After A strange loop crowned the Tony Awards with winning Best Musical, playwright Michael R. Jackson offered his main lesson from the show’s unlikely path to the top: “It’s okay to be weird.”
Appearing in the press room with the show’s producer, Barbara Whitman, Jackson said he intended to take several steps to “try to widen the avenue even further of the types of shows that can be seen by the public”. He wrote the book, music and lyrics for A strange loop, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama last year. Its metafictional plot centers on Usher, a black queer writer working on a musical about a black queer writer writing a musical about a black queer writer. It was hardly a safe bet for the show to go from Off-Broadway to the top of the theater world.
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“So many artists operate from a place of fear and risk aversion,” Jackson said. “Even when I felt the loneliest. I’ve always been afraid of art. So what I hope is that people who see the show – young artists, writers and actors, all those who are into musical theater – may be a little less afraid of being weird and going out and trying something different.
Singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell (who Jackson joked “is one of my inner white girls”) has a lyric where she says, “You gotta try / If you feel contempt / Well, say- the / If you’re tired of the silent night / Jesus, then you shout it.’ She says, ‘Just do it. Fuck, do it! And that’s how I feel about doing theater and doing art because the world is so crazy and can be so narrow and so conservative I tell myself, if art is where you can do literally anything, then do literally anything.”
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Whitman said her experience as a producer has left her with similar lessons in terms of expanding the openness of what’s produced for Broadway. She notably cited her most recent musical, fun house, which broke new ground by making mental illness a central part of a Broadway show. “It gave me the courage to do A strange loop,” she said. “The more you do it, the more courage you get. I learned a lot about fun house, and I applied many of those lessons to strange loop. And now I can take the lessons and apply them in the future.
Jackson said he remembered going to see fun house on his first Public Theater tour “and being quite jaded with musical theatre. When I saw this show, I said to myself: ‘Oh yes! There are still people here who stand out and do something different. And it gave me a little boost to keep working A strange loop. And I didn’t even know that Barbara was a producer at that time.