in the limelight

Michael R. Jackson’s Tony-winning ‘A Strange Loop’ is transforming Broadway. But that’s just the beginning.

Michael R. Jackson
Michael R. Jackson. Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

Michael R. Jackson, the composer, lyricist and book writer of the hit musical A Strange Loop, is having a moment nearly two decades in the making.

Recent accolades, including a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, two Tony Awards including Best Musical, and a portrait on the wall at Sardi’s (a milestone for every theater professional who hopes to achieve Broadway success), only scratch the surface of Jackson’s relentless pursuit of truthful storytelling.

Jackson’s unapologetically big, Black and beautiful musical tells the story of Usher, who works as an usher at The Lion King and yearns to write his own musical. Framed by a cast of six Thoughts, its central character — in many ways inspired by Jackson’s life — has changed the face of Broadway.

Related: Unapologetically big, Black and beautiful, ‘A Strange Loop’ has changed the face of Broadway

Iterations of A Strange Loop took form during Jackson’s time at New York University and years of workshops at rehearsal studios and small theaters, with many of the show’s cast and creative team sticking with it.

“Everybody was willing, time and time again, to come back, work on it for free, maybe get some Popeyes chicken and then do a reading in a porn factory,” director Stephen Brackett told Variety. “I think people have a sense of feeling seen in this piece that they haven’t felt working on other shows.”

Jackson, too, felt that the years in the making were well spent.

“I think a lot about what it means to really spend your time on a piece of art trying to make it as good as it can be,” Jackson said. “Something happening immediately doesn’t mean that it’s good. Something taking a long time can be worth it. When I’m watching people react and have emotional responses to the show, I know that part of what they’re responding to is that we took our time, whether they know it or not.”

The just-released original Broadway cast recording gives audiences beyond Broadway’s purview an opportunity to delve into Jackson’s work. The show’s star, Jaquel Spivey, delivers a powerhouse performance, taking Jackson’s self-referential narrative to the next level.

Related: ‘Feminine, queer, and outspoken,’ Broadway’s Jaquel Spivey reimagines the definition of Broadway’s leading man

“The first step was recognizing that I had to bring Jaquel to Usher in order for him to be real and so that I could relate to him. I also had to come to terms with the fact that there are parts of Usher that are very much Michael R. Jackson,” Spivey told Queerty. “Being in a relationship with both of them, I can see the differences, and it’s been very interesting to see how they relate in ways that Michael probably doesn’t see. At times, when I’m around Michael, I’m like, “Let me take that and blow it up for like 500 people.” So what might be conversational for him becomes over-the-top for Usher. Getting those nuggets from him has made Usher so real for me.”

While many are curious about what Jackson’s next move will be, the artist stresses that process can be as valuable as the product.

“The thing that I learned about making art and working on this piece is that it’s worth it to take your time, “Jackson said on Late Night with Seth Meyers. “That’s something that I always tell young students when I talk to them and they’re ready to put their work on an assembly line and for it to, you know, chart to number one, two minutes later. I’m like, ‘No, I spent 18 years working on a musical. So, good luck.’ ”

Whatever Jackson’s future holds, it will be uncompromising.

“Particularly as a Black artist, I want to be and I have to be free,” Jackson said. “I want to make art that is as challenging as it is entertaining. I want to piss everybody off and I want to delight everyone, and people can throw tomatoes or not like it, but I don’t want that to stop me from continuing to work. I want to build an audience, and I want people to engage with my work and to think about it and to come back to it and to love it and to hate it and to criticize it and to reread it. And, and, and, and, and. That’s what I’m fighting for.”

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