It feels somewhat inappropriate for me -- a straight, white guy -- to critique the new musical A Strange Loop (which won the Tony and Pulitzer Prize for Best New Muscial), as it's not really written for me. Or is it?
It's a story of a self-described "fat, queer, black" musical theatre writer named Usher (who happens to be an usher for the Broadway musical The Lion King) writing a musical about a "fat, queer, black" musical theatre writer who is writing a musical about a "fat, queer, black" musical theatre writer, who is...you get it...and around and around. (It just so happens to be written by a "fat, queer, black" musical theatre writer named Michael R. Jackson). The unending loop is only partially the reason for its title (the rest of which we will get to shortly). At first glance, none of what I've described -- apart from, perhaps, the pipe dreams of my writing a musical one day or being a Broadway usher -- resembles me in any way, shape, or form. Even Usher breaks the fourth wall and winks at the audience early on, acknowledging that the faces out there are mostly not those who look like him.
But, I also am nothing like many characters you see in musicals. So why get hung up on this one? Well, I think the existence of A Strange Loop has a more important and difficult job for representing an overlooked group then, say, Wicked. And once you see them, you can feel at times both enlightened and powerless too.
The show does not follow the heretofore trod paths of LGBTQ+ storylines, those of dealing with HIV and AIDS a laThe Normal Heart ilk, but makes its own place. which the show pointedly lampoons. And it definitely does not want to give the impression it's a gospel comedy like so many Tyler Perry-plot lines (so much so that the man behind Medea himself has addressed the lambasting in recent interviews.)
Instead, A Strange Loop burrows deep inside Usher's head, as a tight ensemble of 6 energetic and diverse actors play his often profanity-laced, brutally honest, frequently funny, and always insightful "Thoughts." They are a new take on the old trope of a Greek chorus, an inversion of Pixar's Inside Out where they create a repeating loop of self-loathing, questioning, dreaming, and hopefully, eventually, acceptance.
You might call the experience a strange one for me. While there have been gay characters on stage before, never before (to my knowledge) have any of them identified the way Usher does here or gone so far as to show what life is like. In one dramatic scene, somewhat hidden by set pieces and lit only in shadows, Usher meets a man from the internet and engages in the act of sodomy on stage. Yet what's most frightening here is not the act, but the degradation that is wrought upon the soft-spoken Usher by the "heterosexual" married man; he is insulted, made to feel ashamed, and violently used. Our protagonist is rejected at every turn, inside and out of his body, yet finds himself stuck in this pattern. (In addition to the lighting, the set design -- simple, yet multi-purpose and sleek, is top-notch.)
The show is, at many times, very uncomfortable to watch, and on purpose, I think; whether it be the aforementioned hookup or the penultimate scene that imagines a Tyler Perry musical featuring a funeral service for Usher's gay cousin, who died from AIDS. The satire is biting, heartbreaking, and hammers home the show's message: Everyone is stuck in their own strange loop, but no one can help you break out of yours except for you. That will sometimes come at the cost of leaving others behind to find their way out, if they want to.
While I cannot identify with Usher, or his family, I can understand his Thoughts; I have been haunted by many of the feelings of self-doubt and worthlessness as he has. I think we all experience feelings like those, and that sometimes we, too, get trapped in these vicious circles. As any great art does, it teaches a lesson about tolerance and individual beauty without, ironically, being preachy.
"A Strange Loop" is playing on Broadway through January 8, 2023.