Edinburgh Festival Fringe interview: queer comedy trailblazer Larry Owens
Described as “a blazing celestial object in human form” in the New Yorker, Larry Owens originated the role of Usher, the Black queer man writing a musical about a Black queer man writing a musical in the Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning musical A Strange Loop. As a larger, Black, gay performer, the intersectional multi-hyphenate created, in his own estimation, “a new type of leading man in musical theatre” for Michael R Jackson's groundbreaking show-within-a-show, currently making its UK debut in London.
Also right now though, whilst bewitching Edinburgh audiences with his incredible singing voice, Owens is somewhat abashed. “Oh, hearing that quote back, I'm like 'calm down kid!'” he confesses. “But on a serious note, I am so grateful that there are actors who look like me who don't have to go through what I went through. Like Viola Davis said: ‘you need to see a physical representation of your dreams’”.
Billed as Larry Owens Live (but otherwise known as Larry Owens – POC: Proof of Concept) his Fringe debut features him unsuccessfully auditioning for Saturday Night Live and failing to get Billie Eilish and Lil Nas X to record his songs, as well as singing about his therapist Marjorie and delivering impressions of the likes of Viola Davis and Oprah Winfrey, “doing a four-minute Sweeney Todd-style ballad”.
Having moved to New York in 2015 in his early 20s, the Baltimore native initially found that there weren't any musical theatre roles for someone of his stature and race. But in the five years A Strange Loop was being developed, he'd already begun to establish himself on the experimental Brooklyn comedy scene that begat cult Fringe favourites like best newcomer award-winner Catherine Cohen and Julio Torres, the creator of acclaimed HBO sitcom Los Espookys. Owens appears alongside Tilda Swinton in Torres’s surrealist film directing debut Problemista.
Frustratingly but understandably, Owens can't talk about the film because of ongoing strikes by the US actors and writers unions. The blanket publicity blackout on his various screen projects – he recently had recurring roles in acclaimed comedies like Search Party and Abbott Elementary – has made “live performance more important than ever”.
Of his initial professional hustle in New York, there was “some overlap” between waiting for theatre to acknowledge his abilities and actively carving out his own path in comedy.
“The brilliant thing about A Strange Loop is that it fit my size, my ethnicity, my capacity to be loquacious and erudite, to be in-the-centre commanding,” he reflects. “My career wouldn't be having the impact it is without the amazing book, music and lyrics of that show. The timing was symbiotic though, as I also got sucked into this comedy and cabaret scene of young Brooklynites, where everyone now has an Emmy nomination.”
Madonna is a fan and recruited Owens to simulate a sex act with her and Jack Black in the recent video announcement of her return to live touring. As is Alan Cumming, who has jokingly shared his peeve that Owens was whisked off from a residency at his eponymous Manhattan nightspot to make A Strange Loop, before he showcased him in last year's US television special, Club Cumming Presents A Queer Comedy Extravaganza.
“Oh my gosh, Alan is such an angel!" Owens enthuses. “His club is honestly like a television sitcom, the crossroads of friendship and talent. I remember Catherine Cohen's first Cabernet Cabaret at Club Cumming, all these bright, young people who are now your current favourite comedians on US television. I'm honoured that I can call Alan up about Edinburgh.”
Cohen invited Owens to a Shabbat dinner with her family to offer him the “lowdown” on the festival. And he's delighted that herself and the likes of fellow Fringe debutants and Search Party alumni Greta Titelman and Ruby McCollister are forming a “community” of US alt-comics in the Scottish capital. The festival is “a rite of passage” for Americans he maintains. “I'm excited to get my comedic milestones and this is certainly one of them, that's why you're seeing so many of us here this year. It's beloved, prestigious and we don't have as many spaces for incubating work like this.”
Alongside Sondheimia, an acclaimed tribute to his greatest inspiration, Stephen Sondheim, that he's toured and staged in that other major Scottish endowment to the arts, Carnegie Hall – “where black people once weren't allowed to perform,” he notes – Owens recently made a film directing bow of his own, with musical thriller short The Gag. Notwithstanding the ongoing Hollywood strikes, he doesn't really need his Fringe to be successful. Yet make no mistake, he's a quadruple threat bringing his A-game; it's not enough for him to coast on the velvet majesty of his vocals.
“There are a couple of wigs,” he admits. “If you want to look at it as a musical of ten songs, with me revealing the most vulnerable parts of me for an hour, that's great. But I absolutely define the show as stand-up comedy. There are jokes every ten seconds.”
Larry Owens Live, Assembly Roxy, 8.35pm, until 27 August