Awe and Wonder: Michael and Cirque

Willa:  Joie, I’m so curious to hear about your trip to Montreal to see the Cirque du Soleil rehearsals! So, first impressions – what did you think?

Joie:  Well, my friend and MJFC Team mate, Jonathan texted me just as I was returning to my hotel room after the show, asking me that very same question and I believe my only response to him was OMG!!! Honestly, the only thing that could make this show better is if Michael himself were on the stage.
Willa:  You know, that’s exactly what I’ve been wondering about most. From what I’ve read, The Immortal World Tour kind of sounds like a Michael Jackson concert without Michael Jackson. Did it feel that way to you?

Joie:  Well, that’s kind of a tricky question and here’s why. This is the first time ever that the Cirque du Soleil has done a show using a live band. Their Elvis show didn’t have a live band; their Beatles show didn’t have a live band. It’s never been done before. And the way they’ve worked it is really kind of cool. Kevin Antunes, the musical director for the show, has been given exclusive access to all of Michael’s original master recordings, and he has taken those tracks and basically removed the music and elevated Michael’s vocals so that they are crisper than you have ever heard them before. So during the show, you’ve got Michael’s vocals on top of a live band and the result is amazing. And, of course the band includes Greg Phillinganes and Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett who both toured with Michael for many, many years so, the band itself is phenomenal. So, I guess, in that way it is sort of like a concert experience but, there is just so much going on here visually that it is definitely much more than a concert. It’s more like a journey through Michael’s life and career.
Willa:  So it doesn’t feel like there’s a big empty hole on stage where he should be? It’s a satisfying experience in its own right?

Joie:  Yes, definitely. And it’s a spectacle, you know? I was there with 14 other MJ fan community representatives and, after it was over we had half a dozen or more people – Cirque people, Estate people, even John Branca and Greg Phillinganes – all coming up to us as we’re still sitting there in the stands and they were all clamoring, very eager to know what our thoughts were. And we all had the same reaction. We had to just sit there for several seconds and try to absorb it all before we could even respond, and I imagine that will be the reaction of most everyone who sees it, fans and non-fans alike. They will leave the arenas with a sense of awe and wonder. You know, the Cirque du Soleil is sort of known for specializing in awe and wonder, and they have worked the same magic with this show.

Willa:  So give us some details! What all did you see?

Joie:  Oh boy, where to begin? Well, I don’t want to give away any spoilers. And I want to make it really clear that some of the numbers I watched may not even make it into the final production when the show opens in October because it is still a work in progress. But, of the rehearsal I saw, right from the opening number, which was “Childhood,” you will be amazed. It’s like they’re taking you inside the gates of Neverland and, as you know, Michael had the most beautiful bronze statues of children at play and they dotted the landscape of Neverland. Well, those statues play a really magical role in that number and it is incredible. And then there was this really sweet moment a little later on during “Ben” where Michael’s elephants come out and dance, and it was just such fun to watch. Really cute. And I thought of you, Willa, because I know how much you love that song!
Then there was this whole sort of gangster segment where they did “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Smooth Criminal” and “Dangerous.” The segment began with this very scantily clad female cellist playing her heart out on this electric cello and she is fantastic! Then all of a sudden her maddening solo turned into the opening strains of “Heartbreak Hotel” and the band kicked in and the music started rocking. The whole segment ended with these five or six guys dancing around a pole dancer to “Dangerous” – which, by the way, we had to imagine because the female dancer had injured herself in earlier rehearsals. But even without her the number was incredible so, I would love to see it again with all of the elements in place.
There was also a segment that highlighted some of Michael’s scary songs with “Is It Scary,” “Monster” and “Thriller” and the whole thing was just a whole lot of fun visually with a dancing monster clawing its way out of the pages of a storybook and giant bats with glowing eyes dancing around the stage, and it culminated with a stage full of mummies doing the Thriller dance in a graveyard. Just really imaginative ideas that you know Michael would have really loved!
In another segment – actually my favorite part of the whole show – the band was doing “Another Part of Me” and the dancer was up there doing his thing and the music was really rocking and we’re all sitting there jamming, and suddenly the song changed to “Speechless.” And just when you start to get into the shift in direction, something amazing happens! And the song changes again to “Human Nature” and the arena is transformed into the night sky. I really want to give you more details about this part but, I just can’t because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone but, please believe me when I tell you that it was absolutely breathtakingly beautiful and I was not the only one moved to tears. And later, when talking to the Cirque and Estate people who wanted to know what our favorite part of the show was, we all agreed that it had to be “Human Nature.”
You know, one of the things I love so much about Cirque du Soleil are the aerialists; they are really beautiful to watch. In the rehearsal I saw, they were showcased in “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” which Kevin Antunes mixed beautifully using both the English and the Spanish versions of the song. And the aerialists performed a very romantic, very sensual ballet high above our heads. It was just so pretty.
Willa:  That does sound beautiful. So where are they in the production process?  Did you see a fairly polished show with full costumes and music and everything, or is it more of a work in progress – kind of like what we saw in This Is It? It sounds like they are still making some decisions.

Joie:  Well, it is still a work in progress, they definitely stressed that to us going in but, what we saw was about a 75-80% complete show with costumes and music from the beginning straight through, just like a dress rehearsal. And there were a few technical mishaps and glitches, as you would expect with a work in progress. They were still perfecting the ending segment so we didn’t get to see the last 30 minutes or so of the show and we were told that would include the songs “Billie Jean,” “Man in the Mirror,” “Dirty Diana” and “Can You Feel It.” But, as a whole, it was a very polished show.

Willa:  You know, I’m not quite sure how to ask this, but what makes Michael Jackson so special to me and sets him apart from everyone else is his ideas and how he expresses those ideas, and his commitment to that message. He had a beautiful voice, and it sounds like the Cirque du Soliel show has captured that through the master recordings, and he was an incredible dancer, and it sounds like the show evokes that through the acrobats and aerialists and dance numbers. But what about his ideas? Do you know what I mean? Did it feel like Michael Jackson?

Joie:  Oh, that is a very good question; I’m so glad you asked that! Willa, they have really worked very, very hard to capture Michael’s spirit and his heart and it shows. I posted a news item about my experience on the MJFC website where I called this show the ultimate tribute to Michael and I truly feel that way and I’ll tell you why. You have to remember that this show is being guided by people who knew Michael. People who worked with him and loved him. During my two days in Montreal I saw Greg Phillinganes, Jonathan Moffett, Zaldy, and three Estate execs get very emotional when talking to me about their time with Michael and how important this show is to them. They are all so passionate about doing something that he would love and getting it right. For him. And from the opening segment all the way through to the ending, you can feel Michael’s presence; you can feel his spirit. And his message of L.O.V.E. is front and center. In fact, in another segment of the show, I think it was “Will You Be There,” suddenly these big red, glowing hearts appear from all over the arena and made their way onto the stage. It was really moving and it just reminded you that Michael’s message was love. It’s all he ever talked about and it was what he preached. And they haven’t forgotten that and it’s clear that they don’t want others to forget it either.

Willa:  I’m so glad to hear that – that the people working on this show care so deeply, and are passionate about both his music and his ideas. You also wrote in the MJFC news article that they asked for feedback and actually incorporated some suggestions. Here’s what you wrote: “They listened to what we had to say and they took our feelings and suggestions into consideration. And it wasn’t just lip service. Changes were made to the show immediately based on our feedback.” Can you tell us more about that?
Joie:  Well, it was really sort of surprising actually. At the end of the show when they were all clamoring around us wanting to know what we thought, I had been talking to Navi, the representative from MJFC UK about a certain number and how he believed it could have been done better. So when they asked, he told them what he thought and suggested ways to make the number stronger. And they listened to him and began making the changes immediately. Then the next day we went on a tour of the Cirque du Soleil campus and met with the creative director of the show, among others. And again, in that meeting they wanted to know what we thought – what our favorite parts were and also what parts didn’t we like. What, if anything, did we have issues with. And so, we told them. We (the fan community representatives) were honest with them about our feelings and we all sort of agreed on one certain point in the show that we felt was a little questionable and could maybe be done a little differently. And again, they listened to our concerns and they took notes on what we had to say and began thinking of ways to change things a bit.
But, I just think it’s so telling that the people putting this show together are so willing to talk to the fans and I really believe that they are trying very hard to get it right. Not just for Michael but for the fans as well. I think they are really trying to please Michael’s fans with this one. I think it’s important to them. And I was told by one of the Estate people during the meeting that this was a first. The Cirque didn’t do this for the Elvis show or the Beatles show. They didn’t invite their fans to a rehearsal to get their input before the shows opened. And I think that says something about how important Michael’s legacy really is. About how important he was and still is, both as an artist and as a cultural figure.

Willa:  Well, from everything you’ve said, it sounds like there’s a really dedicated group of people working behind the scenes and the show itself sounds incredible. I love your descriptions, Joie. Thanks for sharing those with us. And then next week we have Joe Vogel joining us to talk about his Earth Song book, which is about to be released in print. So lots of exciting things happening right now!


About Dancing with the Elephant contributors

Joie Collins is a founding member of the Michael Jackson Fan Club (MJFC). She has written extensively for MJFC, helping to create the original website back in 1999 and overseeing both the News and History sections of the website. Over the years she conducted numerous interviews on behalf of MJFC and also directed correspondence for the club. She also had the great fortune to be a guest at Neverland. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was three years old. Lisha McDuff is a classically trained professional musician who for 30 years made her living as a flutist, performing in orchestras and for major theatrical touring productions. Her passion for popular musicology led her to temporarily leave the orchestra pit and in June 2013 she received a Master’s degree in Popular Music Studies from the University of Liverpool. She’s continuing her studies at McMaster University, where she is working on a major research project about Michael Jackson, with Susan Fast as her director. Willa Stillwater is the author of M Poetica: Michael Jackson's Art of Connection and Defiance and "Rereading Michael Jackson," an article that summarizes some of the central ideas of M Poetica. She has a Ph.D. in English literature, and her doctoral research focused on the ways in which cultural narratives (such as racism) are made real for us by being "written" on our bodies. She sees this concept as an important element of Michael Jackson's work, part of what he called social conditioning. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was nine years old.

Posted on September 22, 2011, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I cannot wait for the show in Seattle-sounds like I will need a box of tissues. Thanks for the story/

    • Sunny, there were actually several moments during the show that brought tears so yes, I definitely recommend taking an ample supply of tissues!

  2. Hello, can you please ask Joseph Vogel when will his book “Man in the Music” come out? I ordered it months ago and there has been 2 delays. Thank you!!

  3. I am so happy to read this wonderful review. I am going to see the show in Detroit on Oct 15th! I will most definitely not wear mascara and will have plenty of tissues on hand. I had been following the series of short video clips from Kevin Antunes that were posted on the site and it sounded like everyone involved was so dedicated to making this show as extraordinary as Michael would have wanted it to be. It definitely speaks to their dedication that they reached out to Michael’s fans and were interested in your point of view.
    I just think Michael Jackson and Cirque Du Soleil are the perfect combination of true artistry! I am counting down the days!

    Also very much looking forward to Joe Vogel’s Book, “Man in the Music”.
    I have it pre-ordered on Amazon. I will certainly check back to read his interview next week.

  4. Thanks so much for such a great preview! Don’t know how you could contain your excitement about getting to see this rehearsal. Can’t wait to see it and I have a feeling that no matter how high our expectations may be for this show, they will definitely be exceeded.

    Am I the only one who thinks the Ben and the dancing elephants portion of the show is just kind of a crazy over the top synchronicity? I loved Willa’s description in her book of how she became attached to Michael Jackson through the exquisite sensitivity of the song Ben, and that it is being visually represented with dancing elephants, well….I hope she takes that personally! lol! It seems like Cirque is doing this just for her!

    I have been a Cirque du Soleil fan for many years, and it’s true they have not used lived music for their Beatles and Elvis shows. However, one of their trademarks in their other productions is the use of live, original, very creative music that melts into the visual performance. Quite often the musicians interact with the circus performers! Along with the mind blowing light designs and costuming and unusual mythic story lines. I have never viewed Cirque as a circus, rather as theatre and performance art and I am always thrilled by how they use music in very innovative ways. I was delighted when I saw the Beatles show and realized that each seat was equipped with it’s own speaker system, so that they could control the sonic environment of each listener with total precision! How amazing and wonderful! And they respected the fact that much of the Beatles music is a studio work of art that cannot be replicated by a live band covering the tunes.

    Well, I’ve heard Kevin Antunes quick previews of the show, and I have my suspicions about how Michael’s innovative thinking might be represented in the sound design that combines a live band with the original recordings. I consider Michael’s recordings to be the most exquisite studio works of art ever created. Can’t wait to hear the final product of how Cirque envisions these masterpieces! We’re in for a treat.

    • Am I the only one who thinks the Ben and the dancing elephants portion of the show is just kind of a crazy over the top synchronicity?

      Seriously! Can you believe that? When Joie told me about it, I was just stunned. They are playing “Ben,” which is still incredibly special to me, and while that’s playing they’re “dancing with the elephant”? What are the odds? If Cirque du Soliel ever comes out with a dvd of the show, we’ll have to post the “dancing with the elephant” number as our theme song. . . .

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