'Strange Loop's' L Morgan Lee Makes Broadway History with Tony Nomination

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Thursday June 9, 2022
Originally published on May 12, 2022

L Morgan Lee
L Morgan Lee  (Source:Matt Murphy)

This past Monday L Morgan Lee made Tony history as the first trans actress to be nominated for the award. She received the nod for Best Supporting Actress for "A Strange Loop," Michael R. Jackson's musical that leads a tight pack with 11 nominations. A year ago the musical won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

"My mind isn't processing that this is real," Lee told Playbill after the nominations were announced. "I can't stop crying. To specifically be a Trans actress in the company of these incredible women that I respect and have enjoyed for many years... this nomination is so much bigger than me. I hope someone will see this moment, and feel like they can go on. No matter what the world, or school, or people tell them they are 'supposed' to be, how they are 'supposed' to sound, that they will keep striving to love and embrace the fullest version of who they are. That they can safely find breath in choosing truth. That they will keep studying, and working, and dreaming the biggest dreams. I'm so full of gratitude this morning that I'm likely to burst!"

Then she added: "But first, an iced coffee, and I'll probably watch 'The View.'"

L Morgan Lee in "A Strange Loop" on Broadway
L Morgan Lee in "A Strange Loop" on Broadway  (Source: Emilio Madrid)

The nomination is the latest life-changing event in Lee's long relationship with the musical, which began seven years ago when she first was asked to participate in a workshop. She had received a Facebook message from Jackson asking her to be part of the workshop after some actors had been uncomfortable with the content. "I was immediately intrigued by that," she explained to EDGE recently, "because to me, someone who is saying something that might be off-putting is always intriguing. In some ways, it means that that person is sitting in their own truth in sort of the most authentic way possible."

She signed on, saw the script, and remembers thinking: "Oh wow. We're really saying some of these things out loud. I've never been asked to use this kind of language."

"A Strange Loop" follows Jackson's alter-ego named Usher (played on Broadway by Jaquel Spivey), who wants to turn his experiences traveling "the world in a fat, Black, queer body" into a show. "It's about a Black, queer man writing a musical about a Black, queer man who's writing a musical about a Black queer man who's writing a musical about a Black queer man, etc.," he describes to the audience.

L Morgan Lee at the "Broadway Stands Up For Freedom 2018" at New York's Town Hall.  photo by: Mike Pont
L Morgan Lee at the "Broadway Stands Up For Freedom 2018" at New York's Town Hall. photo by: Mike Pont  

At the onset, the apt-named character is an usher at Broadway's "The Lion King" and he is assisted in his reverie by a six-person chorus (each called a 'Thought' with Lee playing Thought 1) that helps him in his expressed goal to change and grow. However, issues with his family, career, and community intercede: His family isn't happy with him being gay, he feels he must compromise himself to take a paying gig working with Tyler Perry, and he feels objectified within the queer community.

The title, by the way, refers to a concept by the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter in which the self (to use Usher's words) "is just a set of meaningless symbols in your brain pushing up or down through one level of abstraction to another but always winding up right back where they started."

This is, to say the least, heady stuff for a musical, but as New York Times critic Maya Phillips puts it: "'A Strange Loop' pulls off an amazing feat: condensing a complex idea, full of paradoxes and abstractions, into the form of a Broadway musical."

Lee sees the show's appeal in its authenticity. "That is just honest and its truth is transcendent. There is something to be said about just being honest. I think that's something that connects us all as humans."

L Morgan Lee and cast members of "A Strange Loop" at  Playwrights Horizon.
L Morgan Lee and cast members of "A Strange Loop" at Playwrights Horizon.  (Source: Joan Marcus)

At the time of the conversation, the Tony nomination was just a possibility, but Lee was trending on sites predicting the nominations.

"Someone told me of an article where they said I might be nominated," she explained. "And I got a bit emotional reading it because it blows me away to be considered. It is very special to me because it is one of those things the little kid in me dreamt of. But this is one dream I didn't see as possible because the world did not see me as I saw myself. And I am blown away to think that these things are coming to fruition when I'm being honest with the world about being trans and being a trans woman specifically."

Lee paused and recalled a recent memory from the red carpet on the show's opening night. "Someone asked me, 'What would I say to my 8-year-old self?' And my response was, 'You are perfect. You are one of those women that you dream about.'"

In the show, Lee sings one of the score's most powerful songs — "A Sympathetic Ear" — and does so with a rich, full soprano that contains shades of Audra McDonald. When told of the resemblance, she said she was a bit overwhelmed by the comparison.

Watch L Morgan Lee sing "Anyone Can Whistle"

Singing came naturally for Lee. She recalls being very young and singing before she could speak. "My mom says that I was a baby in high chair, singing along to things on the radio and on television," she said laughing. "I've sort of always been performing. I started acting pretty young, naturally. And that was just in school plays and those sorts of things. But yeah, I've always, always felt the need to let myself out in that way."

L Morgan Lee in a London workshop of "The Danish Girl". photo: Danny Kaan
L Morgan Lee in a London workshop of "The Danish Girl". photo: Danny Kaan  

Mention of her mom brings up her family, whom she feels very fortunate to be part of, especially during her transition.

"I think that there is a feeling that our family and friends will abandon us," she says about the experience of transitioning.

"That is a fear. My family was completely the opposite. They had never outwardly shown me the kind of love that they do now. I knew I was loved in my family growing up, but today — it is love with an exclamation point! When I started transitioning they let me know they loved me and they were with me on this journey. To be honest, I didn't expect to be that accepted in that way."

Over the past seven years, Lee has worked closely with Michael R. Jackson, watching him change and shape the musical while becoming his trusted colleague.

"You know, he is a critical thinker and I like to fancy myself also a critical thinker. So I love having conversations with him from the scope of the theater and the world to 'The Real Housewives of Atlanta.' Michael is honest. He is unapologetically Michael. He doesn't always say the right things, but he's always coming from a place where he wants us to see more and have more. He asks questions that a lot of people don't ask."

Between working on "A Strange Loop" as it made its way from Washington, DC to New York, Lee took part in a workshop for a musical version of David Ebershoff's award-winning book ''The Danish Girl.''

According to a YouTube post that features the soaring song "Silk," sung by Lee in the above video, the new musical "follows Danish transgender woman Lili Elbe, one of the first people in the world to undergo reassignment surgery. Elbe was married to artist Gerda Gottlieb and became the subject of many of Gerda's paintings in the 1920s. The book was previously turned into an award-winning film in 2015."

"Composed by Alex Parker with book and lyrics by Katie Lam, the musical is still in its development phase."

In the video, Lee is accompanied by a choir put together in collaboration with the Trans Voices Company as well as a 10-piece band. It includes nine trans, nonbinary, and gender non-conforming vocalists.

For more information about L Morgan Lee, visit her website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].