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tick … tick, BOOM!, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s film adaptation of Rent auteur Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical musical about his struggle to launch his career in AIDS-ravaged late ’80s Manhattan, has been one of the most-viewed movies on Netflix since it dropped last month. It makes a fascinating companion piece to A Strange Loop, the fervid, fiery, and Pulitzer Prize-winning 2019 off-Broadway musical that’s parked itself at Woolly Mammoth Theater Company through the new year. (Originally scheduled to end its run on Jan. 2, the show has been so successful that on Dec. 8, Woolly Mammoth extended the run through Jan. 9.) A Strange Loop is recognizable as tick…tick, BOOM!’s Blacker, queerer, raunchier, funnier, more tuneful offspring. And not only because its creator received a Jonathan Larson Grant.
“Intermission Song,” A Strange Loop’s frenzied opener, starts with “How many minutes,”a direct reference to Rent’s “Seasons of Love,” Larson’s best-known song. Far beyond that, BOOM! and Loop share a dicey central premise, each charting a musical theater composer’s lonely battle to write a show that will prove his genius—to himself and to the world—while another birthday (another harbinger of his own decay and irrelevance!) looms.
But Usher, the onstage stand-in for Strange Loop creator Michael R. Jackson, is a more compelling narrator than Larson (at least as embodied on Netflix by Andrew Garfield), for reasons Jackson frequently reminds us of in song: However much it might suck for a straight White guy to be an anxious and penniless aspiring artist in Manhattan, being Black, gay, overweight, and desperately lonely makes the whole self-loathing-artist-trying-to-manifest-his-talent crucible that much harder to endure.
“He has to fight for his right to live in a world that chews up and spits out Black queers on the daily,” Usher declares in “Intermission Song.” (Like Jackson was, Usher is, well, an usher at The Lion King; each encounter with a tourist is another nail in the coffin of his psyche.) Before you can recoil from the thought of 105 interminable self-pitying minutes, the six-person chorus that riotously embodies Usher’s thoughts—identified as Thought 1, Thought 2, and so on in the script—rejoin thusly:
No one cares about a writer who is struggling to write
They’ll say it’s way too repetitious
And so overly ambitious
Which of course makes them suspicious
That you think you’re fucking White!
Yes, it’s terminally self-absorbed, as a show set entirely inside one man’s fractured psyche can’t help being. But it’s funny! And funny lowers your defenses, allowing Jackson and company to punch you in the gut. In fact, there’s a whole number wherein Usher yearns to impress himself upon the world with all the uninterrogated privilege of his “Inner White Girl,” going so far as to name-check Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville. (Who knew that 1993 lo-fi indie rock masterpiece would be as much a touchstone for Black queer librettists as it is for aging White alt-weekly arts critics?)
A Strange Loop refers to both a cognitive science term addressing the mysterious process of how we create a sense of singular identity and to a track from Phair’s quintessential album. Usher’s line about Phair refusing to grant him permission to use her songs in his show might just be a joke, but her influence on his songwriting is plain enough, each of them using self-affirmation bromides and coarse depictions of sexual encounters to reach for something less prurient and more profound. Jackson’s insight is so specific and his humor so lacerating that the familiarity of his subject—art about the artist redux, again, some more, but still—is ultimately no obstacle at all: “The second-wave feminist in me / is at war with the dick-sucking Black gay man,” he declaims, drawing on a linguistic palette that pivots from academic to ribald to cite a contradiction so specifically his that it becomes universal.
One is tempted to call the hat trick of encoding all of that into one line effortless, but it’s anything but. The effort is the show.
The six actors who give voice to Usher’s thoughts return from the 2019 world premiere production, and they all thread the needle of making the jokes land without minimizing the weight of Usher’s suffering. They also convey in ways both overt—indeed, spoken aloud, as when one of them identifies herself as “Supervisor of Your Sexual Ambivalence”—and subtle that they’re playing Usher’s perceptions of the people in his life. It’s probable that Usher’s parents, to cite but one recurring example, are more sensitive and thoughtful than they seem to be when filtered through the distorted lens of his isolation. Or maybe they really are named Mufasa and Sarabi (Simba’s parents in The Lion King), really do subsist on reheated Popeye’s fried chicken, really do miss no opportunity to tell their prodigal son that AIDS is God’s punishment for “homosexualities,” and wish for nothing more than for him to write them a quasi-inspirational Tyler Perry gospel play.
Because this show is set entirely inside his own psyche, Usher is given the chance to do exactly that. This sets up another well-worn dramatic engine—Will the Artist Sell Out?—that A Strange Loop exploits, once again, in the funniest way possible. Where Larson in tick…tick, BOOM! had Stephen Sondheim praising his work and encouraging him to keep fighting to realize his idiosyncratic vision, Usher must contend with a panel of Black heroes including Harriet Tubman, Zora Neale Hurston, and Whitney Houston, who call him a race traitor for thinking he’s too principled an artist to take a check from Tyler Perry.
New to this production is lead actor Jaquel Spivey, making his professional debut as Usher. He’s got the whole enterprise on his shoulders, and he carries it with grace.
While a pair of Woolly’s biggest triumphs of the last decade, Stupid Fucking Bird and Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play, featured some onstage singing, A Strange Loop is one of few full-on musicals the 41-year-old company has staged, and the first since the mid-1990s. And it’s exactly the sort of spiky offering to which Woolly has pledged itself: a show that will, no doubt, send a few pearl-clutching bluehairs running, but that has the potential to bring new audiences to the theater just like the the last musical to win a Pulitzer. It’s a point not missed by Jackson: “Did you see Hamilton?” a potential hookup asks Usher.
Usher replies, “I’m poor.”
A Strange Loop, directed by Stephen Bracket, choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly, and music directed by Rona Siddiqui, runs through Jan. 9 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. woollymammoth.net. $20–$73.