This interview originally appeared in Musical Theater Today Volume 3, 2019
MTT Tell us your origin story. Walk us up to the present moment.
MRJ I’m from Detroit, Michigan, and originally born and raised in the city limits. I went to Cass Technical High School. A lot of famous people went there: Diana Ross, David Alan Grier, Ellen Burstyn, Lily Tomlin… Former Real Housewife of Atlanta Kenya Moore, Dominique Morisseau, and this guy who’s on Scandal, Cornelius Smith Jr.
MTT Who is he on Scandal?
MRJ He came later, he played the black dude that replaced Columbus Short. He came like in Season Five.
MTT You vouch for that show?
MRJ I think that it’s trash. But I’ve seen every episode. It actually was helpful for me to watch it because of my other show, White Girl in Danger. Anyway, I grew up playing piano from age eight or so. My dad was a police lieutenant, and he had done some sort of favor for one of his officers and she wanted to pay him back. So he asked her if she would give me and my brother piano lessons. I primarily learned how to play piano by ear first—a little bit of sight-reading but not a ton. I also played piano at church, which ended up being really important. So much of that was about improvising and being able to do chord changes and follow the congregation. A lot of my compositional skills came from doing that because I would just go home and constantly be making up little tunes.
MTT Did you work with a choir there as well?
MRJ I played for two of the choirs, from about age 12 to 18, and in the middle of that I started taking classical lessons with this other man and continued through my high school years. I also was singing in an all-city choir from like 6th or 7th grade until the end of high school, where we focused mostly—but not exclusively—on singing black composers. We also did things like Handel and Mozart.
MTT What were the highlights of that?
MRJ A lot of them are spirituals, so people like Moses Hogan or Jester Hairston, Undine Smith Moore…
MTT William Grant Still?
MRJ William Grant Still. A lot of those people. It was called the Brazeal Dennard Youth Chorale. There was a Community Chorale and then there was the Professional Chorale as well. So the Professional Chorale was led by Mr. Dennard—who just passed away some years ago. He was a renowned composer and conductor and everyone in that chorale was either a music professor or an opera singer or whatever. And they all were black. So I was just very immersed in that for my entire childhood. I also was doing child acting. I was part of this group called Paperbag Productions and we would do Snoopy and The Wizard of Oz and things like that. And then when I was like 13 I decided to “quit the business,” as it were.
However, I was writing this whole time; I got very interested in writing poems and short stories. When I was in high school I took Creative Writing as my elective for all four years. The head of the English department decided to bring in this group called InsideOut which is a nonprofit in Detroit that brings professional writers into schools in order for students to see writing as a potential vocation in addition to being a creative outlet. I worked with writers-in-residence the whole four years of high school and then one of them, Peter Markus, was doing private workshops at his house. I would go on the weekends. It was really important (although I didn’t realize this until later) that he was the first person to really challenge me, as a teenager, to write outside of the box and to challenge status quo and push the envelope. He ended up really opening things up for me in an important way, because prior to that, all I was doing was just sort of imitating Maya Angelou poems. He was like, “No, be honest, be bold, be fearless or else be a banker.” He was constantly pushing me in our workshops. The more he did that, the more I was writing what I actually felt and thought about things. A lot of people say that in my work I’m very honest and unfiltered; that sort of came from Peter’s workshops.
So from there I was like, “I want to go to Columbia for college.” A couple of friends of mine were a year ahead of me and they went there. I thought, “Oh, I can go live on the quad and be with the white people.” I also had applied to NYU’s Dramatic Writing program as an afterthought. And so I was visiting Columbia during spring break and staying in the dorms with my friends; I called my parents and they read me my Columbia rejection letter. I was so devastated. I really wanted to go there. But then they read me my NYU acceptance letter, and I had forgotten that even applied.
MTT Were those the only two schools?
MRJ No, I had gotten a full scholarship to Michigan State and I’d gotten into some other schools but they weren’t places I really wanted to go. I thought, “While I’m in New York I can go down and take a look at NYU to see what it is.” I went on a tour and I was like, “Oh, this is not what I thought it would be like.” There was no campus. “If I could go here I could be in New York and get away from my parents.” So I convinced my parents let me go to NYU for Dramatic Writing, but once I got there I was like, “Oh my god, I’ve never written a play before.” The way that the program was structured at that time, you’d send in sort of a general writing sample and they would start everybody in the same place for the first year. Then you’d decide if you wanted to pursue TV writing or playwriting or screenwriting or whatever. I had come there really wanting to write for soap operas. I loved soaps, had been obsessed with them since I was a five-year-old, watching them with my now late great Aunt Ruth and then well into my early 30s… I did all my internships on soaps. I interned at All My Children in the production office, I interned at the network office at ABC daytime, and I worked a temporary job for ABC in their youth marketing focus group where we gave notes on the soaps … but then I also fell in love with playwriting and that ended up being my focus. In one of my classes with my professor Martin Epstein he asked if anybody was interested in musical theater. I always liked musicals because I’d been in them growing up and going to see them with my mom. So I went to the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing open house just to see, and I was like, “Oh, this is a cool program.” I ended up graduating a semester earlier and feeling, “What am I going to do with my life? I’m not prepared for graduation at all. I’m just going to apply for a bunch of grad schools and then apply for jobs, and whichever one comes first, that’s what I’ll do.”
So I applied to a bunch of grad schools. I got rejected from all of them except for NYU Graduate Musical Theatre Writing as a bookwriter and lyricist. I’d never written musicals before. I’d never written a lyric. I didn’t know what I was doing. But they started all the “words people” on the same place—
MTT You were a composer-lyricist?
MRJ No. I was completely not. I didn’t apply as a composer. I wasn’t thinking about being a composer. That was not on my radar.
MTT Had you been writing over the past few years?
MRJ No, I hadn’t. That’s the interesting thing about this. Growing up I made little musical tunes at home but I did not know how to write lyrics. In that period [in high school] when I started taking Peter’s workshop, I fell in love with Tori Amos. I would try to write songs that would imitate her, but I did not write lyrics. I had no idea of song form at all. So at NYU I learned how to write lyrics over the first semester, and it ended up being a really great form for me because lyric writing is so much about taking big ideas and squeezing them down. That, coupled with my writing style from when I was taking these workshops and creative writing classes… Taking that and putting it into this little container was really perfect for me.
MTT Did they have you work music first with your collaboration or was it up to you?
MRJ It sort of was up to you. You got assignments depending on if you were a words person or a composer. And there were some composer-lyricists there so most of the time they would have to be one or the other for an assignment, and you would get paired with a collaborator for every assignment. The first assignment was an AABA song, and the second one was a verse-chorus, and then you moved on to things like scene-to-song and extended musical sequences. So I got paired with all different composers the whole first semester, and then at the end of the first semester you’d write a 10 minute musical, and at the end of the second semester you’d write a 20 minute musical, and ultimately you’d get paired with a collaborator and pitch your thesis to faculty. They would approve it and you’d work on that for the whole second year.
So at the end of the first year we had this special class with Mike Reid (who was the chair of our department—Sarah Schlesinger’s writing partner and also a pop songwriter); he wrote the song “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” that Bonnie Raitt sings. He gave us an assignment: if you’re a composer who’s never written lyrics or a lyricist who’s never written music and wants to try it, go ahead. So I decided, “All right. I learned how to write lyrics over this year, and I’m pretty good at it. And I have these musical impulses that have always been there. Why don’t I try to put them together?” So I went away and I wrote this song called “Memory Song,” which later ended up in A Strange Loop. But that’s not how it was intended initially. My class and my teacher really responded positively, so I was encouraged to continue writing my own music even though, for my thesis project, I would be paired with a collaborator and just writing words.
MTT Is that the Spring Awakening adaptation?
MRJ Yes. My collaborator Rachel Peters and I did a contemporary adaptation of Spring Awakening, called Only Children, which we were writing at the same time that the Broadway version was up and running. On the side I was writing other little songs truly for my own edification. There would be be opportunities to present, so I would go and play a song for people and they just kept liking my music. At some point Ira Weitzman from Lincoln Center came in to see us for something—I forget what it was—but somehow I got to present a song I wrote to him. I don’t know why that would have been. It may have not been an official school thing.
MTT Like a master class?
MRJ Maybe it was a master class? But like—
MTT All good origin stories have a little mystery.
MRJ Yes. So somehow I got to present a song to him in addition to everyone else and he was taken with it. He invited me to come meet with him, just to say hello and get to know each other. I’d written a handful of songs at that point. So I went to his office and we talked about what musicals I liked, and what he liked, and who my main influences were.
MTT Were you seeing a lot of shows at the time?
MRJ In undergrad I saw a lot because we got discounted or free tickets to pretty much everything, and then in grad school they would often get us tickets.
So in one of our meetings Ira asked me, “Are you writing any of these songs down?” And I was like, “No, I don’t know how to do that.”
MTT How did they exist? Did you just record them?
MRJ I just would play them. I had them on a bunch of tapes that had things on them.
MTT What year was this?
MRJ This was like 2006.
MTT Okay. Grad school.
MRJ Well, 2005, 2006. And when Ira heard that I wasn’t writing anything down, he very kindly gave me a copy of Finale 2006 to try to notate my music, which, again, I did not know how to do. So I just took Finale 2006 and started putting things in.
MTT So you hadn’t worked with notation much?
MRJ I mean, I’m not totally ignorant about reading music, but I never took a composition class and so the rules of it were almost completely unknown to me. At first I would get friends to try to notate the songs for me. I think what happened first was I somehow got invited to do a concert at Ars Nova, and in order to do that, I needed to get all the music written down so that people could sing it, and I had to get band arrangements. That concert was completely notated by friends who helped me put it down on paper. This was in 2007 or 2008. One of my grad school friends, Jong Yoon Choi did the band arrangements, and we did that concert. And at that point I had written a song called “Periodically,” which was going to go into A Strange Loop—it had started to form before that but under another name.
So that was the first concert, and I put some of the songs on YouTube, and that was the first time people got to know me as a composer. And that was the funny thing about it: people came to know me as a composer, even though I’m not a super strong player, and I’d never had a composition class, and I had a BFA in playwriting and an MFA in bookwriting and lyric writing. From there I was like, “I’m just going to keep doing this.” So I kept writing songs. I started learning how to notate. (My notations were terrible; I had friends give me tips on how to make them better). That’s when I met this guy named Adam Wiggins, a music director, arranger, copyist. And he said, “Hey, I love doing that sort of stuff if you ever want to work on that.” And it’s been 10 years that he’s been my right hand as far as getting stuff down and helping with arrangements when needed. And he’s the copyist on A Strange Loop.
And from there, concerts, readings, workshops—I have a collaboration with a composer on another piece called Teeth, by me and Anna K. Jacobs.
MTT You mentioned, when you were 13, having a moment where you realized that you didn’t want to be an actor anymore. Was there anything specific about that?
MRJ Yeah. I decided that I was too ugly to be an actor. I thought that actors had to be beautiful movie stars. And I was like, “I’m not a beautiful movie star, so I can’t be an actor.” So I just stopped.
MTT Any inciting incident?
MRJ Nope. I looked in the mirror and I was like, “Not pretty enough to be an actor.”
MTT Oh, geez.
MRJ I’m a very extreme person in that way. Or at least I was more so as a child. I was a very intense kid… and young adult.
MTT Some people peak at that phase, so it’s good to carry that momentum. Outside of soap operas, what were other inspirations? Were there particular musicals, particular artists, particular composers, particular actors, even, who motivated your pursuit in this field?
MRJ I’m really grateful that the musicals I encountered at formative ages all happened to be musicals that dealt with social issues and that showed me that musicals could be about deeper topics. My mother took me to see Show Boat when I was 13—the Hal Prince ’94 revival. I just was really taken by Julie’s story in that musical, because I felt like, even at that age, “Oh my god, this black woman is being treated horribly and cast out of society.” It made me very angry, but it was musicalized and that was really cool, and I loved the music of that show so much. Looking back on it as an adult I’m like, “Oh, there are still some fucked racial politics in this,” but I was impressed with the attempt to deal with something serious in the world in a musical.
And then shortly after that my family went to go see Raisin, which is the musical adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun, which blew my mind. I was 14 or 15 and the score is so beautiful and the songs are so sharp. And they talk about black life in such a personal and political way, and I just thought it was so awesome to have that in that form. There’s a song called “Not Anymore” that is all about covert racism, and it has all these musical styles within it, and irony and commentary from these black characters. It’s so smart. I used to put it on repeat in my basement and just dance around, singing it over and over and over again. The musicals that resonate with me are the musicals that were dealing with stuff. Once I got to NYU I was like, “If I’m going to write musicals, I want to write musicals like that.” I saw Phantom of the Opera the same weekend that I saw Show Boat, and I remember watching it and thinking, “I don’t understand this. What is this actually about?” But then I made my mom buy me the cast album and I realized, “Oh, I like listening to this. It sounds really good, but the story is not compelling to me.” As a 13-year- old, I recognized that, at a certain level, I wanted to write things that were a little bit more, to my mind, complex. West Side Story—I think I saw the movie and I just was so taken by, again, the depth of the songwriting and the way that they were trying to deal with social issues. And again, looking back on that as an adult, there are things about it that are messed up, particularly in the movie. But again, the complexity of it formally, I was really bowled over by. And then, in college, I encountered Sondheim as a composer and lyricist and I was like, “What? This is amazing.” So there are lots of people and shows that I eventually came to sort of be inspired by, but those early ones were Raisin and Show Boat.
MTT Since November 2016 I’ve had this desire to see a really, really politically and socially pointed revival of Anyone Can Whistle.
MRJ That’s the one show I don’t know.
MTT It’s one of the most nakedly incisive shows; for me, the most overtly political Sondheim show—
MRJ Not Assassins?
MTT Assassins, for sure—
MRJ And, I would argue, Sweeney Todd. Man and industrial revolution.
MTT Yeah. So, tell us about your shows.
MRJ A Strange Loop started off as a monologue that I wrote in between undergrad and grad school. I was feeling very lost and alienated, and I wrote this long, rambling monologue about a young black man walking through New York and observing things, and the feelings he had about family and about the world—this is a little bit post-September 11th—and about his queerness and race, and just a bunch of things. That monologue ended up getting performed in this youth theater festival that still goes on called Rebel Verses (produced by Developing Artists at the Vineyard, although, at the time, it wasn’t associated with the Vineyard). It was at Center Stage, New York, which doesn’t exist anymore. Center Stage, New York is where the LAByrinth Theater Company used to be housed before they moved out to The Public and beyond.
Anyway, that monologue got performed in this play festival, and then I started writing personal songs, and then I got the opportunity to put some stuff up at Ars Nova (this is before the 2007 concert). This director I was working with was Maria Manuela Goyanes, who’s now AD at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, but she was just an associate at the Public at the time. She directed some short plays of mine, and then she was like, “Oh, we can put some work at Ars Nova.” And she had heard some of the songs that I was writing and we started trying to put them together. That turned into this one-man show called Fast Food Town that performed at Ars Nova. Probably 12-20 people showed up. Two of them walked out. It was that kind of thing. I was mortified to be doing it, but I did it. And I realized from that that I really didn’t want it to be a one-man show; I wanted it to be a show proper, although I didn’t know what form that would take. So then Maria and I went to the Playwrights Realm, which was just forming at that time, and we started doing some development of the piece which came to be called A Strange Loop at that point.
Maria got a promotion at the Public and we parted ways because she got busy. Then I did a little stint at the Lark with May Adrales, and then she got too busy. And then from there, I approached Stephen Brackett about potentially directing it because he had directed a concert of mine at The Beechman in 2009 called Good Clean Music and then another concert at Joe’s Pub called So Fucking Gay in 2010. And I liked working with him on that. I was like, “Hey, I have this musical I’m curious about. Here’s a draft of it.” I had written a bunch of songs to it. He read the draft, and he asked me about casting. Up until that point it had been done across race and gender, with one black, gay man at the center of it. And Stephen said, “What if you tried doing this with all black gay men?” And I was like, “Oh, that’s interesting.” That note opened up a lot of doors for me about what the piece could be. So we did a reading in 2012. Now it’s making me feel it might have been 2013. You know what? I’m obsessed with this timeline now, and I have to check—
MRJ —Because I did a concert at Lincoln Center in the Bruno Walter—
MTT The Lincoln Center American Songbook series?
MRJ That was 2011. So then we did this reading in 2012 with all black gay men. And the piece was still kind of a mess, but we learned a lot from watching it, particularly about how to cast it. And from there, I just sort of put it away because I didn’t know what to do with it.
Then Shakina Nayfack approached me in 2014 when Musical Theatre Factory was starting and she was like, “Hey, I’m starting this thing. Do you have anything that you want to bring into the writer’s group?” I was like, “Well, I have this musical that I’ve been working on, on and off, in various forms, for the last couple years, but haven’t done much with.” And she was like, “Well, why don’t you bring it into the writer’s group?” So I brought it to the writer’s group, got some notes on it, worked on it for a little bit, and then she was like, “I think you need to just do a workshop.” So we did a workshop—
MTT At MTF?
MRJ At the old porn studio space. I handpicked everybody who was in it, some of whom were people who I knew and some of whom were people who were recommendations, and we did this reading with Stephen directing. It went really, really well. “Oh, I think I’ve got something in this piece that had not totally been clear to me before.” And people were really into it.
I think the next thing we did after that was Goodspeed—I went to the Johnny Mercer Writers Colony—and worked on it there. They do a concert at 54 Below. We did a little section of the show there.
MTT That was in 2015?
MRJ I want to say 2015. And then from there, Jennifer Ashley Tepper invited me to do this new musicals series that Feinstein’s/54 Below subsidized, and we did this big 54 Below concert.
MTT That’s over the summer, right?
MRJ Yeah. That ended up being a game changer because it was the first big, gigantic A Strange Loop thing I’d ever done. We had decided, for the purposes of that concert, instead of having it being the normal seven bodies, we’d have Usher’s six “Thoughts” and then a different black gay man singing each of Usher’s songs. I think it was 14 black gay men singing this material. We sold out. It was a big thing. Kent Nicholson at Playwrights Horizons had been following the piece and waiting to see when he thought it would be ready to put in front of Tim Sanford.
MTT Can people find footage of these concerts anywhere?
MRJ Yeah, there are like three songs. I have a playlist on my YouTube channel which I need to update at some point with new material; I haven’t put anything new up here in years.
MTT You were a pretty early YouTube adopter though, right?
MRJ I only did it ‘cause everyone else was doing it.
MRJ Our first reading at Playwrights Horizons was on November 11th, 2016 so that was really exciting because it was a very dark, emotional time in America—New York City in particular. I have this theory that that actually worked in my favor because people came into the musical, like, “Oh, I have to see a reading of this musical and it’s going to just be a whatever kind of musical,” but then it was just like, “Seven black queers singing about dicks and stuff—”
MRJ —and I think people were just jolted awake by that. You could feel in the air, it was very powerful.
MTT Can you give us a quick rundown of the show?
MRJ Yeah. A Strange Loop is about a black queer musical theater writer who works as an usher at a Broadway show and is writing a musical about a black queer musical theater writer who works as an usher at a Broadway show and is writing a musical about a black queer musical theater writer who works as an usher at a Broadway show, etcetera etcetera etcetera… He’s cycling through different parts of his life, including issues with his parents, and men, and his writing career, and religion, and a lot of self-hatred, and just sort of working through those and coming to understand that he’s in something called “a strange loop,” which is a cognitive science idea that is the core of what the piece is about.
MTT How did you come up with that concept?
MRJ In very early drafts of A Strange Loop… Well, I’ll back that up even more by saying that I’m a big fan of Liz Phair. I encountered her music right around the time that I started writing that monologue that eventually became this show. I was just really struck by her first album, Exile In Guyville, which came out in 1993 and was about this young woman chronicling her own experience in the Chicago rock scene, fighting through misogyny and unrequited love. It’s a very singular voice, and it was telling this whole story to me with a lot of candor and humor and sexuality. I was very impressed and awed and inspired by that. I thought, “How cool would it be if I could do my own version of that, even though our experiences are very different?” (And also her album, legend has it, is in response to the Rolling Stones’ 1972 album, Exile on Main Street.) How cool it would be if she wrote a response to that, and then I sort of wrote a response to her? And so the early drafts of the piece were explicitly doing that.
MTT Explicitly mentioning the album and Liz Phair?
MRJ Yeah. I had it as a narrative in the show that he was trying to track her down to get permission to do that (which I was, in real life). And I had written a bunch of mash-ups to go against songs of hers that would be in the show. She has a song called “Fuck and Run” on her first album, and I had wrote a song called “Today” that was meant to go right on top of it. And I wrote a bunch of other songs that were like that. Or I would listen to one of her songs and then imagine a response to it. Because of how I developed as a composer there were all these standalone songs, and early versions of A Strange Loop were trying to build a structure around these preexisting songs. And some of those songs stayed. Some of them fell away. Some of them got rewritten to be more dramatically forward-moving. Someday I should like to get out all of my trunk songs.
So then that narrative culminated in a mash-up of this song on her album called “Strange Loop,” which is like the closing song on Exile in Guyville. I always loved the sound of it harmonically and melodically and production-wise. I thought, “I don’t know what the title ‘Strange Loop’ means. It’s not the hook of the song. It doesn’t appear anywhere in the song.” And so one day, after years of living with these drafts, I thought, “I’m just going to Google ‘Strange Loop’ just to see; maybe it’s referring to something that will put this into a different context.”
The first thing that popped up was Douglas Hofstadter who is a cognitive scientist. He wrote this book called Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid in which he coins this term called “a strange loop.” It’s a hard thing to explain. It’s this idea that certain patterns that exist in nature and in mathematics and elsewhere define how something exists; and it ultimately gets down to the idea of a self that can only be defined by referring back to itself. It’s like a mirror held up to a mirror. That’s the only way that consciousness can really be defined. Because for me to talk about a phone or a cup or whatever, I have to attach lots of different molecules that tell me what it is, that exist in my brain and are constantly referring back and replicating.
MTT “I have had past experiences with these objects.”
MRJ Yeah. Like you’d go, ”Mom.” And there are lots of little molecules in your brain that make up what that is.
MTT Sure. It sounds like an intersection of neuroscience and philosophy.
MRJ It’s combination of everything. It’s philosophy, it’s neuroscience. So he wrote this book where he gets really into the weeds of it. And he wrote a follow-up to that years later called ”I Am A Strange Loop.”
It’s this idea that you can move up or down through our hierarchical system and still wind up back where you started. If you think about the mind and consciousness, you can try to look to the bottom of what consciousness is, but it’s combined with so many different molecules that you can’t ever really perceive it. That’s what makes us able to stay sane, that we can’t fully conceive of ourselves.
MRJ So when I encountered that concept, I realized that the piece itself was trying to do that, to capture the idea of what it meant to walk in that body. Because when I had written the monologue, I essentially was trying to capture this black queer male alienation in real time, trying to perceive, “What is wrong with me? Why am I like this? Who am I?” And so the fact that the piece ultimately culminated in this “strange loop” song with Liz, and ended up being about someone realizing who they really were and had been for the entire time… “Oh, there’s something to that.” I started researching that idea as much as I could and trying to figure out how to put that in there, and that’s how the title came about.
The other ironic part was that there’s this mash-up between the Liz Phair song “Strange Loop” and my song, “Strange Loop.” Liz’s song is a breakup, and it’s her breaking up with me or with Usher, the character, after which he has to sort of go on without her. But when I finally got in touch with her in real life she said, “You can’t use my song, so you just need to use your own…” which is what I already wanted. It was already dramatically built in.
MTT Oh, that actual moment? Between Usher and Liz Phair?
MRJ The rejection, yeah.
MTT To what degree is it appropriate to read aspects of this show as autobiographical?
MRJ It’s really important to me that people do not understand this piece as an autobiographical piece because autobiography, formally, is a very specific thing. This piece isn’t linear. It’s about a particular moment in time. It’s about a perception of reality, and that’s also what a strange loop is. A strange loop is a perception of what is. It’s kind of an illusion, like when you put a mirror in front of a mirror and you just keep seeing reflections. That’s an illusion, but that illusion is real. It has a knowable if imperceptible value. And that’s sort of what a self is. So I don’t think of the piece as autobiographical. The term I’ve been using is self-referential because I, as an author, have taken certain experiences in my life and put them into this piece, but those experiences, in my mind, are props, you know?
MRJ It’s both important and unimportant what is true about them, or not true about them, because they are there as examples through which we can understand the concept.
MTT So to use a weird metaphor, if you’re submitting some of your own life experiences and observations as an X value in this equation—that value could be anybody’s life experiences.
MRJ Exactly. I can’t write about someone else’s self-experience. I can only write about my own, and my own self-experience is my perception of what is true. We have this character named Usher who has a perception of what his life is like. He’s too fat. He’s too ugly. No men want to fuck him. People don’t like his music. And he gets to a point where he has to actually deal with his own perception of himself, and whether that’s real or not, and what the implications of that perception are. I really shy away from “autobiographical,” because that’s a different form, and this piece is dealing with a kind of existential way of seeing
MTT From what I know about White Girl In Danger, it’s similarly an in-depth interrogation, through your own perspective, of something that you’re interested in as a work of art.
MRJ White Girl in Danger, I’ve realized, is a companion piece to A Strange Loop. I didn’t realize that until I went back. I worked on White Girl in Danger and then worked on the workshop for A Strange Loop right after and it’s almost like White Girl in Danger is a sequel… Like the character in A Strange Loop then goes to White Girl in Danger and writes a story that he ends up in by the end of it. Then the characters in that story are like, “Why did you do this?” I’ve definitely been thinking of those as companion pieces.
MTT Wasn’t White Girl In Danger performed at the Polyphone Festival?
MRJ Yes, that was performed at the Polyphone.
MTT So what’s that been like for the past few years?
MRJ That one developed pretty quickly, because I got into the Dramatist Guild fellowship program in early 2016 and I had been developing A Strange Loop for a while and I just didn’t want to open it up to yet another writers group. I had this idea for White Girl in Danger for a really long time, so I decided to bring that in. I wrote some of it, got some feedback, and then we were supposed to do another A Strange Loop reading or something at Musical Theatre Factory, but then a bunch of people weren’t available, so they asked me if I had anything else that I was working on that was similar. I was having trouble fleshing [White Girl In Danger] out so I brought it in and we read as much of it as I had, which wasn’t a lot, and I had written an outline of the rest of it and we decided to have the actors improv it. That way I could see what it looked like, because the piece is such a weird idea, because it’s based on soap operas, and I wanted to see how crazy it could be. When they did the improv, I saw how crazy it could be so I went home and wrote some more scenes, a couple of songs, and sketches. Then, MTF had me do a concert version at Joe’s Pub which forced me to write a big chunk of the songs. Then I got the Polyphone opportunity, so that gave me deadlines and I wrote a whole draft during that process. I’m doing a book-only workshop of it at the Vineyard Theater in January.
MTT Let’s pivot to your solo albums. How does that fit in the tapestry? You just had one come out a few months ago.
MRJ In my development as a composer, it always took a village… I was still doing my thing, but then there was that question, “What career am I going to have? And what is musical theater (at that time)?” So, between, say 2008 and 2015, what was musical theater during that time? It was unclear to me where I would fit in the landscape because so much of my work is very confrontational, political, racial, and sexual. It’s not necessarily family-friendly.
A lot of feedback that I would get is, “Why is this so sexual? Why are you using so many dirty words?” I was very annoyed by that, but I also didn’t know what to do with it. If A Strange Loop had been read at that time, I wouldn’t have known where to send it because politically the climate was just different. Frankly, during the Black Lives Matter era, through Trump being elected, the climate was just different in musical theater specifically. But I had all these songs, so I figured I should try to do something with them. People were doing lots of Kickstarters at the time. I had so much anxiety about doing it. But I thought, “I’m gonna do this album.” I raised some money. Not enough. But I didn’t know it wasn’t enough.
MTT So you met whatever goal you had set?
MRJ I met my fundraising goal, but to do what I really wanted to do I should’ve doubled that. Lesson learned. I just decided to put the songs out. I had done a concert at The Beechman (after I had done So Fucking Gay, which was such a hard concert to do because people were like [horrified], “Oh my god!” I almost got fired from my job because of some of the artwork). So I decided: “From now on, I’m only doing these concerts if everybody’s on board and I’m not gonna compromise.” As an angry response I did a concert at The Beechman called Good Clean Music, where I tried to purposely write more family-friendly things, but I ended up not being able to do that. The songs ended up being these ironic little things, but still good songs. Anyway, I had a bunch of songs both from Dirty Laundry, which was my first concert, and So Fucking Gay. So originally what was going to happen was I was going to do a double album, but I ended up having to separate them: one was an EP and one was an LP. I released Good Clean Music first and that was just six songs, then years later I released Dirty Laundry. I did a single here and there as well. I just wanted to make something commercially available.
MTT Going back to the idea of the political climate and the musical theater climate, and your social media presence. Do you feel that you see an intersection with your social media presence and your professional life? Do you think that you’re able to walk that tightrope, while maintaining the same truthfulness that motivates you creatively?
MRJ That’s kind of an accident. Ira Weitzman also pointed this out to me. When people started to really take notice of me as a musical theater writer, he told me that my social media presence had preceded me for quite some time, in ways that I never even thought about. It wasn’t a calculated plan. I just write my work like I live my life. To me, theater is a reflection of life, so if you don’t like my work then you’re not going to like me. I’m not hiding anything. I want to tell the truth and I want to be honest, and I want to reveal. That has helped me in a lot of ways. It may have also hurt me in of ways that I don’t know of. I have no idea. But I also don’t care. I’m interested in theater that shows us something about the world, even if those things are hard to look at and think about—especially if they are hard to look at and think about.
MTT Your posts tend to be literally that—signposts, waypoints, a type of gathering place. There’s discourse. I don’t necessarily see other people cultivating that as much, and part of it is that you have a strong interest in following up on a conversation thread.
MRJ I feel like there’s less of that than there used to be. To be honest with you, I think the world has changed in a lot of ways and social media has become toxic and weaponized…. I feel like there’s less of that on my wall than there used to be. In part because I feel more ambivalent and polarized than ever. But the box [on Facebook] says: what’s on your mind? So historically, I’ve always taken that a challenge. You wanna know what’s on my mind? I’m gonna tell you. The good, the bad, the ugly. I like talking to people, exchanging ideas, debating… Well, I don’t know how I feel about some of these things right now because the culture is just so different than it used to be. Not that I shy away from it, but it’s just hard for me to know what’s even useful to argue or talk about.
MTT What are some forms of musical theater right now that you find yourself deliberately experimenting with in terms of structure and creative impetus?
MRJ What I’ve learned about myself as a writer: I can only write about the things I have questions about. And those things are always related to what’s happening in some corner of the world, as I understand it. A Strange Loop is about my questioning the validity of my existence as an identity. White Girl in Danger is about questions that I have around this debate about what we call “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” and who that benefits, and what the consequences are. I don’t really think about consciously trying to push a boundary. It’s just that I have a question, and I’m going to explore that question and the form will tell me how far to go and how expansive that question is.
MTT Have there been specific shifts in the field regarding where your work “fits?”
MRJ That’s really interesting because I’ve definitely questioned where my work fit early on. I thought, “I’m this outspoken, black, gay voice, and the industry is very white and wealthy. So if that’s true, then where do I fit in even though I love this form?” But then, as the world begins to change and be woke, then all these discussions about diversity, equity, and inclusion start happening. I wrote my blog about diversity, equity, and inclusion back in 2015—I only wrote that because Brett T. Ryback, who’s an actor and writer, wrote this blog on his site about diversity and inclusion, specifically calling out the cast of Dear Evan Hansen, which at that time was at Arena Stage, and at that time was all white. So he was talking about how he didn’t like that and what musical theater writers should do. Then he named me as a writer of color that people should know and linked to my website. I woke up that morning and someone had texted me and told me I got name checked on that blog.
I read his article and there were some things I found interesting and some things I disagreed with, so I figured, “Why don’t I think about this and write my own take on it?” Doing that was really helpful for me because it forced me to actually take positions on issues that had been affecting how I felt that I fit in the industry for years. So I wrote my thoughts about it and posted it. It’s the only viral thing I’ve ever written. From there people started taking notice, and asking me to be on panels, and paying closer attention to my work. The world was changing, and therefore my work suddenly was being looked at with new eyes. It’s interesting though, because I went back to read my blog and I’ve actually moved to the left of it since I wrote it. Because when I look at the world and at theater in particular, in the way that people are talking about diversity, inclusion, equity, and intersectionality, I have a critique of even that. And those are thoughts I had three years ago. I haven’t flipped my position, but I’m looking how a lot of these conversations are playing out now. As much as it’s talked about, the industry still hasn’t changed. It’s just putting a new face on it. Everybody’s going around saying things like, “We need to program more playwrights of color,” and, “We need to be more intersectional…” But our artistic directors are still all white or white-adjacent. Not only that, they all went to Yale, or Brown, or Columbia, or Harvard or wherever . So we’re talking about diversity, but that’s not becoming more “diverse.” And to be clear, I count myself as part of this. A Strange Loop is being done at Playwrights Horizons in co-production with Page 73 Productions in part because I went to NYU twice and was able to gain access to a certain level of education and connections. I wasn’t discovered like Lana Turner at a soda shop and told I had a bright future in pictures. So to me, this is as much a class issue as it is a racial issue if not more so. And my point is that now everyone can go around and say they’re woke and that they’re programming an intersectional play. I’m finding myself more and more repulsed by the performative wokeness of it all, while certain structural things are not changing and will stay in place forever until the core issues are addressed.
MTT Do audiences have a role in that?
MRJ Audiences have a huge role in this. Everybody’s running around trying to be more intersectional, but the audiences are neither changing nor are they being asked to play new roles. I believe the audience is a part of every theatrical experience; they’re not removed from it. Sometimes I feel like I go and see plays and musicals and the audience has no role in what’s happening. That just makes me think, “What is the purpose of this piece?” If you’re not thinking about who the audience is, then what is the purpose of this ritual? That’s a very important part for me with anything that I write. Who is going to be there, who do I want to be there, who am I talking to, what am I talking about, what is the goal of this work?
MTT What is your sense of your audience?
MRJ I think it varies. For A Strange Loop, because Usher, the main character, is talking to so many audiences, he’s talking to white gay men in a different way than black gay men for example. He’s talking to theater people in a different way than he’s talking to very religious people. They’re written in a way that constantly shifts the mode of communicating. It’s important to me to try to get an audience that is as representative (I hesitate to use the word diverse, because people are not diverse)—an audience that isn’t homogenous. My audience is always changing, depending on what the piece is.
MTT And MTF is going to be a different audience than Joe’s Pub. The show has moved through all of those spaces… do you think it has a solid following?
MRJ I think so. Over time, I’ve been surprised to find out who knows about it, and who’s into it. Because at this point the script has gotten around to various theaters and lit managers. The YouTube clips get circulated. So it’s been interesting. I’m a part of the outreach for Playwrights Horizons, so it’s really important for me to reach beyond the subscriber base to the larger theater community. I really want to try to get other folks—the “non-voters” is what I call them—to come. And people who say they hate musicals, I really want those people. Those are my people.
One thing I do want to add about casting, and the vocabulary used around the casting. When the piece started out it was a piece that we talked about as being played by seven black gay men. One of our cast members has recently come out as trans femme, and that person will be doing the show. That affects some of the language about how we’ve talked about it in the past. We’re talking about it as a show that has seven black-and-queer-identified performers, being sensitive about avoiding using the word “men” specifically. It is still a story that is about a black, queer man’s experience, but the casting itself is a little bit broader than that.