BWW Exclusive: New Musicals at 54 Series - Jennifer Ashley Tepper Interviews Michael R. Jackson About A STRANGE LOOP
New Musicals at 54 is a series produced by Feinstein's/ 54 Below Programming Director Jennifer Ashley Tepper. Some of the 10 new and diverse musicals by a selection of today's most talented writers have had out-of-town productions, some have had workshops... now's your chance to be first to see them in NYC! Join us at New Musicals at 54 for one-night-only concerts celebrating each new show with songs, behind-the-scenes stories, and all-star casts!Click here to learn more about the New Musicals at 54 series. Use code NEW20 when purchasing tickets to three or more shows in the series in a single order and receive 20% off tickets in the Main Dining Room or Bar Rail.
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JENNIFER ASHLEY TEPPER: When did you start writing A Strange Loop and what was the initial inspiration for it? What stirs you about telling this particular story on stage?
MICHAEL R. JACKSON: A Strange Loop started initially as a monologue called "Why I Can't Get Work" that I wrote right after I graduated from college and was freaking out about what direction my life was taking and my perceived inability to control my destiny or to hit the marks I thought I should be hitting at that time. What interests me about this story is that it's a black, gay man's audacious, emotional, hilarious, musical self-portrait that goes deeply and unsentimentally into his inner life, which is something I've never really seen in any musical in recent memory.
JENNIFER ASHLEY TEPPER: What excites you most about writing for the theatre today? And on the flip side, what are the most significant challenges you feel that writers for the theatre face in 2016?
MICHAEL R. JACKSON: I'm really excited by the opportunities we have to use theater to ask (and in rare cases, answer) today's most pressing questions. I feel now more than ever the responsibility to mine the depths of imagination as the world goes through the changes we all see in order to find stories and songs that are compelling and stage worthy. The challenges that attend this are economics and lack of taste by those in a position to curate. Especially if you are a musical theater writer. You're allowed to do it in plays it seems but in musicals, there seem to be what Tony Kushner once called "the guardians of musical theatre"-I imagine them all being like Heimdall from the Thor movies. But just as I believe it's my responsibility to dig deeper, I believe more producers and theaters should be challenging themselves and their audiences to expect more from the musicals they support and produce. Nice is different than good. Cool is different than groundbreaking. But I'm only a recently out-and-proud snob so I'm still struggling to find a way to express this in more constructive (and slightly less elitist) terms because while I don't really think that all musicals need to be "important", I do appreciate musicals that openly aim to be appreciated as art.
JENNIFER ASHLEY TEPPER: What was your first exposure to theatre? When did you know it was what you wanted to pursue as a career?
MICHAEL R. JACKSON: If I'm honest, my first exposure to theatre was playing piano for out-of-tune black people at the Baptist church I was raised in. There's no theatre like it. But more practically, I got started in theatre in school plays and local children theatre. Because I'm near-sighted, I snagged the lead in The Country Store Cat in the 2nd or 3rd grade. From there I rode to fame as Gonzorgo in Babes In Toyland" Things took a downward turn when two of my four lines got cut when I was cast as the token black Franklin in Snoopy and then finally an Emerald City denizen in The Wizard of Oz. Feeling jaded, I left the business at 13 and started writing. I didn't realize writing could be a career until I got to NYU undergrad for playwriting.
JENNIFER ASHLEY TEPPER: A Strange Loop is semi-autobiographical and has to do with your experience as a young gay black musical theatre writer. What kinds of audiences do you hope to share it with, and why? Do you feel that opportunities for diverse artists have changed since you started writing the piece? How do you hope things will change in the future?
MICHAEL R. JACKSON: Broadly, I'd like to share it with whatever audiences are willing to risk watching it but I am especially committed to audiences of color (particularly black-identified audiences) getting their eyes on it because it is a piece that is very explicitly written with their gaze in mind. The reason for this is because as a person of color consuming theater, I am hyper aware of how regularly I am expected to extend my empathy to white characters, stories, and points-of-view. In my thinking on the subject of "diversity" in the last few years, it's become increasingly galling to me that there aren't more platforms, opportunities, or seasons dedicated to stories for, about, or by people of color. I think the discussion about opportunities for diverse artists has started since I started writing the piece but I still think it's anybody's game as far as getting those opportunities (and money, which writers need and have a hard time getting in order to do this work). I hope that change will start to come from the top down and the bottom up at precisely the same time. Everybody in the ecosystem of musical theater needs to lend a hand to this cause. And everybody needs to realize that this discussion of diversity is about far more than casting or just black/white issues.
JENNIFER ASHLEY TEPPER: Michael, you are known in the community for not censoring yourself - or censoring yourself less than others - in terms of both material in your musicals, and how you express yourself online. How has this head-on confronting of topics and issues affected you as an artist? Have you run into situations where it's had positive or negative results?
MICHAEL R. JACKSON: As an artist, it's affected me in the sense that I have to a wide degree cultivated an audience that understands and supports my point of view, my risk-taking, my candor, and my humor. The most obvious negatives I can name are that I've been unfriended a bunch of times by people who do not feel my point of view, risk-taking, candor and/or humor. But I would also say I've gained more than I've lost. The truth of the matter is that at this stage, there is not much difference between my artistic voice and my public voice so for good or for ill, I've decided to continue to sing out Louise instead of hum under my breath.
JENNIFER ASHLEY TEPPER: You came through the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing department at NYU. What are the main lessons you feel you learned during that time? As someone whose voice is so distinctive, are there certain "rules" of musical theatre you've found yourself throwing aside as your career has progressed?
MICHAEL R. JACKSON: I learned how to write lyrics at GMTWP and I learned the importance of pushing story and character through lyrics. I also learned to embrace my own voice and make and break the rules as needed as a storyteller.
JENNIFER ASHLEY TEPPER: What musicals, plays, music, film, television, or other art do you consider most formative to your writing sensibility-both in your work in general and on A Strange Loop? What artists do you find inspiring?
MICHAEL R. JACKSON: Dear Jack Viertel and the board of Encores: I am a music theater writer in part because I was blessed with the opportunity to see a tour of the 1974 Tony Award Winning musical Raisin when I was 14. Please let the world hear this musical again. The score left an indelible mark on me and showed me that musicals could deal with important issues and showcase black lives internally and externally with grace, respect, humor, and HONESTY. Aside from that, Sondheim is a master storytelling teacher through lyrics, Stew is a personal touchstone for pushing a black point-of-view to the fore with Passing Strange. Kirsten Childs is another hero for doing the same (and backwards and in heels like Ginger Rogers) from a black female artistic perspective in Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin. Robert O'Hara's play Bootycandy made me want to quit writing because I felt like his image making covered all the ground I wanted to hit. Branden Jacobs Jenkins' An Octaroon made me think about slavery and theatre in a new way. Ed Kleban and Marvin Hamlisch's A Chorus Line made me cry like a baby while I was temping in a cubical at a horrible insurance company and is exactly the depth of personal storytelling I aspire to. With TV: Mad Men, Mad Men, Mad Men - I've never been more obsessed with why and how white people do things than when I was watching that show and the writing was exquisite. I could go on and on and on.
JENNIFER ASHLEY TEPPER: You have developed A Strange Loop with The Musical Theatre Factory, among other places. What do you feel you've learned along the way that has been most valuable to the show? How has the piece evolved since you began?
MICHAEL R. JACKSON: The thing I've learned is that it's important to have an artistic community where you can develop your work. Musical Theatre Factory gave me a home to take a show that had been hiding under my bed for years and actually start working on it again after more false starts than I can name and feeling genuinely discouraged about its potential to be seen and frankly, its worthiness to be seen. The show has grown in Incredible Hulk-like leaps and bounds since my association with MTF began. I've learned that only I can blaze the trail I want to see and may the bridges I burn light the way.
JENNIFER ASHLEY TEPPER: What else are you working on right now? What are you most looking forward to working on in 2016?
MICHAEL R. JACKSON: I am working with the fantastically talented and whip smart Anna Jacobs on a musical adaptation of the 2007 indie horror film Teeth. It's a dark, comedic, female centered piece that we're very excited about. We have a couple of readings coming up in the next few months, both courtesy of Musical Theatre Factory. I am looking forward both to the Feinstein's/54 Below concert of A Strange Loop and the readings of Teeth as both of these projects have fed me artistically over the last few years and represent different boundaries I want to push as an artist and musical theater writer.
JENNIFER ASHLEY TEPPER: What is the best advice you've received or lesson you've learned as a writer? What do you wish you could tell younger writers and/or the younger version of yourself?
MICHAEL R. JACKSON: One of my teachers at GMTWP was "I Can't Make You Love Me" songwriter Mike Reid and he once said something along the lines of "the best argument against the work you hate is your own." That has been a guiding principle for me in the sense that I focus more on the work (or change) I want to see in the world than on other work that gets chosen for productions or other opportunities. I would tell younger writers to look for theater in the world around them, not just the "sanctioned" institutional theater. I'd also tell them to always look for opportunities to create their own opportunities. And to be rigorous and to be open and to not be an asshole. To anyone.
JENNIFER ASHLEY TEPPER: What are you excited for audiences to see at Feinstein's/54 Below? What can they expect in the A Strange Loop concert presentation?
MICHAEL R. JACKSON: I'm excited for audiences to hear my dear friend and colleague/MD/savior Adam Wiggins' totally excellent band arrangements as well as FOURTEEN (14) extraordinarily talented black, gay male artists collaborating to tell a story that was written for and about their population. H/T to my director Stephen Brackett for suggesting this casting choice as a way of cracking open my writing of the piece years ago.
Since then I've worked with many of these performers on this piece and it's paid off in untold dividends. Audiences should expect to see many guest singers including myself singing songs for the protagonist Usher (not Raymond) representing a wide spectrum of black gay men of different sizes, shapes, and ages. We will use the music to get you into the world of the piece and the mind and heart of this unusual black, gay character.
JENNIFER ASHLEY TEPPER: What is your ideal future for A Strange Loop?
MICHAEL R. JACKSON: I want to see A Strange Loop in an Off-Broadway or commercial production with a legit, respectable budget behind it. No scrimping. It's a bold, risk-taking piece, but it's also totally accessible to many audiences (even people who say they hate musicals-I've had two people testify to that). Put it in front of people, musical theater gatekeepers. Just do it! Yes, some people might walk out but a twice as many will be clamoring to get in. A Strange Loop wants to be a game changer. Nice is different than good. Cool is different than groundbreaking.