The musical “A Strange Loop” won a Pulitzer Prize even before it got to Broadway, and then it won the Tony Award for best musical shortly after opening. But on Sunday, it closed after only a nine-month run.
It has been a tough theater season all around — “A Strange Loop” was one of six shows that closed Sunday — as the industry continues to face audiences that are smaller than they were before the pandemic.
But “A Strange Loop,” a meta-musical in which a gay, Black musical theater composer endeavors to write a show about a gay, Black musical theater composer, exited at a high point: During its final week, it pulled in $955,590 at the box office, which was the highest weekly gross of its run, and which set a new house record for the Lyceum Theater.
The final night was a celebration: The playwright Michael R. Jackson, who began developing this show when he was 23 and who is now 41, got a standing ovation when he took his seat. There were more standing ovations for the show’s three Tony-nominated performers, Jaquel Spivey, L Morgan Lee and John-Andrew Morrison.
Minutes after the show ended, Jackson sat for an interview about the run, the closing and his next project, in a hideaway up a spiral staircase above the stage. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
This show has been part of your life for 20 years. What was this night like for you?
It was emotional, and it was a reminder of why I even began to write it. I wanted to fill an empty space that I saw, both in myself and in the world. And so to see that realized and to see everybody filling in that space in all these colorful ways that are even bolder and more beautiful than what I started with was so powerful and so affirming and so necessary.
There’s so much anger and pain in the show. Was that anger and pain yours, and do you still feel it?
I have access to it. It’s one of many of the colors in the crayon box. But it doesn’t motivate me. There was a time in my life where the anger was the thing that propelled me forward, but I think harnessing it and digging into it and questioning it and living with it and subverting it and making fun of it and then ultimately accepting it really helped me become the artist that was able to write it.
The show won the Pulitzer and the Tony but is closing earlier than you would have wanted. Do you think of the show as successful or not?
The more that I’ve reflected on it, it really makes sense to me that “A Strange Loop” would be a supernova that cuts across the firmament and then explodes. It’s not necessarily a piece of art that’s meant to fill a commercial need indefinitely, and I now can’t imagine how it would do that without compromising its artistic integrity. So I consider it to be a fantastic success because that’s how I define success. And I’ll always prioritize the artistic integrity over the commercial and the financial.
Many people imagine that your parents are like Usher’s parents, who can’t accept his homosexuality and are skeptical of his career ambitions. I gather that’s not the case.
Everything in the show is a fiction, even if it’s drawn from life. Whatever experiences I had with my parents, I took them in as I saw them, and I remixed them into a story. That’s not my parents, which I think is one reason my parents are able to watch the show and see its success and cheer for me so loudly.
Do your parents accept you both as gay and as a musical theater writer?
I gather the show has led you to meet some famous people.
As a child, I adored Whoopi Goldberg in “The Color Purple” and “Soapdish” and “Sarafina!” I thought, when I heard she was coming, that when I met her I would see that lady from “The View.” But the minute I saw her eyes, she was that wonderful performer from my childhood, and that brilliant artist, who loved my show, and it was such a beautiful moment to meet her and to talk with her about the show. And then there were people who didn’t see the show, but who I got to meet as a result of it. I got to spend time with my idol, Tori Amos, and that was a life-changing experience.
One person who didn’t come is Tyler Perry, who is mentioned repeatedly in the show, often critically.
The interesting thing there is that he and I have a phone relationship. He called me right after I won the Pulitzer, and we text every once in a while, and we spoke recently. He’s probably one of the most complex relationships in my life with someone who I’ve never met. He has a kind of phobia around “A Strange Loop,” without having ever seen it, whereas I’ve seen most of his work. We’ll see where that relationship goes. Maybe it’ll go nowhere. I told him we need to sit down and have dinner.
In the last year and a half there have been a record number of shows by Black writers on Broadway. Many have struggled at the box office, but so have a lot of other shows. What’s happening?
We need to look at the larger economic realities that are happening in the world more broadly, and the ways those trickle down. A lot of people get very confused in thinking that theater and Broadway live in their own separate economy, outside of everything else, and it doesn’t.
Throughout its run, the show faced a number of cast absences. What do you think was going on?
Coming out of the pandemic, there’s been illness, there’s been all kinds of things going on, and people are taking care of themselves. And I think that’s going to be a new normal: People taking care of themselves, and shows will have to adapt to that.
One of the adaptations was that the weekend before the closing, you went on as Usher for three concert-style performances. What was that like?
It was really cathartic and terrifying and thrilling. I went from having to live the role to having to play the role, and bringing those two halves together gave me tremendous closure. Over the last couple of months, I’ve had some daily self-loathings that come in and say “Maybe the show’s not that good,” but once I stepped into it, I was again reminded of its power and of its audacity and of its singularity, and I sent daily self-loathing packing.
This show has a white director and a white lead producer, which I understand has led to some pushback.
There’s this hunger to infantilize me, or any Black artist, for making the choice to collaborate with who they want to collaborate with, and always wanting to use race or gender or some identity marker as an assumed obstacle, when it may not be at all. I wish that people would respect the choices that artists make and not want to undermine them by assuming that there’s some sort of racial discord that is always waiting to tear people apart or animate their artistic decisions. I’m a grown man, and I stand behind my artistic choices.
Your next musical, “White Girl in Danger,” starts previews Off Broadwayin March. What is it about?
It’s a soap opera fever dream about representation in storytelling.
I know it’s prompted in part by your own affection for soap operas. If you were a soap opera character, who would it be?
Sammy Jo Carrington. She was on “Dynasty,” played with great aplomb by Heather Locklear. She’s a troublemaker, but she always gets what she wants.
Do you see any thematic overlaps with “A Strange Loop”?
In some ways I’ve been thinking of it as a companion piece. It’s not a sequel. It’s not direct. But there’s themes that I’ve been working through on “A Strange Loop” that I expound upon in a larger way in “White Girl in Danger,” if that makes any sense. You’ll have to see it.
What’s next for “A Strange Loop”?
I’m really hoping that people will pick it up and make their own interpretations of it. It’s a story that is like a jewel that has many facets, and you can hold it up to the light and you can see different things in it, depending on how you interpret it. So I really hope that regional theaters and colleges and universities and whoever else decide to take the risk on doing it, and really put their own stamp on it.