Falling out of love is always going to be a painful process. It feels like an invalidation of who you used to be, as if your past self was too foolish or young to know any better. On further reflection it also can feel like a gutting betrayal, a waste of your precious resources: your time, attention, and love. Throughout my time at Wesleyan, I’ve gone through noticeable changes in my personality, falling out of love with many things I used to hold dear: artwork I adored from my adolescence, people I used to know intimately, feelings I used to cling onto like crutches. But there hasn’t been a more swift, and dramatically painful, falling out of love as the dissolution of the very thing that got me here to Wesleyan in the first place. And that was falling out of love with the Broadway musical.
Growing up, musical theater was my gateway drug into the realm of theater and performance studies. I was raised in a household where I was not only taken to football, baseball, and hockey games by my dad, but was also consistently taken to the Kennedy Center and the various theaters around Washington, D.C. to see “Wicked,” “Oklahoma,” or “Les Miserables.” That I was exposed to this much musical theater, because of my class privilege and proximity to a city, is something that I will never take for granted. Especially because being obsessed with musicals quickly became a coded way of engaging with a group of people I didn’t even know I was longing to be a part of: the LGBTQ community. Figuring out who else in my high school was obsessed with “Rent” became a way of talking about parts of myself I couldn’t yet verbalize. Being a part of my high school’s ensemble of musical productions made me feel a little less alone in the world.
When I was able to see the original cast of “Hamilton” in October 2015 through my high school’s performing arts field trip, I was in a unique position to have my world utterly transformed by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ’02 and Thomas Kail’s ’99 sumptuous and brown theatrical world. Going in with absolutely no knowledge of what I was about to witness, I was astonished by a show that expanded musical form so comprehensively. But the show also connected my intensely personal grappling with musical theater (as a tool for this marginalized queer brown boy to feel like he belonged somewhere) onto the POC community’s larger wrestling with national American identity. The show created a progressive world that told me I belonged in a theater. Armed with that intense feeling of belonging, I quickly became obsessed with the modern musical canon: “Fun Home;” “Dear Evan Hansen;” “Spring Awakening;” “Here Lies Love.” I was intoxicated by the feeling of finally finding a place where people like me could exist—and be celebrated. I applied to Wesleyan still in this haze of excitement, hoping that I would be accepted into a world that shared the same connection to this art that I did.
The hangover from this intoxicated rush of acceptance started almost as soon as I got on to Wesleyan’s campus. It seemed like I was intimidated by every single theater person on campus. This wasn’t their fault. I was insecure, jealous of the sheer amount of theater experiences they all seemed to have, jealous of their ability to belt high notes, jealous of their whiteness. And “Hamilton,” the beacon of belonging I clung onto for dear life as a teenager, slowly shifted from seeming radically progressive to tragically naïve under Trump’s America. I could see, now, that while “Hamilton’s” world was one that seemed to open up possibilities of acceptance for me, it was actually built on a fabulous lie: the impossible, but wishful, idea that POC ever had a voice in the creation of America in the first place.
As my critical analysis skills developed further with every class I took, I started noticing cracks in all of the musical theater I had previously loved. “Dear Evan Hansen” is lovely, but why does it queer-code its lead character, only to later double down on his heterosexuality? “Here Lies Love” is the only show with an almost entirely Filipino cast, but why do its white creators insist on my rooting for the very dictators that barred my Filipino grandparents from returning to their homes? These “I love this show, but…” moments started adding up, making my love for musical theater seem frustrated and conditional. I started to realize that all my favorite shows were released within the past five years and that the vast majority of what was still put onstage would never cast or speak to the experiences of someone like me. In fact, the vast majority of theater didn’t belong to me.
The true turning point was watching “Miss Saigon” earlier this year at the Kennedy Center. I had always seen “Hamilton’s” Phillipa Soo, a white/Asian actress who originally portrayed Eliza Schuyler, as my primary surrogate of mixed race representation in musical theater. Alternatively, “Miss Saigon” revealed how musical theater has historically seen people like me: as an Orientalist nightmare. The white/Asian Engineer in the show is a crude yellow-face caricature of an Asian man, gaudily obsessed with America, and played for the laughs of white people. I walked out of the theater furious that this was how most Americans were viewing someone like me. Originally musical theater was the art that made me feel accepted in the world. But it had become the art that made me feel the most marginalized, insecure, and excluded from the world. For a brief moment after that traumatic experience, I almost considered leaving behind the art form altogether. I had fallen out of love. The pain of betrayal I felt, the transformation from “Hamilton’s” temporary haven of acceptance to “Miss Saigon’s” utter marginalization, had left me feeling vulnerable.
I’m still vulnerable. I’m still wary of giving my time, attention, and love to musicals, out of fear that in a few years they’ll be revealed as not accepting me as much as I thought they did. My guard is up, and I don’t fall in love with musicals so quickly, and openly, as I did before. I wasn’t even sure falling in love so deeply with a musical was still possible, for me.
And then I listened to Michael R. Jackson’s soundtrack for “A Strange Loop” over the weekend. Despite my hesitations, I found a show I could love unconditionally, a show that does make me feel like I belong. And it’s only because “A Strange Loop” is a musical that is fundamentally about not belonging to musical theater. It’s a show about people like me, brown queer boys obsessed with musicals, an art form that systematically refuses to love us back. And yet, we create theater, we write our insecurities into our plays, and we love deeply because despite it not being reciprocated, our love can illuminate parts of ourselves.
“A Strange Loop” was originally staged this previous summer, becoming an off-Broadway hit at Playwrights Horizons. Usher (Larry Owens) is a gay Black man living in New York City, a graduate of NYU who is working as an usher for “The Lion King” while trying to get his own musical off the ground. That musical he’s writing is actually the one we’re witnessing; Usher is trying to write a musical about a Black gay man living in New York City, a graduate of NYU…. And the story continues in an Escher-like spiral. The strangeness of this loop is intensified by the meta-theatricality of it all— Jackson, who wrote the show’s book, music and lyrics, is himself a graduate of NYU and actually did usher for “The Lion King.” While the musical is not strictly autobiographical, the choice for Jackson to make the show so explicitly about himself and his own struggles writing musical theater is bold and generous move. It feels so achingly real, some details too weirdly specific to be fabricated completely. Out of all the shows I listened to in high school, “Fun Home” is probably still the one I love unconditionally. That show stages the real life of cartoonist Alison Bechdel during her gay awakening, coinciding with her father’s suicide. Like “Fun Home,” “A Strange Loop” knows the inherent tension of living as an LGBTQ person and doesn’t need to set up arbitrary stakes to advance the plot: For us, sometimes daily survival is dramatic in itself.
The loose, non-linear structure of “A Strange Loop” allows the show to jump around (but still with razor-sharp intention) across a variety of the struggles Usher feels with his family, in his romantic life, and his career as someone trying to “conjure up a big, Black, and queer-ass American Broadway.” Helping with this conjuring is a six-person chorus of Black men and women who represent Usher’s thoughts. They fluidly transition from psychological representations of insecurities (Your Daily Self-Loathing, Financial Faggotry) to Usher’s real life family members and people he interacts with in New York City. It’s as if the ensemble of “For Colored Girls” merged with Black Twitter, and it’s glorious.
Similar to Black Twitter, part of what makes “A Strange Loop” so entertaining to listen to is the specificity of the experiences it captures. That has always been my favorite aspect of musical theater storytelling: the narrative ability to capture in song the types of details that would never be written into a pop song. And in terms of detail, Jackson is unrelenting. When Usher goes on Grindr (a gay hookup app—for the lucky who didn’t know of it existence), he’s bombarded with scarily accurate profiles embodied by the chorus (sample: “Undetectable poz bottom taking loads in the toilet on Lucky Burger on 52nd Street”) and is hounded with claims that he’s too Black or that his dick is too small. I don’t know any other person in musical theater who’s rhyming Rihanna with Truvada. Or who could, for that matter. Jackson applies the same intense and clever focus to songs about Usher’s family, who keeps insisting he write a gospel play in the style of Tyler Perry, something they deem culturally and religiously accessible and acceptable. As Tyler Perry’s Atlanta Studio seems to only make Perry’s already domineering presence in Black culture even larger, you can feel Usher’s pain at bending himself to a particular version of acceptable Blackness.
Importantly, “A Strange Loop” shows how often alternate visions of Usher’s Blackness, queerness, and fatness are pitted against one another by his family members and sexual partners. He’s too Black for white gays, but he’s not Black enough for his family. And the outrageousness of Jackson’s satire so seamlessly moves from comedy to pathos. One of the most outrageously entertaining, but also horrifying, songs in the show is when Usher decides to finally write a gospel musical—and writes a show-stopping chorus about how AIDS is God’s punishment for homosexuality, embodying the homophobia he was force-fed by a family that he still deeply loves. Love becoming a source of self-hatred, or loving something that hates you, is what connects all of the different parts of Usher’s life. He’s attracted to whiteness even as white partners treat him like shit; he sees his “Blackness as a treasure” even though the Black people he interacts with denigrate his personhood; he loves his family despite their inability to accept his queerness; he’s trying to write a Broadway musical despite the fact that he knows white audience members and critics won’t understand it. One of the first lines of the opening number is a chorus member asking Usher, “Should there even be a show?”
It’s impossible for me to not think of Jackson, sitting at his computer, willing himself to decide that this musical deserves to exist. That he deserves to exist in this musical theater space that might never love him back in the way that one fundamentally needs. Willing himself to decide that he deserves to exist, at all. I want to have that feeling, when the days are long and I stare at my unfinished pieces of writing lining my dorm room. It’s at times like these that I remember that Jackson didn’t have to write a musical. He could’ve written a play with no music, he could’ve written a one-person monologue, he could’ve just found a friend who cared and vented to them for about an hour. But he chose to write a musical. He chose to use the very tool—particularly gospel music—that was used to suppress him and make him feel like he didn’t belong. And he used that tool as a way to show how much he didn’t belong in that world. And in that action, he created a small new world where he did belong.
I have gotten to a place where maybe I don’t need musical theater to feel like I belong, anymore. Although my insecurities continually rage, I have found people of color and members of the LGBTQ community who fundamentally understand my experiences. These are both my friends at Wesleyan, and artists I look up to, like the performance artist Mitski, whose music videos stage mixed-race identity and queerness in ways that traditional musical theater is only starting to attempt. If you know where to look, you don’t even have to venture into musical theater in order to see the modern Black queerness Jackson writes into “A Strange Loop.” You could find Blackness ecstatically rendered in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play “The Brothers Size,” queer Black men singing about white women in Frank Ocean’s “Forrest Gump,” the campy surreal time travel of Black gay men in Robert O’Hara’s “Insurrection: Holding History,” and even similar musings about the Black self-hatred baked into Grindr in Danez Smith’s poetry collection “Don’t Call Us Dead.”
And yet out of all of these pieces of art, “A Strange Loop” has a disorienting and intimate pull on me. It showed me that I could still fall in love in a world that tells me it’s not possible. And even on the days that I struggle to write my own plays, even my own musicals, I know that I’m not alone. If Usher deserves love in “A Strange Loop,” I deserve love myself. And even if I still might not belong in musical theater, Michael R. Jackson reminds me that I deserve to.
Nathan Pugh can be reached at email@example.com.