Pulitzer Prize-winning musical “A Strange Loop” hits Broadway: NPR

Jaquel Spivey plays the role of bailiff in A strange loop at the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in Washington DC

Teresa Castracane / Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in association with Playwrights Horizons and Page 73 Productions


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Teresa Castracane / Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in association with Playwrights Horizons and Page 73 Productions


Jaquel Spivey plays the role of bailiff in A strange loop at the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in Washington DC

Teresa Castracane / Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in association with Playwrights Horizons and Page 73 Productions

Of all the terrible times to win a Pulitzer Prize for theater, surely the worst was April 2020. Every theater was closed and dark when playwright Michael R. Jackson’s heartbreaking debut musical, A strange loop, won the award.

“It was pretty surreal,” Jackson admits. “My producers got on Zoom and got everyone in the production together, and they sent me champagne.”

Over a year later, A strange loop finally getting ready for Broadway. Jackson sat down for an interview with NPR at Woolly Mammoth Theater in Washington DC where the show recently opened to rave reviews. It explores the meta-journey of a young playwright, a “portrait of an artist’s portrait”, in the words of the main character.

James Jackson, Jr., L. Morgan Lee, Antwayn Hopper, John-Andrew Morrison and Jason Veasey embody the self-lacerating thoughts of Usher (Jaquel Spivey) in A strange loop.

Teresa Castracane / Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in association with Playwrights Horizons and Page 73 Productions


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Teresa Castracane / Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in association with Playwrights Horizons and Page 73 Productions


James Jackson, Jr., L. Morgan Lee, Antwayn Hopper, John-Andrew Morrison and Jason Veasey embody the self-lacerating thoughts of Usher (Jaquel Spivey) in A strange loop.

Teresa Castracane / Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in association with Playwrights Horizons and Page 73 Productions

“It’s about a black, gay man who writes a musical about a black queer man who writes a musical about a queer black man who writes a musical about a queer black man,” Usher explains, replacing him. from the playwright to a nice Broadway. touristic. Usher is literally a theater usher, showing people outside to their seats to The Lion King– a job Jackson held while writing this musical. (Don’t think for a minute that it was by accident that a playwright whose name is Michael Jackson chose Usher as some sort of theater name.)

“The play is not autobiographical,” Jackson told NPR. “I call it self-referential, meaning that I took inspiration from personal experience to write a lot, but it’s not an apple-to-apple relationship with my life.”

Michael R. Jackson grew up in Detroit. His father was a police officer and his mother worked in finance for General Motors. Jackson was an aspiring child actor who also played the piano in church. He loved to write fiction, and a high school teacher encouraged him to consider scriptwriting because his stories were so cinematic. Writing soap operas sounded like fun, so Jackson applied to the New York University Drama Writing Program.

“I loved musicals, but I never thought of writing them,” he says. He ended up studying musical theater as a graduate student at NYU, he says, simply because it was his most interesting option after college. The obsessive challenge of creating musicals is fundamental to what makes A strange loop so … meta.

Jackson’s musical draws kaleidoscopic inspiration from influences ranging from Stephen Sondheim to Kirsten Childs to George C. Wolfe, and owes a particular debt to rocker Liz Phair. One of his songs even inspired the name of the musical.

“Liz Phair herself is shameless and had her own voice and her own music,” says Jackson. Listening to Phair’s music in high school taught him to channel rage into art. “Strangely enough, Liz Phair is helping me get there,” he said patiently. “She did it. Tori Amos did it. Joni Mitchell did it.” (You can watch Jackson’s hymn to these artists in the song from his musical called “Inner White Girl.”)

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“From the moment I heard the music of A strange loop, I thought Michael R. Jackson was a genius, ”says artistic director of the Woolly Mammoth Theater. Maria Manuela Goyanes. This moment dates back to when Jackson was prepping the show in its very early days.

Goyanes has launched other risky musicals, including a small show called Hamilton, when she worked at the Public Theater in New York. “I feel like A strange loop is a musical for people who don’t like musicals, “she says.” It doesn’t work like a normal musical at all. ”

Normal musicals don’t come with warnings about racially fetishized sex, child abuse, and racist stereotypes. They also don’t dedicate many over-the-top musical numbers dragging Tyler Perry for his story of producing lowbrow entertainment that contains messages of homophobia and HIV stigma.

“He didn’t see it. He heard about it,” Jackson admits, when asked about Perry’s reaction. “He called me up to congratulate me when I won the Pulitzer, which I thought was a really good thing to do. I mean, he also told me he was going to beat me up. if he ever saw me. ”

Most recently, Jackson worked on two other projects. One is a musical adaptation of The teeth, a 2007 feminist black comedy horror film about a born-again Christian teenager who suffers from an unexpected case of a dentate vagina. He also revives his earlier ambitions by working on an original musical inspired by soap operas, titled White girl in danger.

And finally, A strange loop is slated to open on Broadway in 2022. That is, unless the pandemic shuts theaters down again, in a weird loop that no one needs, especially not Michael R. Jackson.