Michael R. Jackson and Stephen Brackett bring a decade-long partnership to London with 'A Strange Loop'

The writer and director began collaborating on A Strange Loop in 2012. Now, they’re premiering the multi-award winning Broadway musical in the West End.

Suzy Evans
Suzy Evans

When Stephen Brackett met writer Michael R. Jackson in 2007, he begged the then-emerging writer to let him direct his work.

“I harassed him – I was like, I will do anything for you,” Brackett said, as Jackson’s in-process magnum opus, A Strange Loop, had other directors attached at the time.

Brackett then had an opening to direct a reading of A Strange Loop in 2012. “I jumped at it, and have been holding on for dear life to this musical ever since because I love it so much.”

At the time, the work was in pieces. Jackson began writing the musical – about a Black, gay writer writing a musical about a Black, gay writer writing a musical, etc. – as a “thinly veiled personal monologue” after he graduated from New York University. The show evolved into a one-man show and then a series of scenes with accompanying songs.

“Prior to [Brackett joining], I'd only ever done readings of the book, so I wanted to do something that brought the two together,” Jackson said. “When we were casting it, Stephen suggested that we cast it with all Black and Queer people. And that, for me, really opened up the possibility of what it could be. That idea really spoke to the material in such a powerful way.”

London Theatre sat down with the writer and director at the Barbican Theatre to talk about this “big, Black, gay American musical” ahead of A Strange Loop’s London premiere to discuss the journey that brought them here and what they hope British audiences take away from the show.

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What does it mean to bring the show to London?

Michael R. Jackson: It's really thrilling. I had never aspired for the show beyond our initial Off-Broadway opening, and so to have traveled so far means a lot to me.

Stephen Brackett: It’s a crazy distance from the porn studios that we were rehearsing in when we couldn't find a producer to now having it be at the Barbican in London. I feel like it's traveled so well. The cast is so amazing. It looks beautiful on this stage. It sounds gorgeous in the theatre.

It’s been a really overwhelmingly lovely experience to have it here and learn what a London audience's reaction to it is, which feels very different than an American reaction to it. And so it's been fascinating to learn about the different ways Americans and Brits listen to a piece.

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Have you made any changes for London?

Jackson: A couple of small adjustments. But for the most part, we kept it the same.

Brackett: We wanted to keep it authentically American and New York, but don’t want an audience to go away being like, what did I just see? We kept in references to Fire Island and the crazy route that you have to get to Fire Island. I don't think an audience fully understands that language. But also, they don't really need to understand that language. So it's been interesting to find: what are the things that are an absolute block for an audience that we have to sort of address in some way?

The form of the musical is so innovative. From the meta-theatricality to the ensemble playing Usher’s thoughts, it’s taking such an old, revered form in new directions. What were some of your inspirations?

Jackson: My big touchstones were Company, A Chorus Line, The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds her Chameleon Skin, Passing Strange, and a lot of the early work of Bill Finn, like In Trousers. The shows that used to be known as concept musicals… I wanted it to feel like a musical that was in a lineage of other musicals that come before because I love musicals. But I also obviously wanted to create my own expression within that tradition.

This is such a specific piece about one person’s experience in a moment in time, and yet, so many people can see themselves in the story. How has bringing the show to London opened up the show?

Brackett: What was most exciting about coming to London was that we got to cast six new Thoughts and learn about the piece through their hearts and their perspectives. And that has been unbelievably rewarding. We’ve talked now about this musical for years and years and years, and the fact that I can still really fall in love with talking about the show and fall in love with learning new things about the show from new people speaks to the density of what Michael has written. That’s what you look for in material, something that will keep showing itself to you.

Jackson: I've always said that A Strange Loop is this jewel that if you hold it up to the light, it sparkles in a different way depending on which way you turn it. And so having known these new cast members, you're getting to see new facets of the same jewel. And that's been really exciting for me, because so much of what the show had been for so long was our original cast, and everything had been molded to them. And so to see other people step into those molds and for the piece to then conform to them, it's been really exciting for me.

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You mentioned before that Stephen’s suggestion to have an all-Black, all-Queer cast really unlocked the piece for you, and this is important representation that we don’t see enough on stage. What do you hope this show does for London audiences and the theatre community?

Stephen: It has been a privilege to work on this show, which feels like it is opening doors for underserved communities in the theatre. I hope that there is something that still feels radical in London about seeing a very Black, very Queer ensemble onstage. I hope that it opens doors to more communities to be seen onstage.

One of the most moving things to me about this entire process has been auditions and people just look Michael in the eye and say, “I never thought I would be able to play a character like this.”

Michael, what does it mean to you when they say that?

Jackson: It's really moving because when I began writing the monologue that would grow into the show, I wrote it from a place of complete sort of loneliness and isolation thinking that there was no one I could talk to about any of the things that came up. So for the piece to have grown from that to so many people stepping into it or auditioning for it or seeing the show and talking about what it means for them to see those representations means that like that initial spark to fill the void was the right one.

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Photo credit: Stephen Brackett, Michael R. Jackson, and Kyle Ramar Freeman in rehearsal for A Strange Loop in London. (Photos courtesy of production)

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