What can I say about “A Strange Loop” that hasn’t already been said? When I got the assignment to review Michael R. Jackson’s Pulitzer-winning musical, I even asked my editor, “Am I the best person to review this?” What insight can a heterosexual cis Asian woman provide about a musical dealing with, “What it’s like to live up here/And travel the world in a fat, Black queer body”? And it’s not just identity; Jackson’s musical also criticizes Tyler Perry, the racist and meat-market mentality within gay dating apps and mediocre commercial theater (okay, I admit that last one I completely understand).
Anyway, because the review schedule was set, and Broadway News didn’t want to overload its critics, and because “A Strange Loop” has lived rent-free in my mind since I saw it off Broadway in 2019, here I am now. But as I am writing this, it occurs to me that what Jackson does with “A Strange Loop” isn’t just write a musical with catchy tunes and clever lyrics. He’s also successfully testing the conceit of how the universal is rooted in the specific. In making the lead character a fat, Black gay man, within an industry (and larger society) that prioritizes and idolizes skinny, white bodies, Jackson is making a Black gay man an embodiment of the universal.
And he’s also written one of the best, and the most groundbreaking, new musicals of the Broadway season.
“A Strange Loop” has a circuitous concept: It is about a Black gay man named Usher who is writing a musical called “A Strange Loop” about a Black gay man trying to write a musical (even the ingenious set from Arnulfo Maldonado is actually a successively smaller series of loops). But the best way to describe “A Strange Loop” is as a concept musical about self-loathing.
Usher is a poor musical-theater writer, working as an usher at “The Lion King” (the choice to have “A Strange Loop” play on the same street as Pride Rock is a touch of producorial genius). Usher is fat, which his doctor shames him about. He is gay, which his churchgoing parents shame him about. And he is Black, which society shames him about.
And Usher has internalized all that negativity — he is surrounded by a chorus of his intrusive, demoralizing “Thoughts.” The chorus is played by six Black actors who refreshingly have different body types and different outfits (in neutral yet flattering tones from Montana Levi Blanco). Director Stephen Brackett and choreographer Raja Feather Kelly have given each chorus member room to add their own personal flair in the choreographed group numbers (no doubt each audience member will leave with a favorite Thought).
The story within “A Strange Loop” would be tragic if it wasn’t also side-splittingly funny. The show’s lyrics are the cleverest of the season, with the opening number “Intermission Song” filled with rhymes that would make Sondheim proud: “They’ll say it’s way too repetitious/And so overly ambitious/Which of course makes them suspicious/That you think you’re fucking white!” It’s a rhyme scheme and rhythm that brings to mind “Putting It Together” from “Sunday in the Park with George.”
Jackson’s music influences also run deep, from golden age showtunes to Sondheim to gospel music. He successfully mixes the traditional musical and church songs with the contemporary and profane — the song “AIDS Is God’s Punishment” is so rousing that you want to stand up and testify, except the song is completely homophobic, and is an indictment of church-sanctioned homophobia. It is that dichotomy that makes “A Strange Loop” a musical masterwork.
A concept musical can have clever songs, but it also needs a beating heart. Jaquel Spivey, who plays Usher (in his first role out of college), more than understands the assignment. It’s a beast of a role — Spivey never leaves the stage for the 100-minute running time, and he sings in almost every song. It’s not just the belting requirements. Usher is a role that requires the performer to bare their soul; Spivey shows a hunger to be loved through his robust and clear belt, and his puppy-dog, expressive eyes.
At the same time, the role requires a lack of self-consciousness: Usher’s self-loathing may sound beautiful but the feelings he sings about are ugly. In the song “Boundaries,” after Usher has a sexual experience that leaves him feeling used and diminished, Spivey sings covered in sweat, his pants unzipped. It’s raw and uncomfortable, and you cannot look away.
But that’s also what makes “A Strange Loop” so groundbreaking. Musical theater tends to paint a portrait of a world that is more beautiful than the one we actually live in — where life is beautiful, the girls are beautiful, even the orchestra is beautiful. With “A Strange Loop,” Jackson is showing the unvarnished truth of what it is to be surrounded by self-doubt and then to finally overcome them. Yes, it’s still a musical, but here, the songs are the sugar that makes the medicine go down.
“A Strange Loop” opened at the Lyceum Theatre on April 26, 2022.
Review Photo: Marc J. Franklin
Creative: Book by Michael R. Jackson; Music by Michael R. Jackson; Lyrics by Michael R. Jackson; Music orchestrated by Charlie Rosen; Directed by Stephen Brackett; Choreographed 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.
Producers: Barbara Whitman, Pasek, Paul & Stafford, Hunter Arnold, Marcia Goldberg, Alex Levy & James Achilles, Osh Ashruf, A Choir Full Productions, Don Cheadle & Bridgid Coulter Cheadle, Paul Oakley Stovall, Jimmy Wilson, Annapurna Theatre, Robyn Coles, Creative Partners Productions, Robyn Gottesdiener, Kayla Greenspan, Grove Entertainment, Kuhn, Lewis & Scott, Frank Marshall, Maximum Effort Productions Inc., Joey Monda, Richard Mumby, Phenomenal Media & Meena Harris, Marc Platt & Debra Martin Chase, Laurie Tisch, Yonge Street Theatricals, Dodge Hall Productions/JJ Maley, Cody Renard Richard, John Gore Organization, James L. Nederlander, The Shubert Organization, RuPaul Charles, Alan Cumming, Ilana Glazer, Jennifer Hudson, Mindy Kaling, Billy Porter, Page 73, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and Playwrights Horizons.
Cast: Antwayn Hopper, James Jackson, Jr., L Morgan Lee, John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison, Jaquel Spivey and Jason Veasey.