The Pulitzer Prize-winning musical 'A Strange Loop' is Broadway bound Michael R. Jackson put 20 years into polishing his audacious, autobiographical musical, and then theaters went dark. Now, 'A Strange Loop' is building buzz on its way to New York City.

A Pulitzer winner at the worst possible time, 'A Strange Loop' is Broadway-bound

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Michael R. Jackson won a Pulitzer Prize for drama last year, but every theater was dark. The playwright was stuck in limbo like everybody else, but now his acclaimed and audacious musical is finally headed to Broadway. NPR's Neda Ulaby has more.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: "A Strange Loop" is a musical by a guy named Michael Jackson about a guy named Usher.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TODAY")

LARRY OWENS: (As Usher, singing) I am a Disney usher. I'm barely scraping by. My discontentment comes in many shapes and sizes.

ULABY: Usher is literally an usher on Broadway, where his job is to abjectly guide tourists to expensive seats at "The Lion King." But Usher is also a playwright whose inner life teems with doubts and fears in the form of characters who torment him mercilessly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TODAY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) Usher, surprise. How you doing? It's your daily self-loathing. I had some time to kill, so I thought I'd stop by to remind you just how truly worthless you are.

ULABY: "A Strange Loop" just opened in Washington, D.C. - next stop, Broadway. The playwright, taking a break during rehearsals, says his musical specifically follows a young, Black, fat, queer playwright's journey.

MICHAEL R JACKSON: The piece is not autobiographical. I always call it self-referential, which is to say that I drew on personal experience to write a lot of it but it's not, like, an apples-to-apples direct relationship to my life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INTERMISSION SONG")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Usher, Usher. Usher, Usher.

ULABY: Michael R. Jackson grew up in Detroit. His father was a cop. His mom worked for General Motors, and he played piano in church as a kid. Jackson loved writing fiction, and scripting soap opera sounded like fun. So he applied to New York University's playwriting program and studied musical theater. The obsessive challenge of creating musicals is part of what makes "A Strange Loop" so meta.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INTERMISSION SONG")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Can I really write this? How many minutes till the end of intermission? Is that how the show should open? Should there even be a show? No, it should it start with what he's thinking, which is just a cursor blinking, because of all of the directions that the narrative could go. He has to show what it's like to live up here and travel the world in a fat, Black, queer body.

ULABY: Along with theater titans such as Stephen Sondheim and George C. Wolfe, "A Strange Loop" is profoundly influenced by the rocker Liz Phair.

JACKSON: Liz Phair is an artist who is unabashedly herself and who had her own voice and her own music.

ULABY: The title, "A Strange Loop," comes from a Liz Phair song. She's chief among what Jackson calls his inner white girls, whose ability to channel rage into art helped him find his voice.

JACKSON: She did. Tori Amos did. Joni Mitchell did. These inner white girls are like, we do what we want. You do what you want.

ULABY: Jackson's adoration of Liz Phair is matched by his intense disdain for a Black entertainment mogul whose wildly popular plays and movies have contained homophobic and HIV-stigmatizing messages.

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

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Tyler Perry, Tyler Perry...

ULABY: In one song, Usher tells his agent he would never ghost write the kind of lowbrow material that made Tyler Perry famous.

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

OWENS: (As Usher, singing) Thank you for the opportunity.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Agent Fairweather) Of course, of course.

OWENS: (As Usher, singing) But Tyler would be none too fond of me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Agent Fairweather) Don't sell yourself short.

OWENS: (As Usher, singing) The crap he puts on stage, film and TV makes my bile want to rise.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Agent Fairweather) I know. I know. Your integrity.

OWENS: (As Usher, singing) Nothing that he writes seems real to me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Agent Fairweather) Yes, you think he sucks. Uh-huh.

OWENS: (As Usher, singing) Just simple-minded hack buffoonery.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Agent Fairweather) But no theaters will touch you.

OWENS: (As Usher, singing) And if I try to match his coonery, he'd see through my disguise.

ULABY: The humor in "A Strange Loop" is dark and mordant. The D.C. production comes with trigger warnings for child abuse, racially fetishized sex and much, much more. Maria Manuela Goyanes runs D.C.'s Woolly Mammoth Theatre.

MARIA MANUELA GOYANES: He puts it all out there. He puts it all out there.

ULABY: Goyanes used to work at The Public Theater in New York, where she helped launch a little musical called "Hamilton." She was thrilled to be the first to produce "A Strange Loop" after its Pulitzer win. But she did not have to fight off any other theaters to get it.

GOYANES: Nope (laughter), which was surprising, to be honest with you.

ULABY: So many theater are fending off financial peril, and "A Strange Loop" is risky business. It's brutally funny, but it's brutal, scorching self-hate and racism and artistic paralysis - all this is exactly what Goyanes loves to see explored in theatre.

GOYANES: Lord knows that "A Strange Loop" is, like (laughter) - there are questions about its commercial viability, for sure, right? Like, are tourists going to come from New Jersey to go see it? I mean, I hope so, you know?

ULABY: In D.C., "A Strange Loop" has been met with standing ovations. Goyanes compares the musical to daring Broadway hits such as "Slave Play" by Jeremy O. Harris and "Fun Home," based on Alison Bechdel's book. Like those shows, Jackson intends "A Strange Loop" to explode genres lovingly.

JACKSON: I hope that I'm pushing the forum forward in some way. You know, I very much think of myself as being in a musical theater tradition, and so I hope that I'm doing my part to sort of push the boundaries of the form while also honoring the form.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INTERMISSION SONG")

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

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Big, Black and queer-ass American Broadway.

ULABY: Jackson's big, Black and queer musical should be coming to Broadway next year - that is, unless the pandemic shuts theatres again in a strange loop nobody needs, especially not Michael R. Jackson. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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