REVIEWS: Charting new musical frontiers with “A Strange Loop” and “Octet”
I have good news for those in search for signs of intelligent life in the world of musical theatre. Two new Off-Broadway musicals that are marquee productions of the summer experiment with form and content in exciting ways that portend well for the future of the art form. Unique for musicals, both are also the product of a single author. Michael R. Jackson’s “A Strange Loop” at Playwrights Horizons is a “big, black, and queer-ass” show about a queer, black musical theatre writer writing a musical, while Dave Malloy’s “Octet” at Signature Theatre is a contemporary a capella “chamber choir” meditation on technology addiction. Below I take a look at each:
“A Strange Loop” (New Musical, Playwrights Horizons and Page 73) (critic’s pick!): the age-old—dare I say trite—admonition to “write what you know” pays dividends in Michael R. Jackson’s loosely-autobiographical new musical by and about “a black, queer man writing a musical about a black, queer man who’s writing a musical about a black queer man who’s writing a musical about a black queer man, etc.”
“A Strange Loop” explicitly sets out to shatter critical expectations and challenge societal limitations around what a queer black man’s story can and should be about. Usher ( Larry Owens), the protagonist, is unlike any central character in a musical that you have ever seen before. He’s black. He’s queer. He’s plus-sized. And he’s complex, given a three-dimensional characterization and a story arc centered around reconciling the fractious contradictions among his family and religious upbringing, his sexuality, his race, and his size, all in the context of the white supremacist, cishet, patriarchal, capitalist society in which he lives.
Mr. Jackson, through the character of Usher (who, like the author, shares his name with a famous black pop star), states his lack of interest in writing about slavery, police violence, or intersectionality—popular subjects of works by prominent, contemporary black playwrights. Instead, Usher’s story is about a queer black man navigating his place in the world artistically and sexually, pushing for a more expansive view of his own black identity and, in the process, broadening our conceptions of gayness and blackness as reflected in works of art. Overused adjectives like “fresh” and “authentic” are tragically lame and insufficient to describe the content and effect of Mr. Jackson’s work—for which he serves as sole author of the book, music, and lyrics—but their use has never felt more apt.
The musical opens as Usher is at work in his survival job as—appropriately enough—an usher at “The Lion King” on Broadway. He quickly reveals his real work is channeling his “inner white girl” while writing a musical about his life, and we quickly learn we are simultaneously watching him write that musical and the finished product. Usher is supported by a black and queer ensemble of six outstanding actors (L Morgan Lee, James Jackson Jr., John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison, Jason Veasey and Antwayn Hopper ) who are listed in the program as his “thoughts”—“your daily self-loathing”, “your financial faggotry”, and “your sexual ambivalence”, among others—but also play a range of additional characters, both real and imaginary, including his parents and brother, producers and mentors, a doctor, a married white hookup, and a white patron at “The Lion King” who unexpectedly gives some good advice.
As Usher struggles to find his voice and his musical’s form over the ensuing 100 minutes, so, too, does “A Strange Loop”, morphing and growing as it slyly slides through genres and tropes, heavily satirizing the work of Tyler Perry, in particular; shining a light on the existence, racism, and sizeism of the “white gay-triarchy” that excludes black and plus-sized men like him; and grappling with the damage caused by his black church upbringing in a “gospel play” sequence where the phrase “AIDS is God’s punishment” is repeated in a loop. Mr. Owens, who never leaves the stage, boasts a tremendous vocal range, lovable demeanor, and superb comedic skills in a performance that is a highlight of the year.
Evocatively directed by Stephen Brackett (“Be More Chill”, “The Lightening Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical”), with smart and effective set (Arnulfo Maldonado), lighting (Jen Schriever), and costume (Montana Levi Blanco) designs, Mr. Jackson’s unpoliced expression is thrilling to witness. And by writing the musical he wanted to write, instead of the musical he thought other people might want to see, he’s ended up writing something compelling and special, articulating ideas with a specificity that gives non-queer, non-black audiences a window into queer black life that is a consciousness and world-expanding experience in and of itself—not to mention the powerful value for queer and black audiences in seeing their own life experiences reflected back on stage. It is also just really funny and enjoyable, as the best musical comedies are.
While Mr. Jackson might bristle at the act of making such a comparison, if “A Strange Loop” reminds me of anything, it is composer and lyricist William Finn’s “A New Brain” (1998), another semi-autobiographical look at a musical theatre writer’s struggle to balance his life and his art. Mr. Jackson has stated: “You can do anything in a musical. It doesn’t have to be paint by numbers.” And he is right. The clear product of an artist who loves musicals, “A Strange Loop” also dares to expand our notion of who gets to anchor one, and how their story is told. In the climax of the musical, Usher implores his parents to care about his complexity. Like “Black Lives Matter”, “care about my complexity” is a heartbreaking plea that should be self-evident. Amid a complex musical about self-reference and discovery, Usher asks his audience to care. Opened June 17th; runs through July 28th at Playwrights Horizons. Tickets
“Octet” (New Musical, Signature Theatre) (critic’s pick!): unprompted, days after seeing “Octet”, my iPhone gave me a stunning report that I had averaged four hours and 50 minutes a day of screen time that week. Cell phones, social media, apps, and games are so ubiquitously sewn into the fabric of our lives that it can be hard to remember what life was like before them. As countless experts have researched and opined, our digital lives are as addictive as any drug. The Internet of things exploded without much forethought as to the consequences for our habits and our humanity.
As the first entry in his “Residency 5” at Signature Theatre (three new pieces in five years) composer, lyricist, and writer Dave Malloy (“Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812”, “Ghost Light”) tackles this contemporary predicament in the form of an a capella “chamber choir musical” under the direction of Annie Tippe (“Ghost Light”)—the first original musical Signature has produced since its founding in 1991. As a press release describes: “the original libretto is inspired by internet comment boards, scientific debates, religious texts, and Sufi poetry”. Translating this voluminous source material—listed in a program insert that also includes movies, podcasts, and music—into a 90 minute musical took considerable talent as Mr. Malloy and Ms. Tippe discovered “Octet” together, bringing his idea from the abstract to the concrete. The result is a disarming, intimate, and sonically absorbing exploration of Internet addiction, human connection, and nihilism in the year 2019.
Set at a 12 Steps-like meeting (here it’s “The Eight Principles”) in an ordinary church basement (pitch-perfect immersive set design by Amy Rubin and Brittany Vasta), “Octet” is structured as a song-cycle within a play. Eight characters assemble for a familiar support group ritual in which they sing hymns between individual shares of their weekly struggles, before one “fugue state” group share, and a “Tower Tea Ceremony” in which the assembled members drink a “powerful group psychedelic that induces a 5-minute coma, in which your consciousness is transported back to its original, pure, pre-technological limbic state”. This might sound trippy or confusing, but it is all easy to follow, and swallow—especially since the challenges the characters face are so bitingly familiar to anyone who participates in the digital age. During the aforementioned “fugue state”, members of the group burst with insights into the little behaviors we all do individually but don’t realize or think others do as well, like saving a black jpeg to upload as an avatar on sad days, pulling out your phone at a party to show a video that then transforms the party into a “video party”, or divining the style and formulation of arguments on Twitter or Facebook. We’re all guilty. We’re all members of the octet.
Jessica (Margo Seibert) is known as the subject of an unfortunate “white woman goes crazy” video that went viral; obsessed with her online reputation, she’s a victim of “cancel culture”. Henry (Alex Gibson) is addicted to games that have candy in them (to avoid triggering, a group rule is no naming of specific websites, platforms, apps or games—a convenient piece of dramaturgy for the writers to avoid legal threats!). Paula (Starr Busby), the group’s leader, shares the ongoing addiction that she and her husband have with their phones. Karly (Kim Blanck) is haunted by dating apps, while Ed (Adam Bashian) struggles with porn. Toby (Justin Gregory Lopez) is struck with disassociation and hopelessness from his observation of online discourse. Through the Internet, Marvin (J.D. Mollison) finds contact with God. The newest member, Velma (Kuhoo Verma) has immersed herself in online activism, memes, and pop culture, finding obsession with Tarot, but also making a friend—perhaps her only—in Saint-Marie, which appears to be a fictional place.
“Octet” paints a very bleak but honest picture of our e-culture. Only Velma articulates a positive side of the Internet—the finding and making of friends—that itself is troubling. Everyone’s struggle, whether a game or an app, is described as a “monster”, and each character has a Tarot card analogue. Mr. Malloy’s text is too rich to fully appreciate upon first encounter, so I am thrilled that a cast album—funded via Kickstarter—is in the works. The music is mesmerizing and, in performance, particularly dazzling for the fact that there is no conductor. An extraordinary feat of musical skill, the eight performers of “Octet” seemingly pull notes and cues out of thin air. With a capella music in a small venue, there is no room to hide. And yet, every entrance is sharp, and every harmonic chord clear. This feat of technical brilliance is reason alone to see “Octet”, and fortunately the unfolding brilliance of Mr. Malloy’s almost poetic text is another.
Early in the show, Jessica reflects: “I don’t think we’re wired to handle this”. We certainly aren’t wired to handle the phones that have become extended parts of our bodies. But, thankfully, we are wired to absorb “Octet”, and there is much to consider in its content and construction. Opened May 19th; runs through June 30th at The Pershing Square Signature Center. Sold Out