In his poem “Two Loves,” Oscar Wilde’s adored Bosie, Lord Alfred Douglas, shaped the phrase “the love that dare not speak its name.” Those days are long gone. For some time now, from the stage and elsewhere, green-carnation love‘s name has been spoken loudly and relentlessly. In the new Off-Broadway musical by Michael R. Jackson, A Strange Loop, running at Playwrights Horizons, such love’s name is sung, and its voice is lusty and lustful. It also shouts to raise the roof, and if the roof doesn’t fly off, it shouts from the rooftop.
Inserting his middle initial to differentiate himself from the late music icon, Jackson is the book writer, composer and lyricist of A Strange Loop as well as its vocal arranger. The reason for covering all those bases — including a remarkable lookalike, Larry Owens, in the leading role — is that this musical is autobiographical. For the most part, it is also brilliant.
And it is about as autobiographical — emphasis on the “graphic” — as it can get, with the author spending the multi-layered piece trying and trying to unravel just who he is. As he runs through his life in an attempt to come to grips with the entity he knows (or doesn’t know) as “I,” he presents a meta-theatrical — and entirely self-referential — opus.
In song and speech, “I” talks about having a famous name, and its effect of stealing something of himself from him. His doppelganger’s name, meantime, is Usher — also the name of another celebrated African-American pop star. Usher’s line of work? Usher — at The Lion King. (Costumer Montana Levi Blanco contributes a dandy throwback uniform, complete with cap.)
The Jackson-Jackson-Usher-Usher circularity is only one of myriad, mirroring repetitions in a loopy musical that forever circles in on itself. Indeed, Jackson’s structure is derived from “strange loop” concept promoted by cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter, who has argued that the self is “merely a collection of meaningful symbols mirroring back on their own essences in repetition until death, and that a human being is “the organism with the greatest capacity to perceive itself perceiving itself perceiving itself, ad infinitum.”
Hofstadter’s meta-mouthful suggests that the centering force of Jackson’s musical might prove too much for enlightening entertainment, as the investigative and self-referential is transformed into the aggravating and pretentious. From the very lively opening number — maybe the best opening number since The Book of Mormon‘s “Hello” — A Strange Loop defies stuffiness. It’s more the musical equivalent of an irresistible drawing by M.C. Escher.
Jackson’s love of music is evident as he invokes influencers in his score; you can hear Tori Amos and Joni Mitchell but, most prominently, singer-songwriter Liz Phair, who — speaking of circularity — wrote the song “Strange Loop.” Usher tells us that he approached Phair about incorporating some of her catalogue in his show, but she said no. And so, he notes, she’ll just have to invade the Mobius strip that is A Strange Loop in spirit.
But let’s circle back to Jackson’s rousing opener, which announces not only how musical his autobiographical musical will be, but how graphic, too:
A Strange Loop will
Have black shit and
White shit! It will be
Uptown and downtown
With code-switching and
Jackson’s outcry is that of an open, if very conflicted, gay man. Trouble is, the unflagging honesty of his self-expression — here let’s note his chorus, which he calls Thoughts, six in all, representing the people and conceits of his life — is admirable until it isn’t. More than once, Jackson’s Usher declares his plan to “change my whole life today” but what keeps him from it is his inability to get a grip on what that life, his life, actually is.
And so he obsesses and obsesses — on his “inner white-girl” singer-songwriter; on his family urging him to be the next Tyler Perry; on no end of topical allusions, from #MeToo to Stephen Sondheim to the sexuality of Broadway producer Scott Rudin; on less topical but more pertinent allusions, such as Harriet Tubman, James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston; on consulting a psychotherapist; on fear of AIDS (Truvada rhymes with nada); on gay orgies to which he’s not invited; on the out and swinging NYC gay life.
Through Owens, who gives unflinching body, mind and soul to every line, melody and lyric, Jackson celebrates and excoriates it all, and boldly. Certainly 60 of the intermissionless 100 minutes is heady, fun and fuming. On target to offering one of the best musicals in years, Jackson then stumbles in an awkward and off-putting way.
The problem is his need to unstoppably flaunt gay Gotham. His in-your-face persistence is like index-finger pointing to the audience’s ribs, well past his point being made. Doing so in the vernacular, and vulgarly, is initially germane. Later, like a circle, it proves repetitious.
The most overboard sequence involves Usher and Thought #6 (Antwayn Hopper) hooking up in the northern Manhattan neighborhood of Inwood, a white top taking our reluctant hero from behind. For some this may be too much muchness; it’s also a replay of Harvey Fierstein’s International Stud, reprised in the recent revival of the playwright’s Torch Song.
In addition to Hopper’s Thought #6, the other, often hilarious Thoughts — 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 — are L Morgan Lee, James Jackson, Jr., John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison and Jason Veasey, respectively. They shine under Stephen Brackett’s encompassing direction and Raja Feather Kelly’s constantly marvelous choreography.
During much of Jackson’s meta-meta-ing, Usher seems conscious of the audience wanting to know “when it can go home.” He thinks they can do so when he’s integrated himself. If asked directly, some people in the audience might say they were ready already, or ready an hour in as noted, but not at the point when Jackson takes the edge off of his stunning look at a contemporary man struggling to define his elusive “I.” Then again, maybe his “I” is all in the beholder.