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"A Strange Loop" Musical Director Rona Siddiqui On Breaking Boundaries In Broadway
The Tony Award-winning "Big Black Queer Ass American Broadway Show" melds R&B and '90s singer/songwriter influences in a musical about identity and art. Musical Director Rona Siddiqui details the process of creating the breakthrough hit.
"A Strange Loop" changed history in many ways at this past weekend's Tony Awards ceremony — taking home awards for Best Musical and Best Book Of A Musical. The awards and accumulating accolades have proven that writer/composer Michael R. Jackson's dream of delivering a "Big Black Queer Ass American Broadway Show" to the masses is resonating with critics and audiences alike.
The musical follows troubled protagonist Usher, a 20-something overweight Black gay man, on his odyssey of embracing his identity and battling his demons. The latter are represented by six other cast members, a.k.a. the Thoughts, who personify his doubts, insecurities, and self-loathing. It's a meta-musical in which Usher, an NYU student and usher at "The Lion King," is working out and writing his autobiographical musical as the show is happening. He struggles with his dreams, with dating, and with parents who are supportive of his musical theater aspirations but unaccepting of his queerness.
The story integrates real details from Jackson's own life, but does not provide pat answers or saccharine Broadway sentiments. There are lines of raw, unfiltered dialogue that cut deeply into Usher's emotional core. The cast is also entirely made up of queer Black men, another Broadway first.
The musical — which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2020 — was nominated for 11 Tony Awards at this year's ceremony. As a recipient of the Best Musical award, co-producer Jennifer Hudson achieved the coveted EGOT dream, becoming only the 17th performer, second Black woman, and one of the youngest people ever to do so. Co-producer RuPaul won his first Tony as well, while cast members Jaquel Spivey (Usher) and L Morgan Lee (Thought 1, Usher's mother) received nominations.
Years before its 2019 off-Broadway run at Playwrights Horizons, Jackson first performed an incarnation of the piece in 2006 — a monologue called "Why I Can't Get Work," which gestated during his time at NYU in the early to mid-2000s. A Strange Loop transformed into a musical production, although it wasn't until Director Stephen Brackett came onboard in 2012 that they decided to cast all Black queer men.
Speaking to Thrillist, Jackson — an NYU grad who actually did usher at "The Lion King" for many years — broke down the eclectic influences for the show, including the animated series "Jem and the Holograms," various musicals, Tyler Perry films, and the "white chick" rock of Tori Amos and Liz Phair.
Perry's work is frequently made fun of in the show: Usher's mother would love for him to create a Tyler Perry-like show, and when he gets the chance to work on a Perry production, he turns it down. In real life, Jackson was so appalled at what he felt was the filmmaker's moralizing and poor handling of AIDS in Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor that he had to address it in his show. And he does so with a very intense gospel number about HIV that is a call for empathy that also taps into rage at both Usher's mother's and Perry's homophobia (something the filmmaker has frequently been accused of).
Liz Phair's music and lyrics had a profound influence on Jackson. "I just was so into her songwriting style and the humor," Jackson told Thrillist. "There's a poetry to it that's just so striking and beautiful, in addition to just doing what I call character work. The characters of herself or whomever in her songs were just so interesting and intricate." In fact, Phair has a song called "Strange Loop," which is also a concept by Pulitzer-winning author and computer scientist Douglas Hofstadter.
Jackson's initial monologue was inspired by Phair's "stream-of-consciousness style and speaking baldly with no filter," he said. "But then there's also Tori Amos, who's like my origin, inner white girl. With somebody who, similarly but even in a sort of rawer way, just would lay everything bare." (Usher frequently references his "inner white girl" on stage.)
Musical Director Rona Siddiqui — a composer and musician with a musical inspired by her mixed Afghan and Italian heritage in the works — has been with the show since 2018. A fellow NYU grad, Siddiqui connected musically with Jackson on Phair, Amos and '90s R&B.
"We have the same kind of understanding of groove, so that makes this very joyful for me to be a part of," Siddiqui tells GRAMMY.com. "When I decide what I'm going to music direct, I have to say to myself, 'Are these people I want to be in the room with? Can I learn from them? Do I want to be influenced by this?' Because you have to submerge yourself into the music. You have to go all the way in."
While its Broadway run has been overwhelmingly embraced, Siddiqui recalled the trepidation she felt ahead of their first audience off-Broadway: "I was like, 'Are people just gonna walk out?'
"The fact that it's been so well received just speaks to how thirsty we are for stories that are honest. And characters that are complex and vulnerable. I think that's why it resonates across the board," she posits. "It's so great to see fat, Black, queer people represented in a space that they are usually excluded from. But it's the universality of that vulnerability and that need for connection and acceptance that we all have that makes every single person feel what Usher is going through."
The show's sound designer Drew Levy echoes those sentiments. "Obviously, I'm not any of the things that Usher is or what the show is about," says Levy who is straight, white and slender. "But I think the beauty of Michael R. Jackson's play is that it is so true that you don't have to be those things to see it and feel it."
As musical director and keyboardist for "A Strange Loop," Siddiqui conducts the show every night. She says her mission is to actualize Michael R. Jackson's musical vision and enhance it as best she can.
"I get as deep into his psyche as possible to bring the music out in ways that even he doesn't know how to say," explains Siddiqui. "That starts with teaching the actors the music, and that gets down to the minutiae of phrasing, and how we pronounce certain words and why…. Every single decision is dramaturgically based and very, very clear" and explained to the band, as well.
When asked if Jackson has learned anything from her, she replies, "Michael always says he knows his musical knowledge ends at a certain point, and that's where I pick up the ball for him." She recollects that while they were mixing the original Broadway cast album, she was the one making the most notes and ones that "Michael wasn't even catching…now I am the one that knows it the most. And that is a trip to me….There's a point where he just trusts me so much that I take the ball."
"A Strange Loop" has upended conventional notions of a mainstream musical, and breaks ground with its frank sexual language — which means it will likely be a hard sell to the tourist crowd. "You cannot bring your kids. So we're not going to have the 'Six' or the 'Wicked' longevity, unfortunately," says Siddiqui.
That being said, there are many teenagers and young adults who are coming to terms with their identity and feeling the way that Usher does, and that could inspire an audience that passes the show along to future generations in a different way.
"I hear from those young people sometimes, and it just makes me so happy that they're seeing themselves and feeling seen," says Siddiqui. "It makes me really, really happy."
The show’s subject matter, frankness and deeper introspection will likely be “A Strange Loop”’s strongest legacy. It’s not a safe mainstream musical, but it is a safe space for its audience even as it challenges both its protagonist and theatergoers to always keep growing despite life’s constant challenges.
Anaïs Mitchell & Rachel Chavkin of Hadestown
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2019 Tony Awards Nominations: New Musical "Hadestown" Leads
"Ain't Too Proud – The Life and Times of The Temptations," "Beetlejuice," "The Prom" and "Tootsie" are also in the running for Best Musical
The Tony Awards have announced their 2019 nominees, with the most nominated performance being "Hadestown," which is up for 14 awards, including Best Musical.
Two other musicals follow in number of nods; "Ain't Too Proud – The Life and Times of The Temptations" received 12 nominations, and "Tootsie" earned 11. All three of these plays, along with "Beetlejuice" and "The Prom," are in the running for Best Musical.
"Hadestown" was created from the GRAMMY-nominated concept album of the same name by singer/songwriter Anaïs Mitchell. The story is based on Greek mythology and was adapted into a play with director Rachel Chavkin, which recently saw its Broadway debut earlier this month.
Several of the play's other notable nominations include Best Original Score, which was written by Mitchell, Best Orchestrations for Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose and Best Actress In A Leading Role In A Musical, for Eva Noblezada, who plays the role of "Eurydice."
"Ain't Too Proud" takes the music and moving story of the GRAMMY-winning group The Temptations. It is written by Dominique Morisseau and directed by Des McAnnuff and also made its Broadway debut this year, in March. The lead actor Derrick Baskin, who plays the role of Otis Williams, is up for Best Actor In A Leading Role In A Musical, and Harold Wheeler has also earned the play a nod for Best Orchestrations.
Another musical inspired by great music in the running this year is "The Cher Show," which uses the music and story of the GRAMMY-winning megastar Cher. It is up for two awards, including Best Actress In A Leading Role In A Musical for Stephanie J. Block who, of course, turns back time on Broadway.
Tune in to CBS at 8:00 p.m. EST on June 9 to watch the show, which is hosted by James Corden, live from Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub of "The Band's Visit"
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Tony Awards 2018: "The Band's Visit" Wins Big, Springsteen Brings It Home
From hilarious hosts Sara Bareilles and Josh Groban to the performances and awards everyone is talking about, go inside the 72nd Tony Awards
New York's Radio City Music Hall came alive Sunday night for the 72nd Tony Awards. Hosted by GRAMMY nominees Sara Bareilles and Josh Groban, the star-studded evening celebrated a landmark theater season that was the best-attended in Broadway history, according to the Broadway League, with more than 31 million people enjoying the fetivities in New York and across the country.
Bareilles and Groban kicked off the show with a comical dueling piano tribute to the 90 percent of nominees who will leave the awards show empty handed, bringing out ensemble members from every Tony-nominated show for the sing-along lyric, "This is for the people who lose." Later on in the evening, the duo delivered another laugh-worthy lament, focusing on Broadway's breakneck schedule performing the song "eight times a week."
By far the biggest winner of the night was "The Band's Visit," taking home the prize in 10 of the 11 categories it was nominated in. An inspired new musical about a band of musicians from Egypt who take the wrong bus and end up in a quiet town in Israel for the night, "The Band's Visit" is a story of hope, love and faith. The show won the coveted Best Musical award.
Several individuals from "The Band's Visit" also scored wins in key categories, including Itamar Moses for Best Book Of A Musical, David Cromer for Best Direction Of A Musical, Tony Shalhoub for Best Leading Actor In A Musical, and Katrina Lenk for Best Leading Actress In A Musical. Lenk and Shalhoub performed "Omar Sharif," giving the Tony's audience a small taste of why their show is so compelling and impactful.
Billy Joel presented a special Tony Award to the great Bruce Springsteen for his work on the show "Springsteen On Broadway." What started as a limited eight-week run will have included 236 performances by the time it wraps in December. Springsteen expressed gratitude for the honor and for being accepted by the Broadway community, saying in his speech, "Thanks for making me feel so welcome on your block." Later in the show, Springsteen delivered a performance of "My Hometown."
GRAMMY nominee Tina Fey introduced the company of "Mean Girls" for a rousing performance of "Where Do You Belong?" The play matched "SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical" for the most nominations going into the evening with 12.
Spongebob Squarepants himself surprised the host at center stage to deliver a psychedelic rebuttal to the show's opening number before kicking it over to the four-legged Squidward for a tap-happy performance of "I’m Not A Loser." Additional performances from the casts of "Carousel," "My Fair Lady," "Dear Evan Hanson," "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical," and "Once On This Island," which won the award for Best Revival Of A Musical.
The most touching moment of the 72nd Tony Awards came when Marjory Stoneman Douglas drama students made a surprise appearance onstage to perform "Seasons Of Love" from the musical "Rent" only moments after their teacher, Melody Herzfeld, was recognized with a special Tony Award for her inspiring efforts not only to protect her students during the tragic shooting in February, but also for encouraging them to use theater as a way to channel their hurt and sorrow into art.
Apropos of June's celebration of Pride Month, perhaps the true biggest winner of the night was the show's strong, unified message of equality. Andrew Garfield of "Angels In America" shouted out the LGBTQ community in his acceptance speech, dedicating his Best Performance By An Actor In A Leading Role award to those who have fought and died to protect the right to live and love. And in her acceptance speech for Best Featured Actress In A Musical for her role in "Carousel," Lindsay Mendez said, after revealing she was asked to change her last name early in her career, "Be your true self and the world will take note."
On this magical night, the theater community united and recognized its most talented individuals, most innovative productions and most lasting contributors — and as anyone who watched knows, they had a lot of fun doing it.
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"Mean Girls," "SpongeBob SquarePants" Lead 2018 Tony Award Nominees
Blockbuster musicals lead the pack of nominations; Bruce Springsteen to receive special recognition for his one-man show
Nominations for the 72nd Annual Tony Awards were announced on May 1, with a trio of wildly popular musicals leading the way. The Tina Fey-penned "Mean Girls" musical and "SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical" each earned a whopping 12 nominations. Following close behind, "The Band's Visit" earned 11 nominations. All three of the top nominated shows are up for Best Musical along with "Frozen," which earned three nominations.
The "SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical" nomination for Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written For The Theatre includes a host of GRAMMY-winning artists, such as Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, John Legend, T.I., Cyndi Lauper, and Lady Antebellum.
The Tony Awards also announced their recipients of honors in non-competitive categories, including a Special Tony Award that will be bestowed to Bruce Springsteen for his one-man show "Springsteen On Broadway." A full list of the nominees and recipients can be found on Playbill.
This year's Tony Awards will be hosted by GRAMMY nominees Sara Bareilles and Josh Groban. Bareilles was nominated for the GRAMMY for Best Musical Theater Album at the 59th GRAMMY Awards for Waitress. The show will air live on Sunday, June 10 from Radio City Music Hall in New York City on CBS at 8 p.m. ET.
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Sara Bareilles, Josh Groban Slated To Host 2018 Tony Awards
The GRAMMY nominees will lend their star power to the annual theater awards show
The annual Tony Awards serve as a kind of Super Bowl for theater aficionados worldwide, celebrating the best in theater over the past year. Though nominations are still two weeks away, today Sara Bareilles and Josh Groban were announced as hosts of the annual theater celebration.
Though they started their careers in the music industry, Bareilles and Groban are multitalented GRAMMY nominees who have each had successful runs on the Broadway stage.
Bareilles wrote the GRAMMY-nominated musical "Waitress" in addition to serving in the production's lead role on two occasions, which Variety reports marked a sales bump for the show. She also played Mary Magdalene in the recent NBC broadcast of "Jesus Christ Superstar."
For his part, Groban spent several weeks in a lead role in "Natasha, Pierre And The Great Comet Of 1812," helping the show bring in more than $1 million per week during the times he starred in the show.
While the Tony Awards typically engage a single host for the evening, this isn't the first time they've opted for a duo. In 2015 Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming tag teamed the evening. The 2018 show will mark Groban and Bareilles' first turn at hosting.
The eligibility period for 2018 Tony Awards consideration ends April 27. Nominations will be announced on May 1. The awards will air live from Radio City Music Hall in New York on CBS — home of the GRAMMY Awards — on June 10.