“A Strange Loop” is a musical about a theater usher (named Usher) writing a musical about a theater usher, and it was conceived of and written by a former theater usher. Michael R. Jackson’s script and score borrow and fictionalize moments from his own life to create a composite of our 20-something-year-old protagonist and the chorus of personified Thoughts who play his “daily self-loathing,” his parents and, at one point, Harriet Tubman.
What’s more, the show is often graphic and deeply, painfully intimate: there are the barbed interactions with Usher’s parents, who attempt to dissuade him out of his long-established “homosexsh’ality,” and a sexual encounter during which Usher’s partner demeans him using racist language and roleplay.
The journey from Jackson’s brain to Broadway
Also playing in this minstrel performance are Usher’s Thoughts — there are six of them — who inhabit every other role in the production to flesh out Usher’s life. Though they’re all a part of Usher, they often feel at war with him — they partake in painful scenes in which his parents use homophobic slurs or in fictional manifestations of Usher’s deep insecurity.
There are other moments in “A Strange Loop” that will shock audiences, move them to tears or return them to a memory they’d forgotten. Most audiences have likely never seen a racially charged sex act onstage in a musical playing down the street from the exceedingly family-friendly hit “The Lion King.” But the provocation of the play serves a purpose, Brackett said, and it’s to tell an honest, original story that’s never made it to Broadway before.
“Every moment of outreach, we’re extending that out to the audience as much as possible so that people can see versions of their own life onstage,” Brackett said.
The show is influenced by bell hooks and Sondheim, among many others
“One of the things that Michael and I both share is a great love of the tradition of musical storytelling,” Brackett said. “When I think of this piece, I think of a very classic hero’s journey. There’s something almost Greek about it to me.”
Brackett said he sees in the show flashes of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” an episodic musical with a sizable ensemble traditionally anchored by one compelling, lonely male performance, and the works of William Finn, who composed the witty, winsome “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” and “Falsettos,” among others. (Unlike those shows, though, all the performers in “A Strange Loop” are Black. Brackett said that choreographor Raja Feather Kelly made sure the movement of the show “explodes with Blackness and queerness” at every turn.) The aforementioned shows are staged similarly, too, with small casts and wordy songs that reveal a character’s interiority to open-hearted audiences.
“I’m so excited for those moments onstage that are the simplest and where the audience feels a real connection to Usher, and what he’s thinking and what he’s feeling,” Brackett said.
How a personal story resonates with audiences
There’s something in Usher’s story that will ring true to every audience member, Brackett said, even though his story is highly specific.
“Everyone knows what it feels like to be misunderstood, to feel trapped, to be working against something that they feel is against them,” he said.
That specificity is purposeful, Brackett said — Usher, dressed in a green plaid flannel and bell hooks tee, sharing sharp memories of a family spat or a painful sexual experience, comes to life through these details.
“The moment you start to generalize, the moment it starts to feel a little inauthentic,” he said. “We go to the theater to see humanity onstage — life reflected.”
Brackett said he hears from audience members after every show who connect with an element of Usher’s story, whether it’s his complex relationship with his family, his overwhelming self-loathing or his being stuck at a low-paying job while his life’s work remains stuck inside his head.
“It was really important to us that, obviously, this show is about a young, gay, overweight Black man,” he said. “It’s very specific to the identity of that story, but we knew that we wanted it to have as much of a universal implication as possible.”
Its acclaim shows that ‘big, Black queer-ass’ shows can succeed on Broadway
Jackson tinkered with the script up until the curtain went up on the show’s Broadway opening in April, Brackett said, refining a script that already earned one of the highest honors in the arts.
Fans of the show will find out on Sunday whether the Broadway League and American Theatre Wing have decided to reward this “big, Black and queer-ass” musical when the Tony Awards air on CBS.
CNN’s Austin Steele contributed to this report.