On January 6, composer Michael R. Jackson got a call from backstage at his Broadway show, A Strange Loop. They had to cancel performances the previous evening and that evening because of illness in the company. Could Jackson, who is not an actor, step into the lead role for that weekend’s performances? As the person who wrote the show, and who has sung the songs at cabaret concerts before, Jackson knew him stepping in was always a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency possibility.
At the same time, “it wasn't something that I had fully wrapped my brain around, because I'm not an actor, I haven't sung through the show like that,” he tells Playbill. “I didn't want to cancel any more performances. So I just decided to go for it.” Jackson had a “quick and dirty” rehearsal with the show’s director Stephen Brackett and music director Rona Siddiqui.
Then on January 7 and 8, Jackson performed in his show for the first time ever, for three performances. It wasn’t a fully staged version of the show, because that would have been unsafe. Instead, the show was presented in a concert version. There were no set changes or blocking. There were chairs and a music stand for Jackson to consult the script. Though Jackson did wear Usher, the main character’s, costume.
In current pandemic times, these occurrences have not been unusual: The creators of the Broadway shows Six and Thoughts of a Colored Man also had to step in at the last minute when their actors were ill. But it’s more personal for Jackson, who had started writing the show in 2002, and kept working on it for 20 years despite setbacks, rejection, and rewrites (and rewrites). A Strange Loop is partially based on Jackson’s own experiences as a struggling musical theatre composer, and is about a young gay Black man named Usher trying to write a musical and dealing with self-hatred and family criticisms.
So performing that story on the stage was “cathartic” for Jackson. “It was like I was getting to sing to my 23-year-old self, and be like, ‘Look what we've done, look how far we've come from where we thought we would be,’” he marvels. “And that was a very powerful moment. It was this beautiful feedback loop.”
After winning a Pulitzer Prize and two Tony Awards, A Strange Loop will close January 15. When it closes, the show will have played 13 previews and 301 regular performances.
You would expect Jackson to be heartbroken at the imminent closure of his show. But he never even thought it would get to Broadway. “The show itself is kind of an anti-establishment thing,” he points out. “So it seems appropriate that it would just be this cool thing that sort of burns like a supernova across the firmament for as long as it can.”
Below, Jackson candidly talks about performing onstage with his cast, what he defines as success in today's cut-throat commercial environment, and whether Tyler Perry will make it to A Strange Loop. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
So how did it feel to sing through the show for the first time all the way through?
Michael R. Jackson: You know, it was cathartic. I've lived with all of these songs for such a long time. And I've sung through them, in my bedroom as I was writing them, when I listened to the cast album. But to actually have to deliver it with any sort of intention to an audience of, like, 900 people—that never crossed my mind that could ever happen. I always think of the Thoughts [characters in the show], when I see them on the stage, they're like the Avengers. And I got to put on Tony Stark’s suit. Even though it was terrifying.
But there was something that felt very cathartic and full circle. Especially given that the show is closing, that felt like a sense of completion, that I got to close the loop—to be very obvious with the metaphor. And that was why I even agreed to do it, because it felt like the universe was telling me something.
Some of the experiences that you wrote about in the show were based on things that you experienced in your own life. As you were performing it, did memories come back? How did you keep it together?
The interesting thing is, in writing the show and working on it for as long as I have, it's become more of a piece of art to me than any sort of personal experience. I'm not 25 going on 26, I'm 41 now, I've had a lot of life experiences. And so I have a certain distance from the things that Usher is going through, even if those things are loosely based on things I might have gone through when I was younger. And so I did get emotional, but the emotion was more about the story itself and going through that journey. And the emotion was about my history of working on the piece.
And also, being able to compare who I was when I was 23—I had such a fragile self confidence. That first performance [on Saturday], when I got to the line, “I am this story’s writer” [in the final song of A Strange Loop], I really started to lose it. Not because, oh, the pain of my personal history. But it was like I was getting to sing to my 23-year-old self, and be like, “Look what we've done, look how far we've come from where we thought we would be.” And that was a very powerful moment. And I will cherish it for as long as I live.
How are you processing the show closing? There have been so many reactions: Some people say it's closing too early. Others say it ran as long as it needed to run considering the current environment. So how are you doing?
I've had so many emotions since it was first announced. But to be honest, the place that I have landed is, we did what we needed to do. It's kind of a strange loop itself of how I feel. Because on one hand, I'm like, “Oh, I wish it would run forever and ever. Because I want people to keep seeing the show.” But on another level, I feel the show itself is a kind of an anti-establishment thing. And so it seems appropriate that it would just be this cool thing that sort of burns like a supernova across the firmament for as long as it can. And then the loop itself closes. And then after this, maybe some other people will start the loop again when they license it, or it tours, or it goes to London or whatever.
I'm a big Neil Gaiman, Sandman comics fan. There's a quote in Sandman, that, if I were ever to get a tattoo, what I would get is [this quote]: “Everything changes, but nothing is truly lost.” And I feel that way about A Strange Loop; it doesn't ever really close, it keeps looping, it's just not going to be looping at the Lyceum Theatre anymore. I'm excited to see other people take it up, and investigate that story for themselves.
And just to get to be up there with [the actors this past weekend], and watch them—they were magnificent. And so, I have such great pride about what we've been able to do. And the number of people that we've been able to touch with this story. And so I go into closing with my head held very high and very proud.
Since the show critiqued the establishment of Broadway, do you think now that A Strange Loop has won some Tonys, do you think that means Broadway is more open to experimental work? To work about marginalized communities?
It remains to be seen. I also think that I was very fortunate and very lucky. I grew up learning that luck is when opportunity meets preparation. There were a lot of forces in the world that made Broadway more hospitable to A Strange Loop. And I think that we've seen a lot of different kinds of shows that wouldn't have ordinarily gone to Broadway, go to Broadway. I hope that will continue.
But I also know that the economic forces around theatre, in general, are tough—if not tougher than they've ever been. There is an economic reality. I think if these shows continue to go up, people are going to have to think really hard about how to economically support them, and set them up for success. Having gone through an experience of having a show on Broadway and seeing a lot of the behind-the-scenes efforts, I feel like people should grant a little grace to those who are, in good faith, trying to make it happen. But they’re dealing with some really, really challenging economic realities. I know some people don't share that feeling. And they feel that all these, like, evil producers are just bumbling idiots who are not doing what they're supposed to be doing. But that has not been my experience.
Right, I also think it's part of the bigger conversation about audiences and how you expand the audience. People always say, “Well, just make tickets cheaper.” But then you cannot make the tickets cheaper, in some instances, because production costs are very high.
Yeah. Producers try to keep your running costs as low as possible so that you can get ahead and make some sort of profit. And you can't just make tickets free, and you can't just discount everything. It's gonna have to be a lot of different things. So it's not like, “Well, just do this, that, and the other.” I think that everybody should stop doing that, “It's not going well. What if you just did this?” It's got to be a holistic effort. And it's got to be a holistic effort that is specific to each show itself.
Every show can't succeed on the same economic model or marketing. It matters whether the show has a star or doesn't have a star in it. It matters if the show has a big ensemble or doesn't have a big ensemble. It matters what the show is about and how it's done. There's so many things. And the people who are producing it and creating it have to collaborate to figure out what experience they want to create, how they can do it, and what they expect their returns to be.
I would just encourage everyone to look at these issues with nuance, like extreme nuance—because it's not a one-size-fits-all thing. It just isn't. I hear all kinds of people who say, “A Strange Loop is closing because it wasn't that good, or because they didn't market it right, or because blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.” And I'm like, you don't know what the fuck you're talking about, even a little bit. But I have to let it go, because people are gonna say what they're gonna say. But again, I feel very proud of what we were able to accomplish. And I take great lessons from the show running for as long as it did.
You're going straight from A Strange Loop to White Girl in Danger Off-Broadway. Are there any parts of this experience that you'll take to White Girl in Danger as a creator?
Oh, most definitely. I've learned a lot. This is my first professional opportunity. There's a lot of things that I've learned about taking a show to Broadway and working within the commercial theatre industry. So there's some good and hard lessons that I've learned about how to do that, how to communicate, how to market, and how to sell tickets. And how to collaborate. I always think that one of my hyphenates is “collaborator.” And so, I want to take all those lessons with me into White Girl in Danger and try to improve upon what I learned from A Strange Loop.
It took A Strange Loop 20 years to get to Broadway. What has this experience taught you about patience or resilience that you'll take to your next project?
Art takes the time that it takes. And it's up to you, as the artist, to decide whether you are up for that or not. I didn't know at the beginning of working on the piece that it would be, like, a near-20-year process to get it to the stage. But I also didn't care the whole time I was doing it, because I cared about the story itself, and about what it was saying. And so I just stuck with it. That isn't to say everyone has to take 20 years to get something to the stage. I'm saying that if it matters to you, and you're willing to stick it out, do it. But if you're not, then do something else. Or maybe it'll be a shorter period for you.
I really want to empower artists to think about what's actually the most important thing to them about getting their art seen, and what sacrifices they will need to make. There was a time when it was suggested to me that if I went with a different director, and I did it at a different theatre, that the show would get done faster. But I said no. Because I didn't want to compromise what I was building. And so it took four more years from that conversation before the show got [Off-Broadway] to Playwrights Horizons. And I think that that decision was for the best, even though it meant that my road was much longer.
But I feel like a big challenge when you're in it is to not let it get to you as a human being.
It's very, very difficult. I'm not saying that it's easy at all. But it's worth it. To me. It was worth it to me. I don't like using the term marginalized, but artists who don't traditionally get opportunities to get their work done—I don't think that it's necessarily in everybody's best interest to just fast-track everything to production. Because sometimes you do that, and then it fails artistically, let alone commercially.
I'm only speaking for me. But I would much rather have artistic success instead of commercial success. I certainly want both, I would love to have both! If I had to choose one over the other, I'm gonna choose artistic success. Because the truth of it is, at least in my case, the money I made is not that bad. It's enough for what I need. And so I have enough money for what I need, and I got to get my art out there. So I feel like it's a win. But I will never sacrifice my artistic success for commercial success ever, ever, ever. As long as I live, I will not do it.
I think a lot of people assume that when you talk about success, it means commercial success and getting that Hamilton money.
Yes. But I also think that if what you want is commercial success, and you're clear with yourself about that—there is a path for you to do that. But you have to be clear with yourself about what that is. People confuse art and business all the time. And that's my real Tyler Perry criticism that I've tried to make, although I don't think I've ever said it as clearly as that. But I've been thinking about it a lot recently: It’s one thing to be a great business person. And it’s another thing to be a great artist. And I don't think there's any shame in being a great business person. But I don't like it when people confuse being a great business person with being a great artist or vice versa.
Don't confuse or try to gaslight other people by saying that this thing you like, that you know is not particularly well-constructed, is great art. It isn't. But that's OK. I like stuff that’s fluffy. And I think that those things should absolutely exist. But I will never call those things great art, ever.
Speaking of Tyler Perry, is he coming to the show?
No, he's never coming. Ever. It will never happen. My feeling, in my conversations with him, is that he has too thin of a skin to come and see the show. And I think that's OK. If I were him, I wouldn't come and see it either. And so I told him, “If it's gonna stress you out, don't come see it.”
See Michael R. Jackson address the audience at the January 8 performance of A Strange Loop, when he played Usher.