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Five Questions with Stephen Brackett

By Billy McEntee, Communications Associate
May 30, 2019

Photo: Zack DeZon

“I loved digging into the dramaturgy and figuring out the specifics of a show, the world building aspect of it, and being part of something for the first time.”

It’s not just A Strange Loop that has blazed a steady path uptown: Stephen Brackett, too, began his work downtown — at Playwrights Horizons Theater School. Since graduating, Stephen has worked on a number of new musicals, including bringing the cult sensation Be More Chill to Broadway. Now, he makes his long-awaited Playwrights debut and shares the ways in which Michael R. Jackson’s momentous new musical has grown and the role of a director in new musicals.

Choreographer Raja Feather Kelly; librettist, composer, and lyricist Michael R. Jackson; and director Stephen Brackett.

What initially drew you to working on new musicals?

I started off primarily as a new play director and have always really prized the collaboration of working with a playwright. And the few times that I worked on something that was not a new play, I felt like there was a spark missing. I love the collaborative conversations with a playwright and digging into the dramaturgy and figuring out the specifics of a show, the world-building aspect of it, and being part of something for the first time. Those conversations are really exciting to me as an artist and often push me to do better work, so it really is the spark of building something from the ground up for the first time that excites me. With musical theater, that collaboration grows. It’s not the case with Michael because he wrote the book, music, and lyrics, but often you’ll have at least a couple of collaborators in those areas along with a choreographer and a music director, so that conversation grows. That was really magical to me the first time I started working in musical theater. I learned that I loved steering a larger conversation, making a unified idea between a diverse set of artists each bringing their best selves to the table.

“I remember being completely gobsmacked by the ferocity of the voice.”

You’ve been working on A Strange Loop for a number of years. Can you share how you and Michael first came into each other’s orbits?

A dear friend of mine, a director named Emma Griffin, directed a production of Michael’s thesis at NYU, and she invited me to see it. He wrote the book and lyrics for it, and I remember being completely gobsmacked by the ferocity of his voice. It was a musical Spring Awakening adaptation (before the other Spring Awakening adaptation), and Michael’s voice just rang out really loudly. I remember being really attracted to that, and Emma said, “I think there’s a commonality between your work and Michael’s,” so we went out for a coffee, and I started directing some of his concerts at Joe’s Pub. After a couple concerts he brought me A Strange Loop and said, “Take a look, I’m looking for a director.” And shortly after we worked on a closed reading at NYU and I think there were some exciting ways in which we were talking about the piece that opened it up for each other. From that point on it was just all in with this specific piece.

 

The cast at first rehearsal.

In that time, how has the musical evolved?

The show has, through the process of developing it at NYU and Musical Theatre Factory, found its voice. When I came to the project the central conceit for the casting wasn’t there. It was cast with a more diverse representation of actors onstage. But Michael always had the mother of this protagonist portrayed by John-Andrew [Morrison], who had sung the song “Periodically” in one of his concerts, and I was really moved by that casting choice. And I talked to Michael about the sense of queer identity in the piece and floated the idea of what if we took that casting idea and ran with it and populated the entire cast of this musical with black queer people. And Michael, I think, was intrigued by the idea, so we tested it out at NYU and it proved to be a really exciting lens into this piece. It was one of those exciting moments where Michael started to write toward that, and a lot of the material that’s onstage right now came out of that.

“What is a Thought? How does a Thought exist onstage?”

What’s been one of your favorite parts about working on A Strange Loop?

We’ve been really used to presenting this at music stands, and we have that format polished. (Laughs.) We knew how to present a reading of this, but this is really our first time understanding how the Thoughts function in the piece and what their relationship to the space and Usher is. What is a Thought? How does a Thought exist onstage? How do they behave with other Thoughts? That was a really joyous part of this specific experience, getting to dive deep into that exploration.

 

Stephen Brackett leads a design presentation.

What does it mean for you to be making your Playwrights debut with this piece?

I went to Playwrights Horizons Theater School at NYU, so this theater has always been a magical place to me, a place where I’ve been hungry to have a show. For it to be A Strange Loop feels especially rewarding. It was a piece for a long time that Michael and I thought would never be produced. It felt too challenging, too ambitious, too outside of the box of what people understand musical theater to be. So to have this specific piece that I care so, so much about and that I’ve put so many years of my career into feels so rewarding and full-circle. I loved my education at Playwrights Horizons Theater School and it feels pretty phenomenal to be making work in this theater now.