Did he really just say that? And sing that?
Scott Rudin, Tyler Perry, Disney, critics, and the composer-lyricist-librettist Michael R. Jackson himself are among those skewered and scrutinized in Jackson’s funny, raunchy and painfully honest new musical, A Strange Loop.
“Watch them write you off as lazy/not to mention navel-gazy,” one of Jackson’s “thoughts” sings in anticipation of reviewers weighing in on his “big, black and queer-ass American Broadway show,” which opened last night off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons. “No one cares about a writer who is struggling to write/They’ll say it’s way too repetitious/and so overly ambitious/which of course makes them suspicious/that you think you’re F*cking white!”
A Strange Loop takes place mostly in Jackson’s head. A doppelgänger, Usher (Larry Owens), ushers at Disney’s The Lion King as a day job — as did Jackson years ago — while writing a musical called a A Strange Loop. He’s accompanied by an ensemble of six “thoughts” played by an ensemble of six, inventively dramatizing Jackson’s look back in anger as he struggles with self-loathing, alienation, low pay, homophobic parents and at least one humiliating hookup.
While the introspective piece recalls earlier works about artists, such as [title of show], Passing Strange and even Sunday in the Park with George, which premiered at Playwrights 36 years earlier, Jackson is an original. His unvarnished and wry look at race, sexuality and show business sets this apart, as do the melodic and arresting songs.
With only one fleshed-out character — the young writer — a few of the book scenes get tedious. And while the themes are universal, some of the graphic jargon will leave less-than-hip audience members confused. (I had to do some post-show Googling, script in hand.)
Still, even if produced black composers were commonplace in musical theater — and they’re not — Jackson is an important voice. With some developmental work, one can imagine A Strange Loop expanding boundaries on Broadway. Stranger things have happened.
Editor: Alice Scovell