It’s rare when a musical wins the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Most recently it was cultural touchstone Hamilton and before that, the emotionally hefty Next to Normal. Where Hamilton was a show about American political history and Next to Normal the story of a woman struggling with mental illness, A Strange Loop is something altogether less reverential and more audacious. It’s a tale about a queer Black man that features oft-hysterical sendups of stereotypical tropes from both camps in a meta display of wit and insight into matters of the stage.
Michael R. Jackson is the lyricist, composer, and book writer of this delirious creation, his professional debut. It was first presented Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons where it enjoyed an acclaimed, limited 2019 run. Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in Washington, D.C. had scheduled a fall ’20 production before the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated that run’s postponement. It’s likely that the Pulitzer win will initiate a return engagement in New York since A Strange Loop is the only musical to win the prize without the benefit of a Broadway run. The show was further heralded with other major theatre accolades including Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, and Obie Awards. In lieu of a current run, we have the newly published script in a sleek Theatre Communications Group print.
It’s a unique challenge to review the script of a musical compared to that of a straight play. I confess to having peeked at the trailer from the Playwrights Horizons’ production but I’m reviewing the script, not the sole professional production to date. I’ve therefore declined to either watch the show online or listen to the original cast recording. What’s left is a paperback with the contents of the book and the lyrics, information about the Playwrights Horizons run, a one-sentence description of the setting, and brief details pertaining to the characters. Oh, and a list of the songs and who sings them.
It’s difficult not to pine for some written insight into the sound of the show, yet that information is not commonly included when musicals are published and put to public print. Having read dozens of plays I confess to scant experience reading a musical without having a familiarity with the score and/or staging. While Hamilton has helped usher in a new era of musical scripts being read like straight plays or novels it’s heartening to see other award-winners like A Strange Loop offered up as fodder for fans, students, and scholars.
Where does that leave this crisp, new paperback script? Taken on its own terms, it’s at turns inventive, knowing, and subversive, all good ingredients for a significant new work for the stage. There’s the main character of Usher, also his job description, an aspiring musical theater writer employed on Broadway by The Lion King. The shadow of that commercial sensation looms large over Usher, as the occasional audience member bursts into his imaginative reveries, demanding his immediate attention. Those audience members and other characters are portrayed by a chorus simply described as Thoughts 1-6, a clever dramaturgical device.
Among the other figures portrayed by the Thoughts is a superego, who’s prone to spouting bon mots about how “truly worthless” Usher is, a figure that suggests the specter of pathology while also indicating penetration of a certain wall. What renders the script of A Strange Loop broadly resonant is its blueprint quality; there’s a spare DNA to the writing that suggests a promising future for productions both professional and academic. There are the recurring figures of Usher’s parents who remind him of his considerable student loans incurred earning both a BFA and an MFA, a biography Jackson shares. There’s much to suggest a swath of autobiography to the script without those threads proving distracting. The merits of the script include the universality of the story of a young artist struggling against the challenges of societal and parental disapproval, not to mention racial and sexuality issues faced by the main character. There’s even the matter of body dysmorphia, given his weight management struggles.
One of the most striking elements of Loop is a subplot about Tyler Perry and how Usher’s parents both praise Perry and encourage their son to emulate his commercial success. It’s rare to read a script that offers such an amusing, extended critique of another writer’s work. That this riff foreshadows a connection between the two writers is yet another inventive development.
Jackson’s brave and ingenious dissection of race and sexuality norms provides a portal from which those who have experienced discrimination based on their identity can readily embrace his insight and humor, alchemized into a transportive and mordantly funny play, made of and for these times.
A Strange Loop by Michael R. Jackson is published by Theatre Communications Group.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.