Interview: Detroit-native Michael R. Jackson has a big hit on Broadway

A Strange Loop, one of Broadway’s most anticipated musicals, opened April 26, 2022 at the Lyceum Theater to critical acclaim.

Detroit-native Michael R. Jackson - writer, lyricist and composer of A Strange Loop on Broadway. (Beowulf Sheehan, 2022)

DETROIT – It was a long journey to get to Broadway. In fact, it took almost 20 years. How did an usher working at Disney mega shows like “The Lion King” end up with his own groundbreaking hit on the Great White Way? He had a “big, Black and queer-ass” story to tell.

Detroit-native and Cass Tech High graduate, Michael R. Jackson, wrote the book, music and lyrics to A Strange Loop, the critically acclaimed musical now playing at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway. What started as a monologue has now become a highly buzzed Pulitzer Prize-winning musical (along with Lucille Lortel Awards, Drama Desk Awards, New York Drama Critic’s Circle Awards, Obie Awards to name a few).

A Strange Loop is the thought-provoking and hilarious musical that tells the story of a Black, queer writer writing a musical about a Black, queer writer writing a musical about a Black, queer writer, and so on. It’s a brutally honest self-reflection that deals with identity and self-perception.

We chat with Jackson on how he developed the critical darling and his fortuitous road to opening night on Broadway.

What was the journey like for you to get A Strange Loop on Broadway?

It was not a journey I anticipated for sure. It began as a monologue that I wrote right after I graduated in 2002. The world was at a very crazy place, as it is now. The U.S. was just about to go to war with Iraq and that was mise-en-scène of the moment.

I didn’t know what I was going to do with my BFA degree and so I started writing a monologue called “Why I Can’t Get Work” that was just about a young, Black, gay man sort of wandering around in New York, wondering why life was so terrible and just musing on different aspects of dealing with his parents, his career, dating and all of that stuff. It just blossomed from there where I began writing music in my first year of grad school and those songs found their way into the monologue. Then the monologue shifted into a one man show and then into a conceptual book musical that kept evolving and growing.

As I worked with my director, actor and choreographer collaborators, it just stayed looping as the world was changing and evolving and becoming more open to what the musical was provoking.

How did you learn to write music and learning how to incorporate that into the story?

Well, I grew up playing piano from age eight and played at church from age 12. Through my senior year of high school, I sang in an all-city youth chorale in Detroit, the Brazeal Dennard Youth Chorale. I was very musically inclined and, because I played at church, did a lot of improvising around songs for the congregation. I actually credit a lot of my compositional style from that experience because I was constantly trying out different chord progressions. Then as I started to listen to Tori Amos, I started trying to imitate her. So there was this weird period where I was imitating her while improvising church music.

I didn’t know how to write lyrics. I went to grad school to study lyric and book writing and got a handle on song form, lyrically. So I began writing, trying to put in lyrics to my own music. And I was encouraged by teachers to keep doing that. It was really by trial and error because I didn’t have a composition background. I had to really teach myself a lot and asked my composer friends for help. I got a notation program that a musical theater producer gave me for free in 2006 that helped me begin to get everything on paper. And then I met my friend, Adam Wiggins, who’s been my longtime music arranger, and he’s helped me bridge the gap of what my skill set is and what I can get down on paper.

It sounds like you had a great community around you, especially teachers.

I’ve always said I’m the poster child for teachers because every single step of the way, I had a teacher encouraging me to continue to write and push the envelope. One teacher said, “This story is very cinematic, have you considered screenwriting?” If they hadn’t said that to me, I wouldn’t have even applied to NYU. When I got to NYU, there was a teacher who said, “Is anyone interested in musical theater writing?” and that encouraged me to apply to the graduate school theater writing program. Bill Finn, the composer, really took a sign to my unconventional lyrics writing and what I was writing about and he encouraged me to continue writing music. So every step of the way, I had a teacher pushing me along, because the whole time I never would have thought to do it. I feel very blessed that there are people who saw something in my talent and abilities, and encouraged me to keep trying.

(l to r): James Jackson Jr. (Thought 2), Jason Veasey (Thought 5), John-Michael Lyles (Thought 3), Jaquel Spivey (Usher), L Morgan Lee (Thought 1), John-Andrew Morrison (Thought 4), Antwayn Hopper (Thought 6) in A STRANGE LOOP (Marc J. Franklin)

What made you want to venture out of Detroit and into New York?

I just felt like I needed a bigger pond as a snobby 18-year-old. It was a hard to be a Black gay boy in the city and I wanted to go somewhere I felt I would be more free. Though the irony of that is I didn’t. I felt more free in some ways and less in other ways. It’s a testament to the adage: where you go, there you are.

It took you almost 20 years to write this piece, what was your motivation to keep on going?

There was an experience in the journey that I was really trying to capture in a jar, like a firefly or butterfly. I felt I was not represented in any of the media that I was consuming. I felt misunderstood so I was just trying to capture the feeling of black gay male alienation and try to be as specific as possible, to describe the humanity of that experience. Because I’d never seen it, it kept me going.

Did you feel at any time that you needed to stop or that you were working on this for too long?

No because at various day jobs I felt like I had to get out of this because I want to do this other thing. Going back to writing was always the thing that sustains me from the other stuff. When I started writing that monologue, it was like a life raft for me because I was using that piece to try to help me in life. My life was also helping A Strange Loop.

What did it feel like when you found out your show was going Off-Broadway, and similarly, what was going through your mind on opening night on Broadway?

For Off-Broadway, I was thrilled because that was my professional debut. I never have produced anything professionally. At that moment, me and my director, Stephen [Brackett], felt like this was the pinnacle of what we get to do with this piece. We were very excited, but also didn’t know how anybody would receive this unconventional piece of theater that we spent many years working on.

Cut to Broadway, it was like that by times 100 because the piece sort of manifested itself onto Broadway via its opening number. To actually see that realized was so powerful and validating for all the years and hours of work I put writing into it.

Can you expand a bit on some of the fears you felt about having an audience experience this work you’ve spent so much time on?

It’s similar to the things that motivated me to write this in the first place. I feared that I would be misunderstood. If I’m very candid with you, I sometimes still feel the same way in the sense that the show has been more than warmly received. And yet, I see people interpreting the show in ways that I’m like, “Oh, so that’s how you interpret this.” The truth of it is that everybody’s experience at the show is their own, but it’s been very interesting to me, given what I know about its origin. In a weird way, my fears came true but it’s bigger than my fears of being misunderstood.

Is there a part of the character Usher, while not autobiographical, that you consider to be the most significant to yourself?

If I had to describe the show as autobiographical in any sense, I would say that it’s emotionally autobiographical because I have felt everything Usher has felt, but the events in his life are not necessary a 1:1 ration to my life. They’re fictionalized because so much of the show is about how a young person sees the world in a certain way because he has this really negative self-perception. Everything gets skewered through this warped point of view that is both true and untrue until he ha sa personal shift. That’s the strange loopiness of it: however you perceive something, perception is reality.

The reviews have been describing A Strange Loop as “groundbreaking.” How does it feel to hear that word “groundbreaking” to a story that’s almost about your life?

It’s a little overwhelming. I have not been able to really receive that, I don’t know what to do with that. I accept it that people feel that way and I acknowledge the ways in which I feel that our show has pushed the boundaries a bit. But I can’t take that on too much because I still have other shows I want to write that hopefully will also break ground in some way or have an impact.

With the almost 20 years it took to write this, I’m sure there have been many revisions, drafts and edits. Is there any part of the show that you wish made it to the final draft?

There’s one big thing that we took out that we didn’t have time to get back in. But you know, maybe there will be some subsequent production down the line somewhere else that we’ll be able to get it back.

Maybe a regional production at Cass Tech High?

My dream is to come to the Fisher or the Fox Theatre. I don’t know how Detroit would receive A Strange Loop. But I want to bring A Strange Loop to Detroit at some point. One thing I could say is that it will be groundbreaking for Detroit, definitely. I can say that will full authority that there’s never been anything like this there.

(l to r): L Morgan Lee (Thought 1), Jason Veasey (Thought 5), John-Andrew Morrison (Thought 4), Jaquel Spivey (Usher), John-Michael Lyles (Thought 3), James Jackson, Jr. (Thought 2), Antwayn Hopper (Thought 6) in A STRANGE LOOP (Marc J. Franklin)

We’ve been seeing a lot of new voices on stage, do you think this is a moment for queer and Black voices and what needs to happen to keep it going?

I think people have to keep fighting for their work artistically. Yes, in terms of representation, but also artistically. They actually have to put in the time and the hours into making their work undeniable and not being super impatient about it.

With all the awards and recognition you have been getting, do you feel a vindication for all the work you have put in?

I do because I often talk to students and when I tell them about the timeline of the show, their eyes go as wide as saucers. The thing I tell them is that my story is an example of art that takes the time that it takes. Every piece of art is not the same. Some things will happen very quickly and some things take years. All you have to do is talk to visual artists. Some of them spend like five years on a sculpture and they do that because in order for it to be as great as it is, they have to pay attention to all of the details. For me, that was true in this particular musical. I don’t think anything else I write will take that long, but I’m grateful for all that time I had to spend on it.

A Strange Loop is now running at the Lyceum Theatre in New York, NY. For more information, visit StrangeLoopMusical.com.


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