We have decided to stan Michael R. Jackson forever
In which I get swept up by the strange loop of “A Strange Loop.”
|Louis Peitzman||Jun 18, 2019|| 5|
I try so hard not to overhype theater, and then I see a show like A Strange Loop and think, fuck it, this is an incredible, game-changing, heart-stopping musical, and I need to be shouting that from the rooftops. I say “a show like A Strange Loop,” but there aren’t shows like A Strange Loop: there is just A Strange Loop, and if you don’t already have tickets, I suggest you get on that immediately. First, because you don’t want to miss it — and frankly, once you see it, you’re going to want to see it again. And second, because it’s going to be a big fucking deal, and you’ll be able to say, “I saw A Strange Loop back when it was at Playwrights Horizons.” Don’t you want those bragging rights? The show was just extended, which is good news for all of us.
A Strange Loop stars Larry Owens as Usher, a gay black writer who works as an usher at The Lion King while trying to write a musical called A Strange Loop about a gay black writer who works as an usher at The Lion King while trying to write a musical called A Strange Loop about — well, you get the idea. Michael R. Jackson is clearly being somewhat autobiographical here, but this show is so rich and beautifully conceived that it goes beyond one writer’s personal experience. There’s a long tradition of musicals about the creative process of writing a musical: Tick, Tick… Boom! feels like the most obvious reference point, but even that comparison feels limiting. A Strange Loop never feels constrained by its concept, which is really more of a jumping off point for a stunning exploration of identity, insecurity, and self-expression. It also asks a question that feels especially relevant amid an often toothless conversation about diversity and inclusion in theater: what are the narratives that get told because they’re more palatable to (rich white) audiences, and what are the narratives that don’t?
Part of what makes A Strange Loop so thrilling is that it feels like the latter: it’s a gorgeous piece of theater that absolutely deserves to be seen by the widest audience possible, but it’s easy to imagine producers fully not getting it, or trying to force Jackson to compromise his vision to create something more digestible. Which is not to say that the show is inaccessible — it’s relentlessly entertaining and filled to the brim with instantly catchy bops. At the same time, it’s unapologetically black, queer, and anti-Tyler Perry, with references that run the gamut from Liz Phair to felching to Chateau Shereé. Its strength lies in the fact that not everyone will get every piece of it; Jackson didn’t soften his perspective or his politics, and A Strange Loop resonates so much more deeply for that. While there have been plenty of shows that are meta and self-reflective, something meta and self-reflective from a black queer point of view still feels like a revelation.
Here is where I acknowledge that I have known Jackson and Owens for years, but I can assure you that I’m coming at this from a place of objectivity — and when have I ever led you astray? For as long as I have known them both, I have been in awe of their talent, and A Strange Loop still managed to catch me off-guard. Having seen Owens in Cabaret, I knew he wasn’t “just” funny (I hate saying that as it implies that being funny isn’t a powerful skill unto itself, and Owens is really fucking funny). A Strange Loop, however, is an exceptional showcase of his range. As trite as it is to say that he made me laugh and cry, he did both, and you can deal with it. As for the writing, some of Jackson’s lyrics are so clever or surprising or gut-wrenching, that I found myself gasping. I don’t want to compare him to any other writers and composers, but I don’t think that I need to: I will just say that he is a distinctive talent who will have what I hope is a long, prolific career. He can write hits, yes, but more importantly, he can make people feel seen and also profoundly uncomfortable — and that is why I go to the theater. Do yourself a favor and see what A Strange Loop does to you.