Before audiences have the chance to see the original Off-Broadway cast of A Strange Loop reunite for a one-night-only Joe's Pub concert October 14, they can take a deep dive into the musical's score with its writer, Michael R. Jackson.
Jackson wrote the book, music, and lyrics for the musical that explores the thoughts of a black, queer writer working a job he hates while writing his original musical: a piece about a black, queer composer working a job he hates while writing his original musical. Here, Jackson shares the stories behind the songs, including his Liz Phair inspiration, his complex feelings about writing "for" black audiences, and why musicals should always include a title song.
The original cast album is now available from Yellow Sound Label.
READ: Award-Winning Writer Michael R. Jackson Gets Deeply Personal With His Musical A Strange Loop
“Intermission Song” is about a protagonist named Usher trying to figure out how to write his self-referential musical A Strange Loop while ringing the intermission bells at his job as a Broadway usher. This song is broken into two halves—the intro and the song proper. The intro was inspired from a moment back in my ushering days at the New Amsterdam Theatre for The Lion King on Broadway. One night I had the occasion to be stationed on the mezzanine level as guests began to enter the theatre. There was an older white woman who had gone down to row AA and needed something (probably a booster seat) and started waving her hand and calling up to the ushers like she was hailing a taxi. “Usher, usher!” I clocked it and knew immediately I had to base a song in the show around that musical phrase. The rest of the song came from having to walk around the orchestra level many times during intermission ringing the intermission bells to get people back to their seats for the second act. For a long time the song was about patrons at the theatre following Usher around and bothering him at work in a heightened way, but during preproduction for the show, it occurred to me that A Strange Loop was really about the thoughts in Usher’s head and his perceptions of the world, and the whole show began to change to accommodate that concept.
“Today” was an early song that was written to be as much of an “I want” song as made sense within the structure of the show. Usher is writing a musical called A Strange Loop. In that musical, there is a character named Usher writing a musical about a character named Usher who wants to change himself and break out of the stasis he’s in. This song is a reflection of that desire.
“We Wanna Know”
“We Wanna Know” is a voicemail message that introduces Usher’s perception of his mother as played by all six of his Thoughts. The song is meant to capture the size of Usher’s mother in his head and in his musical and introduce the idea that Usher’s perception of his mother is tasking him with writing a Tyler Perry–style gospel play.
“Inner White Girl”
I wrote this song in response to “We Wanna Know” in order to express the nuance of being a black person who rightly or wrongly feels trapped within intra-racial cultural expectations and demands. To protect himself from those expectations and demands, Usher imagines that he has a “cool, tall, vulnerable and luscious” white woman rocker inside of him in the mold of someone like Liz Phair who “gets to be” unapologetically herself. “She lets him feel like a human supernova / like he could conquer the earth / like he’s the heir to the power and oppression her kind have wielded since birth …” He’s definitely felt the oppression as a black man and he would now like to feel some of the power.
“Didn’t Want Nothin’”
This song is a voicemail left by Usher’s father as played by all siz Thoughts. I wanted to portray a loving but emotionally distant relationship between a father and son that felt real to me. And to me, one of the realest things about having a black dad is voicemails that say, “Hey, son it’s your Dad. I didn’t want nothin’.” When of course that is the exact opposite of what he means.
“Exile in Gayville”
While A Strange Loop is not a strictly autobiographical musical, I did draw from personal experience to write it. “Exile In Gayville” is an articulation of rage of all the years I allowed myself to be held captive by “dating” apps like Grindr, Scruff, and Manhunt and the “gaytriarchy”—primarily white gay men who seemed to capriciously rule the worlds of sex and dating in New York City. In the song, Usher is advised by his doctor that he must be having more sex or else he won’t keep up with his peers. Usher tries and fails abysmally.
“Second Wave” started out as a standalone song I wrote about five years ago and became a palate cleansing song Usher writes to calm himself down after he strikes out with an imagined man he meets on the train. Like “Inner White Girl,” it deals with a duality Usher feels inside.
“Tyler Perry Writes Real Life”
The expectations and demands Usher feels with regard to the writing he does don’t only come from his family. They also come from his agent, who would also him to write a Tyler Perry–style gospel play in order to make money. When Usher refuses, he is admonished by the ghosts of Harriet Tubman, Carter G. Woodson, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Solomon Northup, and Whitney Houston for being too high-minded. This song is the expression of an ongoing argument I have with myself about what it means to write “for” black audiences but not respect their intelligence or complexity when doing so.
“Writing a Gospel Play”
In obeisance to the ancestors, Usher brainstorms a version of the gospel play that features the antics of some of the stock characters in such a piece. They are entertaining but only a step or two removed from a minstrel show. Is that really what the people want?
“A Sympathetic Ear”
Not being able to successfully write the gospel play the world would like him to write, Usher finds himself stuck and back at the theatre ringing intermission bells. He meets a kindly old lady who helps him through a bit of writer’s block. This song used to be for all six Thoughts but was eventually winnowed down to a little aria for Thought 1.
After a challenging conversation with his family (that may also just be a scene he writes of them), Usher finds himself in Inwood late at night to meet a meth-abusing old white man for sex. Having low self-esteem and desperate for any affection at all, Usher consents to a sexual encounter that quickly becomes racially demeaning. The initial inspiration for this song came back in the halcyon days of me scrolling the now defunct Craigslist M4M board and seeing ridiculous headlines, laughing hysterically and setting it to music that I later realized was not that far off from Diana Ross and The Supremes song “My World Is Empty Without You,” which is oddly perfect in my opinion.
“Boundaries” is a song of regret and of Usher slowly coming to the realization that he has to find love and self-respect for himself as opposed to in the arms of white men who will never see him as equal.
“Periodically” is one of the oldest songs in A Strange Loop. A tiny part of it was adapted from a voicemail my mother left for me when I turned 26 (“This is the day! This is the day! This is the day that the Lord has made! That the Lord has made! He has a milestone in my baby’s life! You turned 26 on the 26 aaaaand this will never happen again! So enjoy your dayyyy!”). It’s meant to be an emotional rollercoaster of the deep love and homophobia that Usher’s mother feels and Usher’s perception and perhaps internalization of that love and homophobia.
“Didn’t Want Nothin’ Reprise”
Usher advances the story of A Strange Loop by having Usher’s black gay songs revealed to the community back home, and his dad confronts him about having shamed the family.
“Precious Little Dream / AIDS Is God’s Punishment”
Confronted by his mother about being gay and embarrassed the family, Usher begins to chip away at the fourth wall of A Strange Loop. He and his mother argue until he finally takes her into the Tyler Perry–style gospel play of his life that culminates in an ironic church/funeral scene for a friend who died from AIDS-related complications. This was a sadly meta-moment for me as I had written this song many years ago as just an articulation of rage about the homophobia I felt growing up in church, but then right before we went into rehearsals a dear friend of mine died from AIDS-related complications, and the song took on an even deeper meaning.
“Memory Song” was the first song written for A Strange Loop. It was also the first song I ever wrote music and lyrics to. For many years, it existed as a standalone song that was just for me. But as the show evolved, it became an anthem for Usher and “all those black gay boys I knew who chose to go on back to the Lord” and “all those black gay boys I knew who chose to turn their backs to the Lord … instead.” It closes the loop within the loop of A Strange Loop.
“A Strange Loop”
I am a corny musical theatre writer traditionalist who believes that there must be a song in the show that is also the title song. Douglas Hofstadter describes the cognitive science idea of a strange loop as a cyclical structure that goes through several levels in a hierarchical system. It arises when, by moving only upwards or downwards through the system, one finds oneself back where one started. So formally, Usher finds himself back where he started in “Intermission Song” trying to figure out what happens next in his story and grappling with the notion of changing himself forever. Or not. He has a recognition that nothing is wrong with him and that he doesn’t need to change. That recognition leads to a reversal, which is that he changes from a place of self-loathing to self-acceptance.