A Strange Loop. Book, music, and lyrics by Michael R. Jackson. Directed by Stephen Brackett. Choreography by Raja Feather Kelly. Scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado. Costume design by Montana Levi Blanco. Lighting design by Jen Schriever . Sound design by Drew Levy. Hair, wig, and makeup design by Cookie Jordan. Vocal arrangements by Michael R. Jackson. Music coordinator Tomoko Akaboshi. Intimacy director Chelsea Pace. Associate director Nemuna Ceesay. Associate choreographer Candace Taylor. Music direction by Rona Siddiqui. Orchestrations by Charlie Rosen.
It's a shame all that love vibe is unable to penetrate the fourth wall. Because that's what the protagonist really wants, some unconditional love. That, plus some way to complete and then receive recognition for the unfinished musical he is working on.
"Write what you know" is advice that is given to all new writers. But first you need to "know what you know," and what better place is there to find that out than inside your own head? That's where the central character, Usher (Jaquel Spivey, making a spectacular Broadway debut), hangs out quite a bit, especially during the intermission of The Lion King, where he works. As an usher!
So it's inside Usher's mind we go, where we discover that among the percolating ideas regarding his efforts to write a musical "about a Black queer writer writing a musical about a Black queer writer," there dwell several voices that have taken up residency.
Meet the voices inside Usher's head: Thought 1 (L. Morgan Lee), Thought 2 (James Jackson, Jr.), Thought 3 (John-Michael Lyles), Thought 4 (John-Andrew Morrison), and Thought 5 (Jason Veasey). Stand up and cheer for them now, because they really do all of the heavy lifting of the burdens that weigh heavily on Usher's mind, burdens of self-doubt, self-hatred, worthlessness, and (because life insists on it) horniness. Letting any of these thoughts lay anchor in your mind while you are trying to write a musical, or anything else for that matter, is a sure way to distract and disrupt.
Sometimes these thoughts just pop up to sow doubt, while at other times they take on more ambitious forms, of memories and fantasies come to life. It might be a hook-up arranged through a sex app. It could be a wished-for boyfriend. Or it could be his parents, especially his mother, who just loves him to pieces but prays for him to return to the flock, give up his sinning homosexual ways, and, perhaps, if he must be a writer, reinvent himself as a writer of Christian-themed plays like the blessed Tyler Perry.
You don't want to piss off both Mama and Harriet Tubman, so Usher sets out to write a piece of religious pageantry like you've never seen. Only you actually will see this one. It is a humdinger of a show that takes place at a funeral service for a cousin who has died of AIDS. The gospel number that surrounds it stings, but what stings even more is the impact it has on Usher's mother.
When it is all over and Usher is back on track working on his actual musical, he is as perplexed and burdened as ever. This is the "strange loop" he finds himself in, repeating the same self-defeating cycle over and over, less a loop than a Möbius strip, with no beginning and no end. It may be that Usher will not be able to find the strength to cut his ties and escape to a place where he will be accepted for who he is. Or, for that matter, where he will be able to accept himself without conditions. We just don't know.
For all its sometimes rough language and interactions, A Strange Loop has a sense of humor about itself, and it definitely has a big heart. The music is coupled with clever lyrics with references you may pick up on, to Stephen Sondheim and Jonathan Larson and others. Michael R. Jackson has also acknowledged being inspired by the singer Liz Phair, who, along with Tori Amos and Joni Mitchell, dwell collectively within Usher as his "inner white girl."
Liz Phair's music is being played in the background as we enter the theater. You may notice that she has a way of combining an uplifting folk-rock/alt-rock music style with some very biting lyrics, the same, very effective approach that Michael R. Jackson has taken with his score for A Strange Loop. We may leave unsure of Usher's future, but the very good news is that Jackson has completed his musical. And here it is, opening on Broadway! Absolute kudos to all involved, including director Stephen Brackett, choreographer Raja Feather Kelly, set designer Arnulfo Maldonado, and costume designer Montana Levi Blanco. It is clear that the creative team has worked in close harmony in support of this show, and the payoff is a huge one for an audience craving original new musicals.