I’m excited about getting to bring this person to the stage who’s a full human, whose story and whose thoughts you maybe haven’t seen on stage before,” Jackson says. “And it’s my hope that people who come to the show will see the blood and the guts and candor and humanity that we’re laying bare, and connect with it wherever they are.”
Kelly thinks of the show as a ride — for both Usher and for the audience. “It’s as if Broadway created an amusement park that’s about someone’s psychology,” he says.
“It feels like we’re going through an odyssey with this character, a real adventure that has twists and turns and thrills,” Brackett adds. “There’s a familiarity about the form, but the places it takes us are totally new.”
For audiences who caught A Strange Loop in one of its earlier productions, the show’s collaborators promise that theatergoers this spring will see the same show, just with a couple moments of Broadway-scale elevation. They’re confident, too, that those discovering Spivey, a young actor fresh out of college, won’t be disappointed. “Jaquel brings a nuance to the stage that is really tender and heartbreaking and electric and alive,” Brackett says.
The unexpected origin of A Strange Loop lies in a project that didn’t even start out as a musical. Jackson was an undergraduate when he wrote a music-less monologue that he performed, created as “a life raft for myself, called ‘Why I Can’t Get Work.’” Over the course of the show’s 18-year evolution, it morphed first into a monologue with songs called “Fast Food Town” before it took its earliest steps into becoming the show that is now A Strange Loop.
Even in an industry where musicals regularly take several years to come to fruition, that’s an unusually long road. But for Jackson, it was exactly the right amount of time.
“I always tell people that, yes, I spent 18 years working on one musical, but I’m grateful that I had that time,” Jackson says. “This piece of art needed that much time to develop, and I needed that much time to develop as an artist and a person. I always tell this story to say that you can’t put art on a conveyer belt. And weirdly, I feel like in making this piece undeniably what it is, that’s what made Broadway a viable option.”
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