Actress and storyteller L Morgan Lee is currently making her Broadway debut as Thought 1 in Michael R. Jackson’s exhilaratingly meta musical A Strange Loop, which focuses on Usher, a Black queer writer writing a musical about a Black queer writer writing a musical about a Black queer writer. Not only has her performance in the show earned rave reviews, but she received a history-making Best Featured Actress in a Musical Tony Award nod this summer, becoming the first openly trans Tony nominee. She also garnered a nomination for the Drama League’s Distinguished Performance Award and become the first openly trans actress to originate a role in a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece of theatre when A Strange Loop played Off-Broadway. Being referred to as a “trailblazer” makes her “uncomfortable” though, because she’d like to see a Broadway where her “just standing on stage is not enough for that”.
L Morgan was recently cast in the title role of the musical adaptation of the novel, The Danish Girl, being workshopped in London and she is currently developing a new play, formerly titled The Women, which was last seen in Ars Nova’s Vision Residency. In addition to the A Strange Loop original Broadway cast recording, she can be heard on Simon and McGuire’s “The Dream” on The Rainbow Lullaby album.
With A Strange Loop continuing its Broadway run until January 15th 2023, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with L Morgan Lee about her seven year association with the musical, how much of herself she brings to the plethora of characters she plays as Thought 1, how she’d like to see Broadway evolve, and the queer culture that’s had an impact on her.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: When did the performer in you first manifest itself? I hear that you did a very early performance of Karma Chameleon, were you dressed up as Boy George?
L Morgan Lee: “Yes, full on, and this was in nursery school! They put me in hair and makeup like Boy George. So I did that, but I had been singing since I was in a high chair. There was a song by Junior that went ‘Too late Baby, bye bye’ and apparently when I was a baby I thought they were talking about my bottle, so I would sing, ‘Too late baby, Baba’. My “Baba” was my bottle. So I’ve been doing it since I could!”
Tell me about when Michael R. Jackson first got in touch with you about A Strange Loop, he sent you a Facebook message back in 2015 didn’t he?
“Yeah, Michael slid into my DMs! I got a Facebook message from Michael basically saying, ‘I got your name from a colleague and I wanted to know if you might be interested in a project that I’m going to be doing a reading of at Musical Theatre Factory’. He included clips of some of his music so I could get a gist of what his voice was like as a writer. My first instinct was, ‘Oh gosh, this is really abrasive. Some of this language is a lot more aggressive than other things that people are putting out there. This is not the kind of language that you typically hear in standard Broadway’. Because of that though, I was like, ‘You know what, this guy is gutsy and raw and unapologetic in what he wants to say’. I’m all about supporting writers who have a solid point of view and who are actively saying what they want to say. So I was like, ‘Let’s jump in and see what we get out of this.'”
Do the same things that intrigued you back then still excite you about the piece now?
“As any relationship lasts, there are layers to it and a lot of growth. I’m still extremely proud of Michael’s POV and the importance of the story that he wrote. The lens is very specific, it is about this particular gay Black man and the different demons and thoughts that he has to wrestle with in his head. I think my relationship with it has evolved greatly as a result of my transitioning through the lifetime of this piece. Every time I’ve come back to it along the way, I have been much more comfortable in my own womanhood and in my own space. It makes my relationship with the piece a bit different and how I feel as a Black woman inside of it. Within the Black community there are many conversations that need to be had with gay men and with everyone else. There’s a lot of resentment and feelings of oppression and feelings of pushing away that a lot of times have to do with misunderstanding and not great communication. One of the beautiful things about A Strange Loop is that it gives an opportunity for people to have some of those conversations.”
What are your thoughts on having a Big, Black and Queer Night, like Bob the Drag Queen hosted?
“It’s important and it’s great to have. I also think a Black theatre evening that’s not specifically queer-aimed would be really great to have too. It doesn’t mean that only Black people come to the theatre, but it’s just another one of those nights that’s also celebrating Blackness. With this piece in particular that’s really useful because typically our audiences are very much the standard Broadway audiences, which tend to skew white. As a result of that there’s a lot of doing this show in front of audiences that greatly don’t look like us and who I think are so desperately listening to understand and get what’s going on. Even through the development process of the show it was always helpful to have people in the audience who inherently get the experience of Blackness in the piece. They laugh because they understand where the stories are coming from, they get it and they inherently respond so much more freely. Sometimes people might feel like they want to respond, but aren’t sure if it’s okay that they do. So it’s really nice when you have a Black theatre night or a Black and queer night, where folks hopefully just get it. We had a Black theatre night when we did the show at Playwrights Off-Broadway and it was one of my favourite shows because people were so vocal and so excited about it. We love that rush of energy coming at us when we’re doing the show, it really makes things cook.”
You mentioned that this story is told through a very specific lens, but were you able to bring some of your own experience and some of yourself to the characters that you play as Thought 1?
“Inherently you always bring yourself to the work you’re doing and variations of me are certainly inside of the thing. The gift of being part of a show through development is that you get to see all the scripts that get thrown out. In particular, with my Sympathetic Ear theatre patron I have compiled all of the things that were in many of the old scripts, they’re still in her. There are elements of her talking about her sensuality and the things that make her excited and the things that she didn’t get to do and where her life is now. There were a lot of variations on that scene throughout development and I’ve kept all of those things for myself to fill in the blanks of who she is. So much of the show is written with broad strokes and it’s left to the actor to fill in the colour. I’ve had chance to see lots of options of colours to put into the mix and that brings me to the work as well.”
With your Sympathetic Ear character, who loves the Lion King and Wicked, when we first encounter her we might initially judge her and dismiss her.
“I lean into that a bit too. I want you to think that she’s going to be just another person torturing Usher, then there’s the switch where you’re like, ‘Oh, wait, no, she’s not actually’. This woman has had a certain kind of life and is sharing warmth with him. Finally, someone is giving to Usher and not expecting anything in return. We love that she has her moment and then she gets to walk off stage and into her life. In a lot of the old versions she was much older and slipped on some vomit that a child had done and was singing to Usher as she was lying in vomit. She then proceeded to have a heart attack and die. I think the team realized that we didn’t need all that.”
I’m glad that the Golden Girls reference made it to the final version because I think that immediately makes us warm to her, even though we might still be laughing at her a little bit. One of the lines that sticks in my head is when you sing, ‘I’m from Miami Beach you know, like Dorothy, Blanche, Sophia, and Rose’.
“There was a day on stage when we were at Playwrights when I actually went up on the line—on that line of all things—and so I sang, ‘Dorothy, Blanche, Cassia, and Rose’. Everybody was like, ‘Who is Cassia?!’ On opening night on Broadway, one of the other Thoughts gave me this little teddy bear with a necklace that says “Cassia” on it!”
Your characters as Thought 1 are generally the most encouraging of Usher aren’t they?
“Yes, throughout. They’re always set up like, ‘Oh, no, this is going to be another one who is torturing him’, but there’s always that little switch. My woman in the guardians scene says, ‘I like your piece. I think there are things you need to fix, but I enjoy it’. Then she says, ‘I want you to ask yourself, why does this piece need to exist in the world?’ Which is actually something L Morgan would ask as well. I’m always curious about that. We are all very thirsty for new work and I’m certainly trying to develop some things as well, but the biggest question for me is always: do we need this today? And if so, why do we need it? If you don’t actually know why and it’s just about money or that people will like it, then I guess you could do that, but you could also spend that energy on doing something that’s really going to give to society.”
Is The Women something that you’re still working on developing?
“I haven’t picked it up in a bit, but it’s definitely on my list of things to address. Over the pandemic, I got an opportunity to work on a piece that’s sort of a response to the Clare Boothe Luce play. The whole thing began because I was supposed to do a reading of The Women, but looking into the play I just kept thinking, I don’t know that the ending is what we need today. While there are women whose experiences do go in that direction and who do spend years pining after their love that was lost, I don’t know if that’s what we need to see right now. So I was like, ‘How can I be a part of creating something that does give voice to the various experiences of being a woman today?'”
“I started talking to Raja Feather Kelly, who choreographed A Strange Loop, about doing this piece. I wanted to pull together a crew of writers and have them all be people who understand directly what it means to have the expectations of womanhood on top of you today. That includes trans women, that includes cis women, that includes nonbinary humans, it includes people who might have been assigned female at birth and who understand what the world wants you to be versus what you are. We got to do a first step look at it with Ars Nova here in New York City as part of a series that they put together which Raja had a creative director slot in.”
“I would certainly like to continue working on it, but it won’t be called The Women anymore, there will be a new title and and I’m looking to flesh out a few of the pieces so that it’s a slightly different take on it. I’d love to make it a television series. It could be really beautiful to have a new story each episode and to bring in a new writer, director, and group of actors. It’d allow conversations about womanhood to be constantly evolving throughout the season. That would be really cool.”
You said in a recent interview, “Broadway has a lot of work to do“. What work needs to be done and what kind of Broadway would you like to see being built and evolving?
“Number one, I’d love to see a Broadway where care is put into the people who are doing shows eight times a week. It’s difficult because commercial theatre is a beast, it’s about the bottom dollar and getting people into seats. But there are certain things that can be placed into the culture of those buildings that will allow people to feel supported, appreciated, and valued in the process, and not like parts of a machine. Ultimately, it is a machine in many ways, but we are humans. It would be beautiful to see a Broadway that has started to really figure out how to make those pieces of the machine always feel important and necessary. The sensibility that everyone is dispensable is not the kind of thinking that helps move that forward.”
“I’d love to see more teams being responsible about the stories that they’re telling. If you’re telling a story that comes from an intersection of people that you’re not a part of, or that you don’t know, bring those people into the room and have those people present in the storytelling. If it is truly that important to tell this story. Again, that question comes up of why do we need this? If we need to hear this story, then it’s an opportunity for folks to step aside and allow the people who know these stories, who live them every day, to be a part of that storytelling with you.”
“People have made comments about me being a trailblazer, which is uncomfortable and a crazy idea to me. I understand it, but I want to see a world where my just standing on stage is not enough for that. I want it to not be enough that you simply have someone from marginalized or underrepresented groups on stage, but that you’re actually seeing a culture and an industry where you’re hearing a lot of voices from those groups as well. That’s certainly the Broadway I want to see because I think that ultimately we all want to do great work, we’re all artists, and I hope we all love what we’re doing. We all know the possibilities that Broadway can have. Broadway has such a great reach and so many people come to the city for Broadway specifically. I’d love to see a Broadway where you’re able to get everything from really fluffy, bubblegum kind of shows, all the way through to really deep and impactful pieces, all of which showing a beautiful array of humans and experiences and lives. It’d be beautiful to see a Broadway where we don’t even need to post the pride flag because everything’s so representative.”
You’re involved in the development of The Danish Girl musical and I believe the casting was largely done on vocal range rather than gender in terms of the ensemble?
“The idea is to fill in vocal parts and to try not to push gender norms on things. There are people who need to play certain roles throughout which they’re keeping in mind as they’re casting, but part of the mission is to try to do the casting in the most affirming way possible so that there can be an assortment of genders within the cast.”
What’s your favourite piece of LGBTQ+ culture, or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?
“Oh wow, that could go in so many directions. I have so many answers for that, but I’m going to say the first thing that’s coming to mind. An author named E. Lynn Harris wrote a series of books and the first one was called Invisible Life. I went to an arts high school and I saw someone else reading it and snuck it into my backpack—well, snuck my own copy into my backpack—and I would keep it in my locker at school. I was nervous about bringing it home because I didn’t know what my mom would think about me reading it. I got through a bunch of books in the series that way, secretly. Sometimes I’d sneak it home and read it in bed at night. I was a teenager, but the books were juicy. It’s like a soap opera basically. The series exists around this Black gay man and a relationship that he was in. There was also a woman that he was dating as well, so there was a triangle happening. I have to go back and read those books again, I’m curious what I’d think about them today.”
“The other one is certainly Our Lady J, who is a musician and a writer. I sang backup vocals for Our Lady J many years ago, when we were children! Our Lady J was the first trans human that I met and I think that the universe has a funny way of introducing us to people. It’s not lost on me that her music is some of the most touching music I’ve ever been able to sing, it’s so beautiful. I got to reconnect with her recently, she came and saw the show, and it was a very special moment. It’s something I’m very grateful for.”
I’m sure you’re having a similar impact on some of the young people coming to see you in A Strange Loop. What have those interactions after the show at the stage door been like?
“It’s wild. It’s not something that you even realize, which I think is really beautiful. We had the Broadway flea market fairly recently and there was a young person who came up to me who’d seen the show. She was having some issues trying to figure out her sexuality and was struggling with it. I said to her, ‘Honey, stop struggling, just be. We have so much on our backs, so much that we are experiencing every day, if we can allow ourselves the chance to just take a breath in whatever we are or feel today, then that’s going to give us a little more breath than we might have had the day before. That is really important, especially in the world we live in right now where people are so prone and primed up to hate things and to disagree with things and to argue and complain about things. The last thing that we should have to be struggling with or dealing with is a lot of negative feelings about our own spirits and our own hearts. Try to stop struggling and just let yourself breathe. You’re so young, just let yourself breathe and be what you need to be today. Whatever you are meant to be or supposed to be, it will all settle in when it needs to. We’re in a generation that likes instant gratification. I have to know what it is today, right now. But that ain’t how it works sometimes. Sometimes it takes a little time to settle in’.”
“Then this young person popped up in a live that I did on Instagram the other day and mentioned to me that she’d been so touched by that. I was like, ‘Oh gosh, I was just chatting with you’. I didn’t even realize that whatever I said made a difference to her. It’s cool because you’ll have people who come to see the show who will be like, ‘We saw you on the Tonys and I’m queer’ or ‘I’m trans’ or I’m nonbinary’ or ‘I’m gender expansive in some way’, or ‘my child is’. My absolute favourite is when a parent of a trans kid comes to see the show with their kid or with the teenager. We don’t see nearly enough examples of trans kids with supportive parents who love them and who are trying to figure out who the parents are, let alone who their child is. They’re trying to figure out how they can be the best parent to their child. ‘How can I show my child the kind of love that this kid needs to have in a world that tells them that they’re crazy or wrong or not understanding themselves or delusional? How can I be the best parent I can be?’ Whenever I step outside and there’s a parent with their queer or trans child I am touched.”
It’s something that gives us hope for the future.
“When trans people are free, everyone is free.”
By James Kleinmann
A Strange Loop will play its final Broadway performance on January 15th 2023. Tickets are available at Telecharge.com (212-947-8844) or telecharge.com or in-person at the box office. For more on A Strange Loop visit strangeloopmusical.com.
Ghostlight Records and Yellow Sound Label will release the original Broadway Cast Recording on CD on Friday, November 4th. The album is currently available on digital and streaming formats. To stream or download the album, or pre-order the CD, head to Ghostlight Records.
For more on L Morgan Lee, visit her official website.