The In Conversation series brings together theatre artists of all disciplines together to discuss their work, their process, their passions, and their lunch orders. In the inaugural installation, Zack Zadek interviews Michael R. Jackson about his “self-referential concept musical,” A Strange Loop, playing in concert at Feinstein’s/54 Below on April 26.
ZZ: Hi Michael! I’m so glad we got to sit down and chat!
MJ: Me too!
ZZ: Our readers should know that I have known Michael for about 5 years now, but I think this is the first time we’ve actually sat down and had lunch. And certainly the first time we’ve sat down and had lunch while I ask him specific questions about writing musicals.
MJ: So into it.
ZZ: Before we really get into things, we should probably order – what are you getting? I never know what to get here because I feel like they have so many options. Maybe a sandwich?
MJ: I think a burger sounds more my speed.
ZZ: Ooo nice choice. Okay, so let’s talk about A Strange Loop – which I haven’t had the chance to see in person yet, but which I’ve heard nothing but incredibly exciting things about. Can you tell us like, elevator pitch, what’s the “show about”?
MJ: A Strange Loop is about a black, gay man who is struggling with his own image of himself by writing a musical about a black, gay man who is struggling with his own image of himself by writing a musical about a black, gay man who is… and so on and so on and so on in a seemingly endless feedback loop.
ZZ: Interesting – I think that’s just a really cool idea for a musical. Now I’ve heard you talk about the piece as being more or less autobiographical – obviously when writing we’re always filtering the story through our own experiences, but is this your first sort of overtly autobiographical piece?
MJ: Well, I think an important clarification that I’d like to make is that I don’t think of the piece as strictly autobiographical. The word I’ve been using is self-referential. For me, the word autobiographical suggest a strict adherence to representing real life events and while I have heavily borrowed from personal experience, it’s more from emotional personal experience. I’ve definitely taken liberties in the story. To answer your original question, this is the first whole piece I’ve written drawing on personal experience but I’ve been drawing on personal experience in songs I’ve written literally from the very first song I wrote, “Memory Song” which ended up making its way into A Strange Loop.
ZZ: Can you talk a bit about the process of fictionalizing aspects of your own experience? I think what really fascinates me in any medium, be it a Neil Simon play or a Fiona Apple record – when artists I love dramatize elements of their own lives, where do you draw the lines between fiction and “reality”?
MJ: The line I draw is blurry and always in flux. Dramatizing the emotional reality will always be the most important thing I do in any piece. As a result, fictionalizing ends up being a great asset. Sometimes. Sometimes truth is stranger is fiction, as they say.
ZZ: Obviously we all hide aspects of our inner lives on a daily basis – is there a judgment call to be made about the point where you would feel too vulnerable sharing certain parts of yourself in a musical?
MJ: It’s less about me feeling too vulnerable – I think I’m fair game in making art. If I’m interested enough to write about some aspect of my personal life, then I think it’s my duty to shit or get off the pot. What’s important to me is that I don’t want to hurt anyone in my personal life so I try to be careful about that. For example, I wrote the lyric to a song called “Old Mr. Drew” which used to have another name. The song is about an old piano teacher I had who once touched me inappropriately during a lesson. There are a lot of other details to that but that lyric was an early example of me learning about fictionalizing. When the song had the real name, it unknowingly made the song about him, the piano teacher (who I had not seen for almost 10 years) by that point when really the song was about me. Through a bizarre set of circumstances, he found out about the lyric and was really hurt and I was devastated because that wasn’t my intent. From then on, I’ve made a concerted effort to focus more on the emotional truth than the autobiographical truth.
ZZ: How has the process of writing this piece affected your own life? Has it been cathartic? Painful? All of the above?
MJ: It’s been helpful. I wouldn’t say cathartic or painful. I’ve learned a lot about how I see myself and certain patterns I’ve developed personally as a result of trying to work the story and figure out what makes the protagonist tick.
ZZ: Talk to me briefly about creating an inherently “meta” piece of fiction – I adore so much meta-fiction, two of my favorite movies of all time are Adaptation by Charlie Kaufman… or his film Synecdoche, New York. What’s it like constructing a meta narrative?
MJ: I wanted to create a work that forces the audience to see the character on his own terms, from the inside out. In order to make that work, it occurred to me that having him be a writer writing a piece about a writer writing a piece about writing a piece was an ideal format to set this way of seeing. Another aspect of this was that the protagonist is a gay, black man who though not unusual to me, is a rare kind of protagonist for musical theater audiences to see and that audience is usually predominantly white. Because of that, I also aim to disrupt the omnipresent theatrical white gaze upon the character by forcing the audience to see things as he see things moment to moment.
ZZ: On a third meta level – will I have a different experience seeing A Strange Loop as someone who knows you, than a random theatergoer? Surely that’s true of all pieces, but this one in particular?
MJ: I don’t know! I have a little evidence that is true. I have two friends who are not theatre people who have seen the piece and both told me that even though the experience of a black, gay man was not their own, they related deeply emotionally to what was going on with him. And for me, that was the biggest compliment ever and one of my goals. I know that a lot of the content will be foreign to “typical” (white and/or heterosexual) audiences but I also know that I’m tapping into something bigger than just my political/racial/sexual identity.
ZZ: So tell me about the title of the piece, how does the idea of a strange loop intertwine with this story? In Douglas Hofstadter’s book “I Am a Strange Loop” he gives many examples of them, everything from abstract paradox, to the endless cycle of DNA to proteins and back.
MJ: So this is actually a crazy thing. The piece has has a couple of different titles. It started off as a monologue called “Why I Can’t Get Work” when I graduated from college and was trying to figure out what to do with my life. When music started to enter the piece, it then turned into a piece called Fast Food Town that was a one man show that I starred in for one night only at Ars Nova. Around that time, I had discovered the music of Liz Phair and her seminal 1993 album Exile in Guyville, which she claims is a song-for-song response to the Rolling Stones’ album Exile on Main Street. The album left a big impact on me because it’s album that is about a woman trying to navigate a male-dominated music scene and how her unique POV allows her to break the chains of servitude to that sexist scene and one man in particular who she was in love with. Even though that wasn’t my experience, I related to it emotionally and intellectually, song after song. The last song (and one of my absolute favorites) is a song called “Strange Loop.” I always loved the song even though I didn’t know what the title meant and the title is not the hook of the song. The hook is “I always wanted you / I only wanted more than I knew” which implies that though she was after this man, in reality there was so much more than this man, but that she couldn’t realize that without pursuing him to the breaking of the loop as it were. Parallel to all of this I was writing and rewriting and reconfiguring Fast Food Town and it was slowly starting to become a piece about a black, gay man working through his self-hatred. Part of his working through that was that I made the decision to literally write Liz Phair into the musical and make her a touchstone for the protagonist as he was facing so much misery. I had these song mashups where I wrote songs that fit right on top of hers and I was using those to work similarly to how she used hers as a map with the Rolling Stones. One day after having listened to “Strange Loop” hundreds of times, it finally occurred to me to look up the term “strange loop” which led me to Douglas Hofstadter. I started with Wikipedia and then I went and picked up Hofstadter’s book “I Am A Strange Loop” (which I never finished reading). I’m not a mathematician but my understanding The basic definition of a strange loop is that there are certain patterns in math and nature that can only be defined by referring back to themselves and also that you can move or down through a hierarchical system and still end up back where you started. This blew my mind when I read it because it was exactly what I had been writing about all along! So in a sense, I had been writing a strange loop without even knowing it and the thus Fast Food Town became A Strange Loop and has stuck ever since.
ZZ: So now let’s talk a bit about the actual writing process. I read a lot of interviews of the artists that inspire me – sort of obsessively so I would say – and what is always really disappointing to me is that I feel like not a lot of creators really delve hardcore into the craft of what they’re doing. Which is the thing I’m always most interested in – and obviously it’s hard to talk about that to a general audience, but I want to get a bit specific about your craft and your process. How did you define the musical world of the show?
MJ: This piece is different because it’s so personal that I couldn’t really approach it in a normal way. I didn’t really outline much. It was very based in the emotional experiences I wanted to touch on in song moments and trying to figure out what the narrative was and how the pre-existing songs fit or didn’t fit into that. In the beginning I had a lot of pre-existing songs jammed in there essentially with narrative cabaret banter linking them all. Because I love musical theater as a storytelling tradition, I knew I wanted to create something that was actually a book musical so as I worked on the actual story, almost everyone of those pre-existing songs fell away. So my process on this involved writing and rewriting songs and discovering new song moments as I figured out how the story wanted to work and how I wanted music to function in it. I would define the musical world of the show as a soulful pop singer-songwriter-book-musical hybrid. It was very important to me that the music sound accessible but be doing the work of pushing the story forward. I like cabaret and I like cabaret songs a lot (and I use cabaret to my advantage in the piece) but I wanted to do something that was undeniably theatre.
ZZ: What would you say your top 5 musical influences are for this piece? Are those different than your normal top 5 influences?
MJ: I’m going to answer that by including lyrical influences. My top 5 musical/lyrical influences in this piece are: Tori Amos, Joni Mitchell, Liz Phair, every single 70s soul group ever (think The Three Degrees, The Main Ingredient, and Ray, Goodman & Brown) and legendary gospel group The Clark Sisters. I would say that for me, my influences are sometimes in the gestures more than the actual music. I steal what I need. These aren’t really different from my normal influences – there’s a little Elton John in me too even though I’ve never thought of myself as much of an Elton John fan. Also a touch of Billy Joel.
ZZ: The songs I’m familiar with for the piece all sound very cohesively of a score, and would I be wrong in saying, perhaps not as pop/R&B influenced as some of your standalone songs?
MJ: I think that there’s still a little of that in the ensemble songs but maybe not as much in the protagonist’s songs. But that’s in part because of my commitment to making sure the songs either push the character forward or delineate character, create mood, or all of the above.
ZZ: When you sit down to write a song for the piece – can you walk me through the order of your writing process from “there should be a song in this moment” to the actual first draft?
MJ: This is actually a question about my process overall. Usually it starts with either a hook or a chorus or a line and from there it’s sitting at the piano and figuring out what chord progression I want/need and how the melody is either in harmony with that or in counterpoint in some way. Pre-Finale, I was limited to only what I could play on the piano. Once Finale entered my life, I was able to start thinking bigger. As far as determining the song moment itself, it’s truly trial and error. A Strange Loop is pretty modular and because it’s internal, a lot of it moves as the protagonist moves. It moves at the pace of his thoughts, who are actually the ensemble that make up the characters in his perception of the world. So the songs are captive to that.
ZZ: Do you always write on the piano? How does the process of both arranging for instruments and vocal arranging help you musically flesh out your ideas?
MJ: I almost always write on the piano though I have written a handful of songs on the guitar. I am not a band arranger so I am in great debt to my collaborators; the great Adam Wiggins in particular for being someone who helps me take the music from a piano vocal to something bigger. Having grown up in church and listening to choirs, I do my own vocal arranging, which definitely helps me flesh out ideas. Sometimes the accompaniment and vocal line is only telling part of the story.
ZZ: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel like we’ve chatted about you not coming from a musical theatre background as a songwriter before grad school. Do you ever feel confined by the formality that can be musical theatre writing?
MJ: I am a child actor who became a poet/fiction writer who fell into playwriting while hoping he would become the head writer for a New York soap opera but instead wound up writing book and lyrics and then learning how to compose last. My whole writing career is a bizarre but happy accident. I don’t feel confined by the formality. Sometimes the rules are a very helpful and when they’re not, I break the rules. That to me is what theatre is about.
ZZ: Can I steal a fry?
MJ: Go for it.
ZZ: In songs like “Memory Song” and “Today” – both feature sort of an underlying piano groove and a defined harmonic world that you stay in for a while, and then start moving in and out of during the bridges. When you’re establishing the harmonic vocabulary for a song (or the score as a whole), how do you decide what you want to use?
MJ: It depends on the emotional and/or narrative arc I am going for. In “Memory Song,” I wanted to dig into a very specific experience of being a black, gay boy growing up against a certain backdrop and so the story of that needed to be clear against the groove – I kind of wanted the vocal line to be like the musical equivalent of watching a red ribbon undulate in the wind. In “Today,” I was relying on repetition to illustrate the stasis in the protagonist’s life while he was making all of these plans to try to change so I wanted to sit in the groove and harmonic and melodic world of the song for all of it. Overall, it always comes down to the feeling I want to evoke and who the character is. I don’t have a composition background so a lot of these choices are not intellectual for me. It becomes a question of whether I have conveyed the emotional journey I aimed to create with the necessary clarity.
ZZ: One thing I really enjoy in your work is that you write story and arc and character into solid musical theatre songs, but your lyrics are often just structured just as distinctly as your music? Which is to say, not always a conventional “here I am, this is what i want, I’m going to do x”. Talk to me about your lyric construction – do you like to break out of AABA etc? And how do you write character while still writing some really poetic lyrics?
MJ: Though I technically grew up improvising and composing music, I consider myself a lyricist first. That is what my training is in and it’s the form that I feel the most facility for. Because I’m usually writing a very specific story through song, it’s always very important to me that I am saying exactly what I mean. I only like ambiguity if ambiguity pulls you even more in. The “poetry” only works for me if it’s clear and pushing forward, heightening stakes, etc. Because I’m more drawn to big ideas being distilled down, I’m not much of a dazzling rhymer – I mean I can give you a “person’s personality is personable/matador coercin’ a bull” from time to time but at the core, that’s just not my style. I tend not to worry about form as much (at least in A Strange Loop). Usually the song moment will dictate what the form should be. I find that trying to force the form so much can have uneven returns. I have to really listen to what the moment wants to be.
ZZ: I feel like there’s some slightly weird stigma against solo writers doing Book, Music, and Lyrics – have you run into that at all?
MJ: I haven’t, thank God. But I’ve only written this one solo piece. And honestly, I love collaboration so I don’t know that that would be a lifelong concern anyway.
ZZ: And it’s silly because you would never feel that way about a playwright… but ANYWAY: What I really want to ask you about is the process of writing this alone? Do you “collaborate with yourself” so to speak? Is there a divide between lyricist Michael and bookwriter Michael?
MJ: Bookwriter Michael and Lyricist Michael are in complete sync. They have a sexual relationship. It’s kind of inappropriate but it is what it is. I hope that if they break up, they can still work with each other. Composer Michael usually gets along with Lyricist Michael, but he can be extremely lazy and uncertain. Bookwriter Michael often has notes for composer Michael but is afraid to speak up because he feels intimidated about talking about music intellectually. That all said, I am not really working on this alone. I have a director – the delightful Stephen Brackett and he is a steady, constant sounding board while I work on all the parts of this. If I were truly alone working on this piece, it would not do or be what I need for it to be.
ZZ: What’s your process of breaking the story itself? Are you a big outliner? Did you write a treatment? Just dive into the writing? I feel like we don’t often hear about the process of story breaking which can be so time consuming.
MJ: If I’m writing without a collaborator, I’m a diver. I get back to outlines eventually but for A Strange Loop in particular, I just had so much I needed to get out and what I wanted to do was so meta, that there would have never been a way for me to just outline that from the beginning. I needed to figure out the content first. If I’m with a collaborator, we usually need to start with talking about a basic idea for the story and then find a song moment and start working from there. In my other project Teeth, with composer Anna Jacobs, we do a lot of talking and outlining first, followed by a TON of rewriting.
ZZ: Do you want to get coffee here, or would you rather we go to Starbucks or something? I’m happy to get coffee here.
MJ: I’m good.
ZZ: The show addresses the black experience, the gay experience, among other things – can you talk about addressing the issues that matter to you through a piece of musical theatre?
MJ: I am a black, gay man. All of my life I have been asked to look at white heterosexuality as what is considered “normal” in the media I consume. It’s so ingrained that whenever I see some media that isn’t doing that, I have to take a breath. I am an artist. As an artist I have concerns and questions about my experience as a black, gay man. Musical theatre happens to be the form that I am most invested in at this point. I see the form as a useful tool to discuss issues that I care about, and one of those issues happens to be the representation of black people in the media in general, and black, gay men in particular. A Strange Loop is my attempt to move the furniture to one side of the room for a moment.
ZZ: Tyler Perry… a creator who you reference in the piece who also wears many hats… writer, director…
MJ: Cultural terrorist…
ZZ: Hahahahha yes that too… talk to me about his work as a foil for what you’re doing. How can that as a point of reference act as a lens for what your piece is trying to say?
MJ: Tyler Perry is someone who built his brand by creating work that was aimed directly at black audiences. He is a savvy businessman in that way. I believe he loves his audiences. I believe he understands what they want to see. I also think the work he creates for them is incredibly destructive spiritually (not to mention artistically). My work is a foil for his in the sense that I want to help liberate black people by telling the truth with art. I think Tyler provides work that is not truthful and that bothers me. Of course, escapism is all around us in the media, so this not to say that he can’t do what he do or that providing escapism isn’t a great service, I just wish black people’s intelligence and dignity did not have to be sacrificed to do it. My piece is saying that as black people we have a lot of shit we don’t deal with (for a ton of valid reasons) and at a certain point, we have to deal with it. In my piece, the protagonist comes to the conclusion that the only way he can communicate the truth to his mother about who he is and how feels about himself is by bringing her into the form of a gospel play (a form that Tyler rode to fame on, telling escapist lies the whole time).
ZZ: You are vocal about the incredibly deep problems in the theatre with regards to giving more voices who aren’t middle aged white men a platform to be heard. How does A Strange Loop factor into that conversation – both in the show, and the piece itself (a strange loop in itself sort of, no?).
MJ: AKA “diversity in (musical) theatre. I’ve recently turned a new corner with this. I am not as interested in diversifying theatre as much as I am in reimagining it all together. Theatre is about imagination and about representing the truth and representing “the impossible.” In doing that, it is incomprehensible to me how that tradition, which is as old as time, would either be one dominated by white people or be one that is deeply concerned about whether a black person is cast in Noises Off or not. We need “diversity’ in how we make theatre more than we need diversity “in” theatre. In a weird way I could use a Hillary/Bernie analogy. Depending on how you lean, Hillary is the perfect president for the system we have now. Depending on how you lean, Bernie is the perfect president for the system we ought to have. To me, theatre should always be moving toward the most “ideal.” I think incremental #middleclass change you can be a low-key advocate for in theatre is bullshit. Of course, I am very opinionated and Bernie just lost the New York primary yesterday so what do I know? A Strange Loop is conceived by and cast with all black, gay men. Its message though potentially universal, is written with black people in mind. That is usually not done. A Strange Loop is being the change I want to see in the world. It’s the media that I was never given to consume growing up. In the piece I go deeply into black/gay thinking, images, opinions, etc. in a pretty relentless manner. I try to do it with clarity but also without flinching. If you are a white and/or straight person watching A Strange Loop, you just have to swim your laps in the choppy water. It will be hard but it will be worth it.
ZZ: So the “New Musicals Series @ 54 Below” is absolutely amazing, it was started by this really talented lady named Jennifer Ashley Tepper – I haven’t had the chance to meet her in person yet, but her name is all around town as someone doing really cool things. What do you hope to get out of this upcoming concert, both developmentally for the piece, as well as future plans?
MJ: Jen Tepper is an angel on musical theatre earth and I am so grateful to her for having the wisdom and generosity to include A Strange Loop in this series. I hope this concert opens doors that have long been closed to me – a developmental lab that culminates in some sort production with a respectable budget behind it. I am not content to scrimp on this piece. I want a theater and/or producer to see it for the value I know that it has as a piece of art and entertainment in the musical theatre industry.
ZZ: My show in this series, The Crazy Ones, similarly had development at MTF before going on to do this 54 series, and we found that process to make a lot of sense. How has MTF helped you get the show to the place it is now?
MJ: A Strange Loop would not be where it is without MTF. Period. I owe a debt of gratitude and obeisance to founder Shakina Nayfack for opening the doors and allowing me to enter this artistic home to not only develop my piece in the writers’ group but offer opportunities for me to present it and get it up on its feet. Without those opportunities which are so hard to come by in this industry, I would have not even been in shape to present the piece at Feinstein’s/54 Below or anywhere else. The feedback from Shakina and other MTF members has been vital. I am so lucky.
ZZ: Could you ever see Usher playing Usher? Like let’s say you’re running at the Booth, and ticket sales are collapsing around you and you might close – would you have Usher come in to save the show and play Usher?
MJ: The long answer to that question is FUCK NO.
ZZ: The idea of religion and god come up in this piece – how does your own religious belief factor into the show? I’m always really interested in stories that have characters wrestling with their faith – can you talk about the themes of faith in the piece?
MJ: While I was raised very religious, I am not a religious person. I find religion to be an institution that strips people of their individuality and makes living life about guilt and shame, particularly in terms of sexuality. I am however on a certain level, a spiritual person, and a thoughtful person on an even greater level. I believe in God. But I don’t call it that. I call it consciousness. Or a writer. I don’t think we all sprang from nothing. But even if it was nothing, it was God, whether you call it nothing or God, it’s there and it knows. It also doesn’t care. It does care too. But it wants us to have a choice at how we live our lives. But it also won’t interfere in whatever choice we do or don’t make. Nothing is everything. God is nothing. Everything is God. God is everything. Everything is nothing. That’s also a definition of a strange loop. In the piece, Usher is grappling with what he believes about himself, which is, in a sense about faith and God.
ZZ: Well this has been fun Michael! Thanks for chatting with me – I’m excited to see A Strange Loop at New Musicals @ 54 Below next week… let’s get the check.
MJ: Thanks, Zack. Those were great questions.
Click here to get your tickets for A Strange Loop at Feinstein’s/54 Below on April 26.