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'A Strange Loop,' finally, comes to Broadway

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A musical that opens on Broadway tonight has already won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. It's called "A Strange Loop," and here's how the cast describes it in the show's opening number.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INTERMISSION SONG")

LARRY OWENS: (As Usher, singing) Big, Black and queer-ass American Broadway.

UNIDENTIFIED ENSEMBLE #1: (Singing) Big, Black and queer-ass American Broadway.

UNIDENTIFIED ENSEMBLE #2: (Singing) Big, Black and queer-ass American Broadway show.

SHAPIRO: This big, Black and queer-ass American Broadway show was written by Michael R. Jackson. When I asked him to explain what this semi-autobiographical musical is about, he described it this way.

MICHAEL R JACKSON: So "A Strange Loop" is about a Black, gay musical theater writer who works as an usher at a Broadway show, who's writing a musical about a Black, gay musical theater writer who works as an usher at a Broadway show, who's writing a musical about a Black, gay musical theater writer who works as an usher at a Broadway show...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

JACKSON: ...Ad infinitum and is sort of cycling through his own perceptions of himself and his own self-hatred.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TODAY")

OWENS: (As Usher, singing) I want to break the cycle that's so ingrained in me. But change comes way too slow, and I am in a hurry. There's all of this rejection.

SHAPIRO: A couple of years ago, I spoke to Jackson for the Kentucky Author Forum's podcast series "Great Podversations." At the time, Jackson had recently gotten the good news that he'd won the Pulitzer after the show's off-Broadway run. And he'd also gotten some bad news - the show's Broadway opening was postponed indefinitely because of the pandemic. Well, two years later, that long postponed opening night has arrived. And so we are bringing you an edited version of that conversation from 2020.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TODAY")

OWENS: (As Usher, singing) I hate days like today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SHAPIRO: Hi, Pulitzer Prize winner Michael R. Jackson.

JACKSON: Hi. How are you?

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) I'm good. How does it feel to have that attached to your name now, like, forever and ever and ever?

JACKSON: I'm into it, but every once in a while I have, like, a moment of I can't believe this.

SHAPIRO: This show is so much about being an outsider and not being accepted by the mainstream and feeling, like, apart from. It's got to be, like, a mind leap to suddenly be embraced by, like, the biggest awards there are, right?

JACKSON: Yeah. I mean, it definitely wasn't on my vision board for sure...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

JACKSON: ..You know, and especially with this show in particular, just because the way that it started was such a - like, a personal thing for me, and, like, I'd never expected it to go any of the places that it went when I began it.

SHAPIRO: You began it, like, almost 20 years ago - right? - just after 9/11?

JACKSON: Yeah, like around 2001. And it was just a personal monologue that I sort of wrote for myself as I was about to graduate from college at that time. It was just a monologue called Why I Can't Get Work because I was about to graduate from playwriting school at NYU, and I just wasn't sure what was, like, in store for me. And I - so I just wrote this monologue about this young, Black gay man walking around New York wondering why life was so terrible. And it just sort of took on a life of its own, slowly but surely, after that.

SHAPIRO: What was the first song you wrote?

JACKSON: "Memory Song."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEMORY SONG")

OWENS: (As Usher, singing) Five-foot-four, high school gym, sneaking a cupcake - these are my memories. These are my memories.

JACKSON: I wrote it when I was in grad school, and that song, like, went over well enough in my class that my teacher encouraged me to continue writing my own music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEMORY SONG")

OWENS: (As Usher, singing) These are my memories of one lone, Black gay boy I knew who chose to turn his back on the Lord.

JACKSON: I have a love of what sort of classic Broadway is and can do, but I'm also, like, a Black, queer man living in the world, creating his own stories and narrative. So part of the game for me of writing "A Strange Loop" - and this is something I only came to over time as I was making it - was that I wanted to invite everyone in. And so that means, yes, your grandparents. Like, I want to invite them in with melodies that sound - it could be a classic melody or a big toe-tapping Broadway show and then with content that is very challenging. So it's always been, for me, this push and pull between form and content.

SHAPIRO: Did people give you notes that you had to tone things down and you resisted those notes, or did people support you all the way? Like, write about the Grindr hook-up, write about the - you know, all of the other things that, like, we haven't seen on Broadway before.

JACKSON: So fortunately or unfortunately because of the sort of - the various zeitgeists of time - again, remembering that I started writing this piece in the first Bush era - no one cared, like, what I was doing. Like, oh, oh, well, how cute for you. You're a Black, gay musical theater writer. Who cares? I was left to my own devices to make whatever I wanted to make, and so I just did that.

And then I was ushering at "The Lion King" and "Mary Poppins" and "Aladdin" for periods of time, and I saw what, like, big Broadway was up close. And I was like, oh, that's not really what I do. And so I just did what I wanted. So then by the time the show started to sort of emerge, the culture had shifted and was a little bit more receptive to what the show was on some level.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TYLER PERRY WRITES REAL LIFE")

UNIDENTIFIED ENSEMBLE #3: (Singing) Tyler Perry, Tyler Perry, Tyler Perry...

OWENS: (As Usher) Oh, no.

UNIDENTIFIED ENSEMBLE #3: (Singing) Tyler Perry, Tyler Perry, Tyler Perry...

SHAPIRO: And then that person who you more than call out, like, the show is...

JACKSON: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: ...In some ways built around, is Tyler Perry, who I understand (laughter) got in touch with you.

JACKSON: He did. He did not see the show, but he heard about it. And then he listened to the cast album after we spoke.

SHAPIRO: And?

JACKSON: He didn't give me any feedback about it. We just talked. He just called me to congratulate me about the Pulitzer and to, like, tell me that he was going to beat my butt.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TYLER PERRY WRITES REAL LIFE")

UNIDENTIFIED ENSEMBLE #3: (Singing) 'Cause Tyler Perry writes real life.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Tyler Perry writes real life.

UNIDENTIFIED ENSEMBLE #3: (Singing) He writes stories we can swallow like Popeye's chicken and biscuits.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) He writes stories we can follow like we follow the drinking gourd.

SHAPIRO: I think it's really interesting that even before the racial justice protests around police violence and larger issues, you were talking about the way that this show represents kind of, like, the everyday misery of being a queer, Black man that is not associated with acute instances of, like, physical harm and danger.

JACKSON: Correct, right. That was also really important for me is that, like, I wanted to also - while dealing with the everyday misery, it was also important to me that people see a Black man, a Black queer man not being sacrificed to police violence and slavery.

SHAPIRO: So how do you see this story fitting in with a national conversation about the legacy of slavery and police violence and all of the other, like, you know, towering historical and present-day injustices?

JACKSON: So I see it fitting in exactly as it does. It's a story that I told with the creative team that I made. And, like, it's one patchwork in a quilt of many stories, but it's not the entire story. And so I don't think that even as we are grappling with these issues nationally, it's not the whole story. It's part of that.

But I think that that also goes to this idea that we're always in every group that is always dealing with the individual versus the group. "A Strange Loop" is about an individual person trying to figure out what's wrong with him and then learning nothing's wrong with him.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

JACKSON: And so he's - that's one story. What's the next Black queer man story? What's the next one? For me, it's like - it's a very complicated - it's like there's this national thing going on, and then there's, like, individual people in their lives trying to figure it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A STRANGE LOOP")

OWENS: (As Usher, singing) I am the story's writer. I'm barely scraping by.

SHAPIRO: Michael R. Jackson spoke with me in 2020 for the Kentucky Author Forum's "Great Podversations." Jackson's Pulitzer Prize-winning musical "A Strange Loop" opens on Broadway tonight.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A STRANGE LOOP")

OWENS: (As Usher, singing) I claim to have a plan but feel like nothing more than an angsty, gay Black man. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Miguel Macias
Miguel Macias is a Senior Producer at All Things Considered, where he is proud to work with a top-notch team to shape the content of the daily show.
Sarah Handel
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