Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop made a splash in 2019 when it premiered Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in a coproduction with Page 73 Productions. So much so, it was the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama without a Broadway run. After a COVID-postponed run at Washington, D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre in December 2021, the “big, Black, queer-ass American musical” is finally getting its Broadway production, officially opening April 26 at the Lyceum Theatre.
Beyond its 2020 Pulitzer Prize win, playwright, composer, and lyricist Jackson’s musical garnered numerous accolades, including a 2020 Obie Awards Special Citation for its creative team and ensemble. In following the lead character, Usher, as he grapples “with desires, identity, and instincts he both loves and loathes,” audiences are introduced to the award-winning ensemble: The Thoughts. These six “Thoughts” characters — played by L Morgan Lee, Jason Veasey, John-Michael Lyles, Antwayn Hopper, John-Andrew Morrison, and James Jackson Jr. — make up a Greek chorus of sorts, representing Usher’s inner dialogue. Five of them gave Broadway Direct their own thoughts about working on A Strange Loop.
When did you first become involved with the production? What drew you to the piece?
L Morgan Lee: I got a message from Michael in 2015 asking if I’d be interested in doing a reading of A Strange Loop. He included a few YouTube clips so I could get a feel for his writing. I was immediately drawn to the bluntness of Michael’s lyrics, thinking, “I’ve never heard anyone be this blunt and unfiltered in a musical.” The words bring the listener into the most intimate of conversations and there’s no attempt to edit or fit in with anyone. Michael’s words are unapologetic. That’s what sparked my interest. It was raw and honest storytelling.
Jason Veasey: I first came to the piece back in 2012. Ten years ago! I was recommended to Michael by [actor and writer] Randy Blair. What drew me to the piece was its honesty, rebelliousness, humor, and really beautiful and interesting score. I knew it was something really cool. I wanted it to succeed whether I was a part of it or not.
John-Michael Lyles: I joined in 2018 with a reading at Playwrights Horizons. I was immediately drawn in by the heart, humor, and complexity. I was also incredibly inspired by the opportunity to utilize the full expression of my Blackness and queerness in order to tell this story.
Antwayn Hopper: I became involved in 2016, two weeks before the infamous election. What drew me to this piece was the strength of the book mixed with a dream score featuring — get this — an actual bass [vocal] line. The choral nerd in me loved the harmonies. Michael R. Jackson is a genius. I knew this was a story that needed to be told.
John-Andrew Morrison: I was just reminded that the first time I sang “Periodically” was October 1, 2008. When you get a song like that, you cherish it. I always say that song is a whole life in a four-minute song. Being involved with Michael’s words for so long, his honesty and sense of humor, made me want to continue to sing anything he wanted me to sing. He is singular in his writing, and I feel particularly honored that he kept asking me back to sing this song and be a part of this piece that is now on Broadway.
What did the first Off-Broadway performance feel like?
Lyles: The first Off-Broadway performance felt electric. I felt such a reverence for the material, and I took my duty to the story very seriously. I wanted to honor the years of hard work that had gone into this special piece. I carried with me an immense love for everyone involved, so I was eager to sing and slay alongside them!
Lee: The first performance at Playwrights was one I will never forget. I was excited and scared. Terrified, even. That was my first time being back on a New York stage since I’d been open about being trans. To say it was a vulnerable moment would be putting it lightly. I had no idea how I would be seen by audiences. I was very comfortable in my day-to-day, but being put in front of hundreds of people, under light and direct attention — cue dysphoria. Even with all of that, the minute we hit the stage, the only thing that mattered was that we were there to share something special to each of us in different ways. There’s healing in this story.
Veasey: Playwrights Horizons was so cool. We were so very excited and grateful to be there. What I remember most is the reaction from friends after that first performance. They were very intent on making sure that I knew that this was something big. It just confirmed what I’ve always thought about the show.
Hopper: Opening night at Playwrights was magical! To have Al Sharpton, my cousin Aisha McShaw, my dad, William F. Hopper, and his wife, Sylvia, and my New York sister, Sandra Santana, there to witness something developed from pure love, sweat, finding and losing myself to find myself again, was overwhelming for me. I remember doing the finale song and I couldn’t stop shaking from crying. I was so happy to have my dad there, wiping away tears of joy as he watched his son do what he has always stood up for so I could do it, performing on a New York stage in a show that has a purpose and a story that touches people. What a moment I will cherish forever. Chills come over me as I daydream for the Broadway opening.
Morrison: It felt like the greatest surprise. I didn’t grow up here, but it felt like those American movies where the girl wins prom queen. This little show that started in a porn studio, and all of a sudden Anna Wintour and Lin-Manuel Miranda were in our audience. One night we stepped on stage and Sondheim was there. There was one night where the audience was very quiet and I was like, “Well, that’s it, we’re done.” When the show ended, we got this thunderous standing ovation and I remember this man in the front row with tears in his eyes, shouting, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” The production at Playwrights Horizons was electric and wonderful and exciting. To see lines of people waiting to try to get a ticket to our show … We felt like the prettiest girl in the world.
What was your reaction when you learned the company won an Obie Award?
Morrison: It was an utter surprise. Winning it all together was so cool. We got to have a Zoom call with each other and celebrate as much as we could. I think the weird thing was that we won all these things during the [COVID-19] pandemic lockdown, so what normally would have been a party was an email. I missed getting to hug and see my castmates, but it was thrilling. You work in this business and you know it’s a special award, and then to get one just felt so affirming of our show and our talents. It was wonderful. I also won a Lortel Award, and watching that on Zoom and hearing my name was also surreal. I was in pajama bottoms and sat with it, and then just went downstairs to my sister and said, “I won a Lortel.” It was wild.
Veasey: “YAAAAAAY!” That was my reaction! We were being blessed a lot that awards season, so it was a really cool cherry on top.
Hopper: To be cheered on and encouraged by your professional peers for something you’ve worked hard on from a place of love — that’s a great feeling. Everyone worked so hard and had so much love behind it. The whole company became my family and we all formed a village out of love and empathy. Winning the Obie made us proud, as it acknowledges the standard we all kept and still keep within ourselves, to pour our best and give our all into the little production that could.
Lyles: I was like, “Yasss, the first of many!”
How has the piece changed or evolved from Off-Broadway to Broadway?
Morrison: The show is still very much the wild ride that it always was, but it has gotten deeper, stronger, and more lived-in. Michael, Stephen [director Brackett], and Raja [choreographer Feather Kelly] have become more bold in how they want to present the vision of the show. The audience is in for the best time on Broadway.
Lee: Something I love about this team is that they don’t rest on the splash the show made Off-Broadway. Michael could easily be like, “I won a Pulitizer, we’re not changing a thing.” Instead he has said, as he evolves, so does the show. It is a living project, and the world is not the same as it was in 2019. There are conversations that we’ve been having on the way to Broadway that I believe truly flavor and deepen the storytelling even more. You’re in for a treat.
Hopper: Without giving anything away, I can say that there will be many visual surprises, “ooh”s and “ahh”s, gasps, and hilarious moments. More amazing nuisances have been added within the production since Playwrights, and even since Woolly! I am extremely excited for those who have witnessed both past productions because this one is that same story, just to the nth degree. For those who are magnificently crossing into a little piece of perception that is A Strange Loop, you are about to get the time of your life, honey! After all, this is “the big, Black, and queer-ass American Broadway show!”
Several of you are making your Broadway debut. How does that feel?
Lee: I look up at the sky and think, “I get why I had to wait.” I’ve been in New York City for many years and had a lot of close calls, but I wasn’t a fit for those roles because I wasn’t honestly being me. Now I am. To be making my Broadway debut with this show feels, finally, right. It’s particularly special to me because there are not many trans folx on Broadway. To be a Black trans woman originating a role in a show with a message I support means the world to me. I hope it can be a reminder to younger actors in particular to keep showing up and keep studying, and keep dreaming. It is possible.
Lyles: When I found out I was going to Broadway, I found myself immeasurably grateful for Kristin Colaneri, my middle school theater teacher, who played such a pivotal role in opening my eyes to literature, poetry, improvisation, singing, acting, and the power of voice. Her passion and commitment to teaching us directly resulted in my ability to actualize my passions and paved the way to a pinnacle of theatrical aspirations.
Morrison: It feels like a birthday and Christmas, all wrapped up in a sugar candy cloud, riding in a Bentley, but better than that. It’s amazing. We got to the Big Show. Not everyone gets to have that experience. And to be opening a show you have worked for years on with people you love, it is the most thrilling feeling in the world.
Jason and Antwayn, you’re returning to Broadway. How does it feel to be back on a Broadway stage with this piece and company?
Veasey: It feels great to be back. My first time [in The Lion King] was fun and magical, but I was going into a very long-running show for a shorter period of time. This time I’m originating my role, so in a way, it feels like a debut.
Hopper: The Tony-winning revival of Hair, directed by Diane Paulus, was my Broadway debut. It holds a prolific message of peace, love, and self-evaluation and awareness. To be returning 11 years later with another show with its own prolific message behind it is definitely a purposeful experience sent by the universe. This moment is meant to happen, and I am just blessed to be here. Broadway is an American treasure, and I am happy to be representing many people who have carried, prayed, and believed in me. This one’s for you. Thank you!
What are you most excited for audiences to experience with A Strange Loop?
Morrison: I’m so excited for them to see this story, hear this music, and just take the wild ride we have for them. We have so many surprises and delights for them. Broadway ain’t ready. You hear me? They ain’t ready.
Lee: Honestly? The glow-up. The show has always had a sort of scrappy vibe, and it’s been mesmerizing seeing how the creative team has kept true to that and still managed to elevate the aesthetic of the show for a larger theatre. I got emotional when I saw my hair for the first time in a fitting. It’s the little things. Audiences will be experiencing a cast full of Broadway dreams coming true. I think you can feel it in the air.
Hopper: I am so excited for all the conversations that will ensue after seeing A Strange Loop. I am excited for the gates of compassion to overflow with love and understanding! It’s something that one can only witness from good live theater: a good story, a good book, good music and dancing, plus powerful storytelling. Buckle your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy — but amazing — ride!
How has working on this piece impacted your artistry?
Hopper: A Strange Loop has allowed me to look into a mirror and ask myself some scary questions. Running from them and then coming back to them. It has allowed me to therapeutically work out many emotional blocks and tumultuous baggage I’ve carried. Being in this show has been a six-year blessing, each with self-enlightenment, and personal, artistic maturity as a person. This beautiful show has cemented a standard I will always work at — no matter the production — with integrity, always giving my all, and practicing what I preach.
Veasey: It’s made me bolder and more secure in what I do well. It’s set a standard for me that I think might be hard to find ever again.
How has A Strange Loop impacted the theatrical landscape?
Morrison: That this singular story can have a life on stage makes it possible for other stories to live on stage. Five or six years ago this show would never see the light of day. I think people are realizing that to expand audiences you need to expand the stories told and how they are told. You want a diverse audience, let diverse stories live, and not just the same tropes we have been allowed to have. Blackness is not just slavery and police violence. Blackness is also love, desire, and adventure, and on, and on, and on. Let all of these experiences live, and I think seeing the response to this piece and knowing what it does and how it does it may let other stories see the light of day.