John-Andrew Morrison returns to 'A Strange Loop' at A.C.T.

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday April 2, 2024
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John-Andrew Morrison (second from right) with the Broadway cast of 'A Strange Loop' in 2022. (photo: Marc J. Franklin)
John-Andrew Morrison (second from right) with the Broadway cast of 'A Strange Loop' in 2022. (photo: Marc J. Franklin)

"I feel like I have been a caretaker of this song for so long," said John-Andrew Morrison about composer-lyricist Michael R. Jackson's "Periodically."

"I've been singing it from the time it was composed in 2008, long before it was ever a part of a musical," Morrison said in a recent interview with the Bay Area Reporter.

Eventually the emotionally intricate tune, in which a mother addresses her gay son, became a highlight of "A Strange Loop," winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2022 Tony award for Best Musical, which is being remounted by American Conservatory Theater with its original Broadway creative team, beginning later this month.

The show has been marketed to hip young culture vultures with a focus on its post-modern meta-narrative: "A Black, queer writer writing a musical about a Black, queer writer writing a musical about a Black, queer writer," is how it's described in promotional copy. But Jackson's writing has a deeply humane tenderness that's in near-perfect balance with its brainiac cleverness. The two are gorgeously braided in Morrison's rendition of "Periodically."

John-Andrew Morrison (photo: Roberto Araujo)  

A fateful meeting
When the Jamaican-born Morrison first crossed paths with Jackson, he'd been plugging away on the fringes of the New York stage scene while also working in corporate communications since graduating from Brandeis in 1995 (After enrolling with plans to pursue a pre-law track, Morrison had quickly diverted to the theater major).

The two men were connected by Rachel J. Peters, Jackson's fellow N.Y.U. grad student and his co-writer for "Only Children," a musical they were producing in conjunction with the university's theater program. Morrison was recruited into the company, which turned out to feature a constellation of future Broadway stars including Brandon Uranowitz (Tony winner for "Leopoldstadt") and Alli Stroker (Tony winner for "Oklahoma!").

(An adaptation of the same 19th-century German play that inspired "Spring Awakening," "Only Children" is set in the Mall of America. "It's fabulous. Fabulous!" says Morrison. Ray of Light Theater, nota bene).

At the time, Jackson was also presenting his songwriting talents in ad hoc cabaret performances around the city, and he asked Morrison if he'd be willing to help out.
"At first, my job was to read transcripts of some voicemails from Michael's mom in between songs. And then, maybe two or three weeks later, he came to me, very shyly, and said, 'I have a song and I wonder if maybe you'd be interested in singing it.' And that was 'Periodically'."

Messages from Moms
The song, with an internal narrative that twists from comic to heartbreaking, is structured as a voice message left for a son by his conservative religious mother. She is torn between her intense love for the young man and her earnest, near-overwhelming fear that his sexuality will condemn him to hell:

"Don't repent 'cause you know it would please us
Son, you should do it so you can see Jesus."

"The first time I heard it," said Morrison of "Periodically," "I realized how remarkable it was. It's a whole life in one song. Michael had actually let me listen to a couple of his mother's messages, so I could get a sense of her voice. And the thing I heard most of all in the way she spoke to him, and in the lyrics of his song was the love and adoration that you have for a kid.

The Broadway cast of 'A Strange Loop' in 2022. (photo: Marc J. Franklin)  

"And, as you might imagine, I also have a mom," Morrison joked. "She would say, 'If I didn't care about you, I wouldn't focus on you.' So, I understood what the nudging in the song was about, how this woman loved her kid so much that she wanted to save him."

The song left audiences dumbstruck, recalled Morrison.

"And Michael just kept asking me back to sing it. We were doing little showcase cabarets of his songs all over town. At some point, someone said to Michael, 'Hey, there's a musical in there somewhere.'"

Over the next decade, with the input of many collaborators, Jackson's autobiographical songs and storytelling gradually coalesced into "A Strange Loop," going through major shifts from workshop to workshop.

"For a while," recalled Morrison, who eventually left his corporate job to act full time, "the show was conventionally cast, with white actors and Black actors, men, and women. But even then, I was still there singing the part of Mother."

Director Stephen Brackett, who ultimately shepherded a finished iteration of the show to Playwrights' Horizons and Broadway, had been hearing Morrison sing "Periodically" for years, having helped direct some of Jackson's cabaret shows.

"When Stephen came on to direct 'A Strange Loop,'" recalled Morrison, "He'd already heard me sing this song several times. And I think it had been gnawing at him for quite some time. Why was I singing this song while everyone else was cast to match their characters?"

Many directors would have opted to recast Morrison's role, but in what is likely to become a legendary act of Broadway alchemy, Brackett began to think about recontextualizing everything else in the show.

What if the entire cast consisted of people with queer Black bodies?

"Something opened up in Michael," said Morrison, remembering when Brackett and Jackson began to brainstorm around this idea.

The long-aborning piece began a gallop toward its final form: a multi-player one-character show. The protagonist, Usher, remains a young, big-bodied Black gay man; the other cast members each play elements of his neurotic unconscious (Morrison not only sings "Periodically," but is involved in virtually every song as an ensemble member).

A son and a song
After Morrison had lived with his big number for over a decade and "A Strange Loop" won Lucille Lortel and Obie Awards for "A Strange Loop" Off-Broadway, the show's progress was paused by the pandemic, and Morrison found himself in a more essential caretaker role. In 2020, during lockdown, Morrison's mother suffered a stroke back in Jamaica.

"She had lost the use of the entire right side of her body. My dad is elderly as well, and he couldn't take care of her. So, I went back to be head nurse, cook and bottle washer. It was a scary, trying time."

After about six months, Morrison's mother had stabilized and improved enough that he felt able to return to the U.S. (She has since improved even further and regularly enjoys video calls with her son).

When he returned to "A Strange Loop" for the show's pre-Broadway engagement in Washington, DC, "Periodically" took on even more resonance for Morrison.

"The stakes of the song became even higher and deeper for me," he said. Because it's one thing that the mother doesn't want her son to be gay, but I'd just dealt with my mother being seriously ill, and the song is reckoning with eternity and the afterlife. She doesn't want her son to go to hell. It all hit me very differently."

Someone else singing
Shortly before "A Strange Loop" had its first Broadway preview in April 2022, COVID-19 cases began to break out among cast members, Morrison among them.

"The rules were very strict at the time," he recalled. "You had to have 10 days in quarantine before you could go backstage again. On the tenth day, though, you could be in the audience.

The Broadway cast of 'A Strange Loop' in 2022. (photo: Marc J. Franklin)  

"So, I have the weird distinction of working on this song and this show for over a decade and then seeing its first Broadway performance from the audience. [Understudy] Jon-Michael Reese did a beautiful job with his very different version of 'Periodically.'

"All of the pomp and pageantry of the first night on Broadway, and I was watching from the audience and just going, 'Wow. Okay. This is weird.' That's the only time I've ever seen someone else sing the song."

The following night, Morrison made his own Broadway debut. "A Strange Loop" ended its successful Broadway run in January 2023.

"My body completely shut down," Morrison recalls. "And then, about two weeks later. I had this wonderful thought, which was like, having felt so responsible for caretaking this song for this show for so long, it was like suddenly 'Oh! I don't have to take care of the song anymore. It gets to go out into the world and different people are going to interpret it. It's bigger than me. And that's wonderful because that means I'm a part of something bigger than me. In that moment, I was like, 'Okay, I've put it to bed."

And yet, 13 months later, Morrison arrived in California for rehearsals, the only member of the Broadway cast returning for San Francisco and Los Angeles runs.

"I'm kind of surrogate dramaturg for the new team now; the institutional memory on stage."
"I've become the grandpa," said the man who sings as the mother.

A strange loop, indeed.

No one-song wonder, Morrison will hop a few blocks from the Toni Rembe Theater on Monday, April 29 to present his cabaret concert, "No...Maybe...Why not?," accompanied by pianist Drew Wutke. The show incorporates a bit of Broadway, but leans much more into pop, from reggae to Taylor Swift.

"It's a reluctant and dubious look at love," said Morrison. "I'm very proud of it."

'A Strange Loop,' April 18-May 12. $25-$137. A.C.T.'s Toni Rembe Theatre, 415 Geary St. (415) 749-2228.

'No...Maybe...Why Not: An Evening with John-Andrew Morrison,' April 29. $41. Feinstein's at the Nikko, 222 Mason St. (866) 663-1063.

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