MJ: the Musical

Willa: Happy holidays, everyone! I hope you all are happy and healthy, snug and warm. Back before Covid, Lisha asked if I’d like to go with her to see MJ: the Musical. Of course, I would! What could be more fun than running around New York City with Lisha and seeing a Broadway show – with Broadway-level talent – devoted to Michael Jackson’s music and dance? I jumped at the chance! We were all set to go, but then Covid hit New York terribly hard and Broadway shut down. Now, 18 months later, Broadway is opening back up, with a few fits and starts, and we were finally able to see MJ: the Musical at long last.

Lisha, thank you so much for putting our trip together! That was so fun!

Lisha: Willa, I don’t know when I have had so much fun! Thanks for the company and the amazing conversations we’ve had about the show. I hope every fan has the opportunity at some point to see this production.

Willa: I do too! I have to say, I was just blown away by the singing and dancing. The entire cast was incredibly talented – every single person on that stage had a wonderful voice. And I was amazed by how close the “Michaels” came to replicating Michael Jackson’s voice and dance moves. Myles Frost, who plays the Dangerous-era Michael, has a lovely singing voice, and there’s something about it that’s very evocative of Michael Jackson’s voice, I thought.

Lisha: Myles Frost! Amazing. Covering a Michael Jackson song is an impossible task in my book – the standard is so high. But I would say Frost is about the best I’ve heard. It was so beautifully done. I can’t say enough about his singing. Gorgeous!

Willa: It really was! And like I said, there’s something about his voice that conjures up Michael Jackson in a way most singers don’t. Remember when we went to see Thriller Live! in London a few years ago? It was a great show, and the singers and dancers were all fantastic, but their voices had their own color and none of them really sounded like Michael Jackson to me. Myles Frost is about as close as I’ve heard. But then again, I really thought the Cascio tracks were Michael Jackson, just a little digitized in the studio or something, so maybe I’m not the best judge of voices.…

Lisha: No, you’re right! It was eerie at times how well Frost could match the timbre of Michael Jackson’s voice. I wasn’t expecting that. Remarkable.

Willa: It really is. He’s also developing into a skilled Michael Jackson-style dancer, especially his “ankle work,” to borrow a phrase from Rembert Browne, and he has an impressive moonwalk. His dancing isn’t Michael Jackson caliber, but he’s getting there. Here’s a clip of him working on his moves with Rich and Tone Talauega:

I was really struck by the scene in this clip where Frost says that some of Michael Jackson’s moves were actually signals to the other dancers: “Every step, every move has a purpose. … He controls every element of the stage.” That was fascinating to me.

Lisha: That clip sums up the complexity of the dancing really well. It looks effortless at times due to the skill of the dancers, but when you see them pull it apart it is evident how intricate the dances really are. And Michael Jackson wasn’t just signaling the other dancers onstage, he was throwing lots of other cues as well – effectively using his body to drive the entire show.

Willa: Amazing. The more you learn about what exactly he’s doing, the more incredible it seems. I mean, the steps themselves are surprisingly complicated, even without everything else that’s going on. As Myles Frost says in that clip, working with the Talauega brothers helped him “appreciate … just how difficult Mike’s moves really are.” I think that may be one reason the creators of MJ: the Musical decided to have more than one Michael, and for me, that really works.

Tavon Olds-Sample, who plays the teen to young adult Michael – basically from Dancing Machine through Thriller – has his robot dance down! Watching that scene was like seeing an old Soul Train clip spring to life. He has a wonderful voice also. It’s not as similar to the original as Frost’s voice is, but some of my favorite moments were when the Michaels sang together – both these two and the Motown-era “little Michaels.”

Lisha: I was wowed by that robot dance! And I think one of my favorite things about the show was the interaction of the various “Michaels.” Such a clever way of depicting a long and epic career. I could have used even more of it to be honest. Fantastic!

And I don’t want to create a spoiler, but do you remember the scene that highlights two (of the many) historical influences in Michael Jackson’s dancing? Brilliant!

Willa: Yes! I loved that! For me, it worked on every level. It placed him within specific dance traditions, as you say, while showcasing some incredible dancing, and it was just a genuine feel-good moment. The dancers looked like they were having a blast, and so did the audience.

Lisha: It was fabulous. It really got my creative juices flowing and I thought how cool it would be to use film at that point to project even more historical influences onto the set, like Charlie Chaplin doing the moonwalk, the Buster Keaton lean, or even James Brown juxtaposed with the Broadway/Hollywood dance styles would be amazing. He really was an “encyclopedia of dance,” as the dance historians at Columbia College showed us during the Michael Jackson symposium back in 2010. I guess my idea could quickly get out of hand!

Another device that worked really well was the scene when Michael Jackson simply sang a song at a press conference, avoiding spoken dialogue entirely. Again, I don’t want to give anything away, but it was beautifully done and I loved how there were recognizable rhythms from another song underpinning the melody. Wonderful!

Willa: I really liked that too, and I’m going to spill the beans on this one because when I went back to see the show a second time, they didn’t do it! It was a really compelling combination of “They Don’t Care about Us” and “Earth Song” – two songs I never would have thought to put together, but it worked beautifully.

As you said, Lisha, there’s a press conference and a scrum of reporters is asking a bunch of frivolous questions about the Elephant Man’s bones and the hyperbaric chamber, just trying to stir up scandal. As they’re shouting these questions, we hear undertones of “They Don’t Care about Us.” But Frost’s Michael character is trying to communicate something meaningful to the reporters, so he begins to sing “Earth Song.” It’s beautiful and compelling, but the reporters aren’t prepared to hear something like that and they ignore it. The result is this wonderful layering of “They Don’t Care about Us” underneath with “Earth Song” soaring above, and for me it just worked beautifully, both musically and thematically.

Lisha: I absolutely loved it!

Willa: I did too! But when I went back the next day, they didn’t layer them like that. They simply performed one song and then the other. I was so disappointed! Of course, the show is still in previews, so they’re experimenting, and that layering effect could return. I hope it does, because it was a real highlight of the evening, I thought.

Lisha: Hmmm. Was that a happy accident we heard the first night? It sure sounded intentional to me, and I hope they keep it in. I’d love to know how that turns out.

Willa: I would too!

Lisha: Actually, I would probably see this show again any time the opportunity strikes! It’s a wonderful way to experience how powerful this music really is.

Having said all that, I do have a couple of critiques that I think are worth discussing. The show is still in previews, so some revision before opening night is to be expected?

Willa: I think so. It felt like a polished show, but apparently they’re still working some things out. A woman who sat beside me the second night said she saw the show a few days earlier, and the dancers’ costumes had changed a lot since then.

Lisha: Interesting, because my first comment is about costuming! Throughout the show I found myself wishing there had been more attention given to the way Michael Jackson used clothing musically. I know that sounds counterintuitive, but I’m convinced he used clothing in a multi-sensory, musical way. One example: don’t sing a note of “Thriller” without the “Thriller” jacket! End of story. The visual of the jacket evokes the music and vice versa. We even have footage of Michael Jackson wearing the jacket in early dance rehearsals with Michael Peters to make sure he understood how the jacket looked and felt. (That’s not true for tech rehearsals but that’s another matter entirely.)

The same goes for “Smooth Criminal.” We’ve seen footage from early private rehearsals with Vince Patterson, still working out choreography, but the jacket and hat are already there. “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” are great examples of clothing used only for those songs and they really can’t be performed without them. Then there’s the billowy, flowing white shirt that signals “Black or White,” a costume that conveys the lyrical content of the song. Michael Jackson also used that flowing white shirt onstage for more contemplative songs like “Will You Be There” or “Earth Song.” So the white shirt is linked to a specific song, but it was also used to create a contemplative mood as well.

Anyway, suffice it to say when my ears hear “Black or White” as my eyes see a red shirt, it is incredibly jarring – unless perhaps it’s made clear that what I am seeing is the red corduroy shirt worn at tech rehearsals, as he simply marks the show. I’m pretty sure Michael Jackson only performed “Black or White” in the flowing white shirt and it was just crazy how much I wanted and needed to see it.

Similarly, the bluer-than-blue “The Way You Make Me Feel” shirt immediately brings that song-and-dance routine to mind. (Hats off again to Rembert for his unforgettable description of this shirt!) And the blue shirt he wore in performance has a totally different vibe than the casual blue shirts he sometimes wore as street clothing. In fact, for a stage production, I would think it’s best to stay away from cobalt blue altogether, no matter how great it looks, unless at some point you intend to use it for “The Way You Make Me Feel.”

Willa: I agree. Michael Jackson was very visual in how he created the concert experience, and he used costumes to give his audience visual cues that helped prepare us emotionally for what was to come. The most obvious is “Billie Jean.” At the 30th Anniversary show, for example, getting into the classic “Billie Jean” costume was an important part of the performance. He walked on stage with a Charlie Chaplin-style suitcase, pulled out the glittery black jacket and put it on as the audience began to get excited. Then he did a few dance moves, as if he were working his way into the character. Excitement continued to build as he pulled out the black fedora, put that on, and slid a flat hand down the front brim. And then he sloooowly pulled out the white glove and laid it across his arm, toying with the audience as they jumped to their feet and roared in anticipation.

Lisha: Ok, maybe I’m being nitpicky, but didn’t the suitcase routine first appear on the HIStory tour? Not Dangerous?

Willa: Yes, but I’m ok with a little time distortion, I guess. Like they included several of his later songs in MJ: the Musical – “They Don’t Care about Us,” “Earth Song,” “2 Bad,” “Stranger in Moscow,” “Money,” “Tabloid Junkie” – and those certainly don’t fit the Dangerous time frame, but they incorporated them well and I really enjoyed them.

Lisha: I agree that the time distortion device worked incredibly well in many parts of the show. And I tend to think of that suitcase routine as an interrogation of Michael Jackson’s private vs. public life, so maybe that was the point. The suitcase suggests to the audience they are somehow backstage, hanging out in the dressing room, sharing a private moment with the performer. But as Michael Jackson cues the spotlight and suddenly jumps into it, he dramatically transforms into the superstar performer, in stark contrast to his private life.

Actually, come to think of it, the technique reminds me of the opening of MJ: the Musical, which was really clever. The musicians and performers slowly saunter onstage while the audience is still being seated, creating an atmosphere like they are just coming to rehearsal, and we are there with them, privy to what is happening inside the rehearsal studio.

Willa: Oh, I’m glad you mentioned that, Lisha, because I really liked that opening! We as an audience are arriving, getting to our seats, milling around talking, while the performers on stage are gradually arriving, warming up and stretching, and milling around talking. So the audience offstage and the actors onstage kind of reflect one another, and it makes you feel like you’re part of the experience, as you said. It was really well done, I thought.

It also introduces the idea that the play is structured as a series of rehearsals, not a performance – though we do see some incredible performances! I hadn’t read as much as you had, Lisha, so didn’t know that MJ: the Musical is supposedly taking us inside rehearsals for the Dangerous tour, and that intro helped me get my bearings. I thought that was really effective, and that hum of conversation everywhere – both onstage and off – creates a wonderful atmosphere.

Lisha: I thought so too!

Willa: But getting back to costuming for a moment, you’re right that Michael Jackson linked certain costumes to specific songs so that they became an important part of the audience’s experience. We know that a red leather jacket with a deep V front means “Thriller.” So when we see that outfit, we’re already anticipating that particular song before we hear a single note. He sometimes played with a look or updated it – I’m thinking specifically of the glow-in-the-dark “Thriller” jacket he wore on the Dangerous tour, or the light-up “Billie Jean” glove and pants stripe he had planned for the This Is It concerts – but as far as I know he never wore a “Thriller” jacket to perform any other song.

That cobalt blue shirt you’re talking about, Lisha, means “The Way You Make Me Feel,” always – though at the 1988 Grammys he went straight from “The Way You Make Me Feel” to “Man in the Mirror” without a costume change, so wore that deep blue shirt for both songs. But I can’t imagine him wearing that costume to perform “Thriller,” as the Myles Frost character does, even though that intense blue did look striking against the vivid red set and costumes of the other characters. Viewed simply as costuming it worked well, but in terms of Michael Jackson’s iconography it didn’t. He was very deliberate in his costume choices, and to see them all scrambled up just feels wrong. I mean, we could create a whole list of songs in MJ: the Musical that were performed wearing the costume of a different song!

Lisha: It seems to me there needs to be extra care in thinking through these wardrobe choices. “Man in the Mirror” is an example of a song that is not really paired with clothing, so you can take some liberty there. Same with “Jam” or “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” I think the main argument we’re getting at is this: a major feature of Michael Jackson’s music was his ability to fuse sound with visuals, and where that involved clothing, there needs to be a great deal of consistency.

Willa: Yes, well stated, Lisha. And here’s another small costume note: Myles Frost wore baggy black pants that didn’t fit or move well, and you could tell they were a distraction for him. They were a distraction to the audience too – at least they were for me. He was constantly hitching up a pant leg before bending his knee so his pants wouldn’t bind up, and they just didn’t seem to work well for him.

Lisha: Interesting, because I noticed that too. My take was that they were replicating the look from video footage of a Dangerous technical rehearsal. It’s a look I find delightfully nerdy, given how cool Michael Jackson looks in costume! Here’s that rehearsal footage:

By the way, if you haven’t seen this rehearsal in a while, it is definitely worth your time to rewatch. Wow. Dangerous was a huge and complex show from a technical perspective, which is what we see rehearsed in that footage. The sound and light cues are every bit as intricate and precise as the music and dance. For example, at about 6 minutes in, notice how they are practicing the shattered glass sound effects at the top of the show and how rhythmic that cue needs to be. Michael Jackson is pretty much functioning as the music director throughout, on top of every detail, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it.

Willa: Incredible.

Lisha: The ability to execute thousands of cues and small details like this is nothing less than stunning. Every beat of the show has been carefully mapped out on multiple levels. Think about those rhythmic pyro explosions that happen precisely on beat 2 in the chorus of “Jam.” A lot goes into making sure the timing is so precise and that no one is anywhere near those pyro pots when they detonate.

Willa: Lisha, I love it when you point out details like these! I always feel like I’m seeing his performances with new eyes when you share your insights like that.

You know, one criticism that was leveled against Michael Jackson’s concerts is that they were all the same, with very little improvisation – the show you saw in one city was pretty much the same show you saw in the next city. It’s the polar opposite of a Grateful Dead concert, say, where the song list was constantly changing from show to show.

But as this Dangerous rehearsal video shows, Michael Jackson’s concerts were as carefully staged as a play, with precisely timed lighting, sound, props, and choreography cues, and everyone had to be on their mark. His concerts also had the elaborate sets and quick costume changes we expect from a play. So of course they weren’t improvised, any more than an elaborate Broadway production would be. No one complains when Wicked or Lion King is the same in one city as it was in the last. In that sense, his concerts were more like a dramatic performance than a concert as we typically think of one.

Lisha: That’s one of the things that initially struck me when I first became interested in Michael Jackson’s work through the film This Is It. It felt more like an overgrown Broadway musical than a concert!

Willa: Interesting. And you’ve worked on a lot of Broadway musicals, so you would know!

Lisha: It’s true I’ve seen a show or two in my day! So the “all the same” critique you just mentioned? (a.k.a. the pop/rock split, artifice vs. authenticity, or art vs. commerce.) Quite honestly, I don’t understand it. Except as a way some punk or rockist white men elevate low-budget, thrown-together concerts as subversive “art,” claiming it is a meaningful interrogation of the music and entertainment industry itself.

Willa: Hmmm. Maybe. The rock establishment was pretty critical of Michael Jackson in general – he kept defying the conventions of rock in a way they didn’t like – and they pointed to his polished, carefully choreographed concerts as evidence that he was too “slick” and didn’t have the requisite “authenticity” that rock stars strive to project. Of course, a lot of rock concerts are carefully planned out as well, with all the lighting cues and pyrotechnics – something those critics tend to ignore – but Michael Jackson’s concerts took this to a whole other level, as we see in that clip you shared of the Dangerous tech rehearsal. It really shows how complicated this all is, and how Michael Jackson and his team had thought through every detail.

Here’s an example: When I went to see MJ: the Musical the second time, there was a little glitch in the “Billie Jean” performance. Frost’s character calls for a tight, narrow spotlight to shine down on him, and when we saw the play together they pulled that off perfectly. But the second night they didn’t. The spotlight came down a little behind him rather than directly on him, creating a silhouette rather than the intended effect. It’s a minor glitch that I’m sure they’ll have worked out by opening night. I only mention it because it reminded me of the “Billie Jean” rehearsal in This Is It, where we discover that Michael Jackson had anticipated that problem and solved it.

It’s the exact same situation, but in This Is It he insists that the lighting crew spotlight an empty space on stage and let him step into it, rather than spotlighting him. I assumed he wanted it that way to build anticipation, which it does, but it also prevents mistakes like the one I saw in MJ: the Musical and gives him more control over when and how he interacts with the spotlight. It’s just one more example of how he had carefully considered every aspect of the performance.

Lisha: Don’t you think he was using that spotlight symbolically? My experience is that any cue can be missed at any time. In fact, if you do a show long enough, it eventually will be missed! Truth be told, something goes wrong at every show, no matter how polished. It’s just a matter of degree.

Willa: Well, most of those misses go right over my head! But that’s a good question, Lisha. I really think it was both. I think he liked the drama of spotlighting an empty space and then stepping into it – it works both thematically and theatrically. But seeing that spotlight “miss” Myles Frost and realizing how easy it would be for that to happen, especially with the huge venues Michael Jackson performed in where the lighting cans could be far above him, has me thinking he might have had some good practical reasons also. I mean, he’d been on stage since he was a kid, he understood all the nuts and bolts of putting on a big show like this, and he seemed to have thought through every detail.

We get a sense of that level of care from the people he assembled to work on those shows too. For example, in The King of Style: Dressing Michael Jackson, Michael Bush talks about one solution to the pants problem Myles Frost was experiencing. He says he and Dennis Tompkins would sometimes buy black, off-the-rack 501 jeans, carefully remove the stitching from the leg seams, and then add in a small strip of stretchy fabric. It was invisible but effective – it gave Michael Jackson the stability of jeans, but with the range of motion a dancer needs.

Frankly, I think the costume designers for MJ: the Musical should get in touch with Michael Bush. He’s been there and worked through all sorts of problems like this in his decades working with Michael Jackson. So why reinvent the wheel? Just let a thoroughly experienced professional like him tell you what works and what doesn’t.

Lisha: Or just study the short films and live performances a little more carefully!

Willa: That too.

Lisha: I also noticed some time distortion with the iconic Motown costuming used to depict the early pre-Motown years. Maybe this was intentional? If so, it was illegible to me. I couldn’t understand it. Suzanne de Passe’s pink hat in pre-Motown night club acts? I never figured out why it might have been there. I also seem to recall some Motown musical examples mixed in there with the early Gary/Chicago years. Do you remember that too?

Willa: Yes, some of that chronology was pretty scrambled. They had the Jackson 5 playing “The Love You Save” at Mr. Lucky’s in Gary and “ABC” at the Regal Theater in Chicago. Those are songs created for them at Motown, so it doesn’t make sense that they’d be playing them in local clubs before signing with Motown. And then they had them winning the talent show at the Apollo in New York after they’d signed with Motown. That’s not right either.

But I guess I’m willing to grant a little poetic license, especially since some of their distortions of chronology had me thinking about these songs in a new way. For example, after Joseph hit little Michael, they had Katherine comfort him by singing “I’ll Be There.” I’d never thought of that song in that way before – as a kind of lullaby from mother to child. Frost’s Michael is watching them from the sidelines, almost as if he is lost in the memory of that moment, and then he steps forward and joins them and they all sing together. I loved that! It reminded me a little bit of the “I’ll Be There” Pepsi commercial.

Lisha: I loved the idea of bringing the different Michaels together with Katherine Jackson singing. That’s another favorite moment for me. The scene was so moving, and it’s a perfect example of a timeline distortion that really works.

Willa: I agree! And Ayana George, the actress who plays Katherine Jackson, has a gorgeous voice. Actually, talking about this “I’ll Be There” scene brings up another point. The creators of MJ: the Musical repeatedly show Joseph Jackson as an overbearing, tyrannical father. But each time they do that, they somehow ground it in his awareness of the racism his sons will face and what it will mean for them to be black men in America. For example, he comes down really hard on his sons during a rehearsal, and then says something like, “My hand isn’t nearly as heavy as the world’s will be on your black asses if you mess up.” I may not be remembering that line exactly right, but that was the gist of it. To me, his deep awareness of the racism his sons will face added some depth and nuance to Joseph’s character.

The creators of MJ: the Musical also suggested in subtle ways that Michael Jackson had internalized a lot of his father’s teachings, like his work ethic and his drive for perfection. So Joseph comes across as a complicated character, and the relationship between father and son appears complicated also – just as it did in real life.

Lisha: I am all for humanizing Joseph Jackson! I really appreciate the idea of creating a character who explicitly talks about the racism he knows his sons will face. The character is tough, even brutal at times, but it’s clear he is preparing them for what to expect both from the industry and from the culture, which in reality will be far more challenging than anything Joseph Jackson ever dished out. I don’t think nearly enough is said about how hard Joseph Jackson worked and the immense pressure he put on himself to make sure his sons were ready for what would come their way.

There was an incredibly interesting casting choice for the Joseph Jackson character, that I think gets at what you said about internalizing his father’s teachings: they used the same actor, without comment or visual cues, to play the creative director of the tour, Rob. I think many fans will remember Kenny Ortega directed the Dangerous tour, so I’m not sure where the name “Rob” came from. Nonetheless, the idea of using the same actor for father and director is really creative, even inspiring. Although I’m still on the fence about how well it works. I don’t sense that father/son dynamic at all between Michael Jackson and his own employees. My concern is that later on it infantilizes Michael Jackson, when in reality he was the one in control of his show and his employees.

Willa: It does set up an interesting dynamic to have the same actor, Quentin Earl Tarrington, play both roles, but he handled it really well, I thought. He switches back and forth constantly, with the only cue about which character he’s playing being his voice. His “Joseph” voice is much raspier than his “Rob” voice, and it’s impressive how seamlessly he switches between the two. It’s a tricky thing to accomplish, and apparently he’s been actively working on it for a while, trying to figure out the best approach. The woman sitting beside me said that when she saw the show earlier, he used a heavy accent for his “Joseph” voice that was really hard to understand. She thought this new, raspy voice worked much better. It’s easy to understand while clearly differentiating between “Joseph” and “Rob.”

For me, this double role was unexpected but it added some intrigue and depth to the story and to Michael Jackson’s character. I didn’t read it as suggesting that Rob was a father figure – not at all. He was tasked with helping Michael Jackson’s vision become a reality, and he works to please him and make the show a success. So to my mind, he’s definitely more of an employee than a father figure or mentor. But sometimes he would channel Joseph’s voice, almost like a projection of Michael Jackson’s mind, and I thought that was really effective and interesting. I think Joseph’s influence continued throughout Michael Jackson’s life, as a parent’s influence often does, and to me, that’s what they were trying to convey.

Lisha: A really interesting idea, for sure! I would really like to see that work out. Maybe a few tweaks could make the power dynamic even clearer.

Ok, so I do have a more serious critique of the show that I’d like to get your take on, which has to do with a narrative that I think distorts Michael Jackson’s overall cultural significance. From my point of view, the biggest mistake in the show by far is portraying the Dangerous tour as being in serious financial trouble at the outset. I know that timeline distortion is used as a device throughout the show, and I know that Michael Jackson’s financial picture would dramatically change on the third leg of this tour, about a year later, when scandal hits and his business fortunes are reversed. But this narrative couldn’t be further from the truth at the time the show is set in and I would like to think about why that matters.

One of the most important things to understand about Michael Jackson’s cultural significance more broadly was not only how successful he became as a performer, but how his success in the music industry eclipsed that of his white counterparts and started to attract big business, surpassing what had been done before. In an industry that from its inception has always exploited blackness, black labor and black intellectual property – for white business interests – Michael Jackson came along and toppled that power dynamic in a way that went even beyond the music industry.

Big business took note of Michael Jackson. A few examples: Sony acquired CBS Records in part because of his phenomenal success, and later started a major music publishing company with him. He was pivotal in the so-called “cola wars,” handing market dominance to Pepsi Cola through huge endorsement deals. There was a mega-deal with Disney for a theme park attraction, in collaboration with George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. The owners of the New England Patriots invested heavily in the Victory tour because they were convinced it would solve major financial problems they were having at the time. Major shoe companies wanted a piece of the action. Even presidents and politicians the world over wanted to be associated with him.

So in MJ: the Musical, when we see a business advisor who is constantly warning Michael Jackson that unless he can get his production costs under control, he would have to leverage ATV and Neverland to cover overages, I laughed! That’s ridiculous!

Willa: It is ridiculous, and it makes Michael Jackson look irresponsible and unprofessional. To be honest, this is my only major criticism of the show, but it’s a big one.

Lisha: For me, it distorts the thing we need to understand most about “the Michael Jackson cacophony,” as James Baldwin wrote in 1985 – that “he will not swiftly be forgiven for having turned so many tables, for he damn sure grabbed the brass ring, and the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo has nothing on Michael.”

Willa: I love that quote, Lisha, and it really captures what was going on at the time. It’s important to remember that the backlash against Michael Jackson began before the 1993 allegations, and it was motivated at least in part because of how he “grabbed the brass ring,” as Baldwin put it. He was a force to be reckoned with: artistically, culturally, financially. He not only had the best-selling album of all time, and the most Grammy wins in one night, and lots of other superlatives, but he was also reshaping the business side of things in ways that made some people very uncomfortable.

Lisha: From what I can tell, that’s really the heart of the matter. For example, as he outmaneuvered big players in the music industry to acquire ATV, which included the Beatles publishing rights, the backlash really intensified. It was as if Michael Jackson somehow didn’t have the right to own ATV. If you’re familiar with the history of the music industry, it’s not hard to see how that purchase disrupted a longstanding racial caste system and put Michael Jackson in a position to control and profit from some of the most valuable assets in the business.

Willa: Absolutely. I’ve been doing a little research about the Beatles catalogue and Paul McCartney’s other holdings, and the more I learn the more convinced I am that racism was a big part of this backlash. It seems it’s ok for Paul McCartney to own the copyrights to songs by Little Richard and other pioneering black artists, but it’s not ok for Michael Jackson to own the copyrights to songs by the Beatles and other pioneering white artists. I think the reason gets back to what you were talking about earlier, Lisha – that the music business has a long history of exploiting “black labor and black intellectual property” for white financial gain. Michael Jackson flipped the script, and that’s what was so unforgivable.

Lisha: That’s why I was surprised the show doesn’t portray how wildly successful he was in 1992. There is no acknowledgement of the huge sponsorship deal he had with Pepsi, or how he got the biggest HBO deal of all time for the Bucharest performance, or any hint of how he would soon remake the NFL Superbowl halftime show, all while donating his tour earnings to his own charitable foundation. It’s pretty clear that in 1992 he wasn’t struggling!

Take a look at this February 3, 1992, international press conference to announce the Dangerous tour and tell me again how Michael Jackson couldn’t raise the cash for the “toaster” elevator to make his stage entrance!

Willa: You’re absolutely right, Lisha – it’s laughable. In 1992 Michael Jackson was phenomenally successful and, just as importantly, businesses were falling all over themselves to get sponsorship deals or other tie-ins with him, as you pointed out. If ever a person had the Midas touch, it was Michael Jackson in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It seems like all he had to do was stretch out his hand and sponsorship money just rained down into it. So all this drama over the cost of a couple of special effects on the Dangerous tour is ludicrous.

I can understand that the creators of MJ: the Musical wanted to tell a story – not just perform song-and-dance numbers but put them together in a meaningful way. And generally stories are structured as conflict followed by resolution. So they needed a conflict or two to propel the story. I get that. But to have that conflict be a financial crunch is a total fabrication! And to suggest that Michael Jackson put his home and his ATV catalogue and his financial future at risk for a couple of special effects on the Dangerous tour is ridiculous, as you said, Lisha. And it makes him look ridiculous.

What puzzles me is that Michael Jackson had plenty of real conflicts to choose from, so why invent one? If I had to guess why – and this is only speculation – it would be because this is a simple, familiar conflict that’s easy to communicate to an audience. Disagreements between artists and bean counters is a fairly common plot line, so we as an audience recognize it immediately and know how to interpret it.

Lisha: Well said. It’s true that what was happening in 1992 gets complicated pretty quickly – one reason all that tabloid nonsense is out there to begin with. There is discomfort with his prominence and level of success, yet no one can articulate exactly why. Instead we see overreactions to things like hyperbaric chambers (which he’d actually donated to hospitals) or vague suspicions there must have been something shady or unfair about the ATV purchase, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Willa: That’s an interesting way to interpret that, Lisha, and it explains why the backlash was both pervasive yet ill-defined – there wasn’t a real cause for it, just a vague “discomfort,” as you put it, with his phenomenal success.

But I can see why the creators of MJ: the Musical wouldn’t want to use something like this as their central conflict. It’s too complicated! And it’s too heavy, also. After all, MJ: the Musical is a feel-good musical, not a drama. I imagine they don’t want to deal with a lot of heavy emotion – they just want enough plot to hold the song-and-dance numbers together.

In fact, the more we talk about this, Lisha, the more I sympathize with the creators of MJ: the Musical. I’m starting to understand why they’d want to invent a light and easy conflict, like a budget dispute, rather than take on some of the real challenges Michael Jackson faced at that time, which were weighty and difficult to explain and generally stem from systemic racism, as James Baldwin alluded to in that quotation you cited.

And to be charitable, maybe the creators were trying to portray Michael Jackson as a committed artist willing to risk everything for his art.

Lisha: If I had to guess, I would say that’s it: that the intention was to portray Michael Jackson as an artist who refused to skimp on his art, showing how he constantly tried to surpass what had been done before, and that excellence was the real motivation behind his decisions, not profit and monetary calculations. His focus was on creating a mind-blowing show, with the assumption that if he got that right, the money would follow.

Willa: I can see that and I think it’s true to some extent, but he was also very savvy about the business side of things. I mean, Epic rejected the $1.2 million budget to make the Thriller video. (And you can kind of understand why, from a business point of view. A typical music video of the time cost around $50,000, and Thriller was already a number one album with seven number one singles. How much more promotion did it need? Apparently, Walter Yetnikoff pitched a screaming, obscenity-laced hissy fit when he heard that $1.2 million figure.) But Michael Jackson was determined to make the Thriller video, thank goodness. He didn’t see it simply as promotion but as art in its own right. So he and John Branca figured out a creative way to get MTV and Showtime to pay for it.

My point is that he was able to accomplish his goals without putting himself at financial risk. And if he didn’t put himself at risk to make Thriller, one of his most important films, I can’t imagine he’d do it for a couple of special effects on the Dangerous tour. Anyway, I didn’t mean to go off on that, but this whole conflict they invented just feels very wrong to me on many fronts.

Lisha: It’s a good point, Willa. I have to agree!

While we’re at it, there is one more problematic narrative I wanted to run past you, which is the character of the snooping reporter, Rachel, loosely based on MTV reporter Sonya Saul’s Dangerous Diary. The show imagines Rachel as having limited access to Michael Jackson during the Dangerous rehearsals and their interaction is used as a way to try to get inside his head. Rachel seems primarily concerned with uncovering hidden prescription drug use at the time, and she eventually confronts Michael Jackson about it. The assumption is made that medication is being abused as a coping strategy for childhood trauma at the hands of his father.

So, we know that medication indeed became problematic on the third leg of the tour (prescribed for repeated scalp surgeries, dental surgery, etc.). But it’s really hard for me to believe that was the case during the creation of the tour. When I watch that tech rehearsal again, also the live HBO Bucharest performance, I don’t see impairment of any kind. Instead, I see an utterly amazing physical and intellectual feat. Why take that away?

Is this the temporal distortion technique again? A layering of the pain management issues with the loss of corporate sponsorship that happens much later in 1993? If so, then why set the play in 1992? The problem with this kind of artistic license is that it robs Michael Jackson of what he had genuinely achieved with the creation of this album and tour, and ignores how the culture started to punish that success.

Willa: Absolutely. And to get back to Rachel, the pushy reporter, the resolution of the conflict with her didn’t make sense to me. She tells Myles Frost’s Michael that she’s going to go public with her findings, which is a betrayal of the promises she made when he let her into rehearsals. (She had said she was going to focus exclusively on the creative process behind the Dangerous tour.) But then she joins the chorus in a group song and suddenly everything is supposed to be ok. It’s a tidy little ending, but it didn’t make much sense to me.

I guess my overall opinion is that I loved everything about MJ: the Musical except the plot – the conflict and resolution pieces. Again, I can see how the creators wanted the characters to face some hurdles to give the show a narrative structure, but frankly, those were the weakest elements.

Lisha: I have to agree. What comes to mind is media scholar Jesse Schlotterbeck’s insight that today’s audiences actually demand knowledge of a scandal and there is a lot of effort to deliver it. Early depictions of popular musicians were often fictionalized to portray flawless characters and happy endings. Remember the old biopics of Cole Porter and George M. Cohan? But today’s audiences expect and demand some form of scandal. So producers go out of their way to provide it, fictionalizing scandal as freely as they once did happy endings. The example that comes to mind is the 2014 James Brown biopic that shows Brown walking into a meeting and firing off a shotgun. Never happened, as Charles Thomson pointed out, but hey, it gives the audience what they want!

In his article in Michael Jackson: Grasping the Spectacle, Schlotterbeck characterizes audience demand for Michael Jackson lore as “split biography” or “ambivalent fandom,” which allows the viewer to see the story through wildly opposing viewpoints. He argues that Michael Jackson himself deployed the strategy – think teenage werewolf vs. handsome date in Thriller. So perhaps this split biography approach is exactly what the creative team was after? No doubt the producers are thinking about how to appeal to the widest possible audience.

Willa: That’s a really interesting point, Lisha. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but it’s true that celebrities were once depicted as people to emulate and revere, with all their human frailties carefully hidden away, and now those frailties take center stage. I’m thinking specifically of Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, two fairly recent films on Freddie Mercury and Elton John, respectively. They were both sympathetic treatments – in fact, Elton John’s husband, David Furnish, was a producer on Rocketman – but they definitely put their subject’s frailties on full display.

Lisha: Perfect examples! There was strong emphasis on scandal in these films, but I also detected a sensitivity towards mental health and drug addiction that I don’t believe that we, as a culture, have ever afforded Michael Jackson. The one exception: the often repeated line that he suffered at the hands of his father, which is utilized in the show. My problem with this line of thinking is that it displaces any cultural responsibility we might have and puts it back onto Joseph Jackson. Once again, the truth is much more complicated.

Willa: That’s an excellent point, Lisha – if we make Joseph Jackson the villain, then we don’t have to look at ourselves and consider what we as a people did to Michael Jackson. But you’re right, it’s complicated – probably far too complicated for a Broadway musical. And you know, I can see Schlotterbeck’s point that modern audiences want scandal – that seems true at some level – but from what I could tell, what audiences for MJ: the Musical really wanted was to enjoy the incredible performances!

That’s what gave this show its sparkle: its wonderfully talented cast. The singing and dancing were phenomenal, and the audience really seemed hungry for that. Both times I went, the line was wrapped around the block. There was a little boy sitting beside me, maybe 10 or 11 years old, and he was just going nuts during some of the dance numbers, especially “Billie Jean.” And by the end of the second act, people were dancing in the aisles. That happened both nights, and it just felt wonderful to be there and experience such talented people bringing Michael Jackson’s work to life once again.

Lisha: Yes, I agree. It did feel great to be there. And I suppose I have a lot in common with that little boy! I’m hungry for an honest look at Michael Jackson the artist and the musician, not more tabloid fiction.

Hey Willa, let’s go back and see it again soon – what do you say? I might want to dance in the aisle this time!

Willa: Oh, I’d love to! Thank you again for putting together this last trip. I enjoyed it so much! And I want to wish you and everyone a happy, healthy, and fulfilling new year!

Lisha: Thank you, Willa! Happy new year to all!

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 December 30, 2021, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. I saw the show yesterday (December 29) and loved it – to my surprise. It was difficult for me to imagine who could possibly be cast to play Michael Jackson, but Myles Frost evoked him to an amazing degree. I love how fluid the storyline and sets were, so when the obvious inaccuracy of his supposed financial troubles became a plot point I wasn’t terribly bothered because the purpose was to show the high level of his artistic integrity. And when I saw the show the explanation for the pill use was physical pain, not problems with his father. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I didn’t see the show as designed to be a source of accurate information about Michael Jackson but as an exploration of his influences and artistic values. However, since so many fabrications have been published about him, maybe the writer of the show should have stuck more to facts! Overall, the show is a much-needed celebration of his life and art.

    • “Overall, the show is a much-needed celebration of his life and art.”

      Hi Susan. I agree completely! And while I had more of a problem with “the obvious inaccuracy of his supposed financial troubles” than you did, I still loved the show and thought the performances were incredible. I hope it came across in the post that Lisha and I both thoroughly enjoyed it and highly recommend that everyone – especially fans – go see it if they can.

      I’m really curious to hear if there have been any changes since we saw it (Dec. 9 and 10). I’d love to hear details, if you’d like to share.

  2. Harriet Manning

    Thanks Willa and Lisha. I’d be interested to hear how the programme presents the plot?

    • “I’d be interested to hear how the programme presents the plot?”

      Hi Harriet. The short answer is that it doesn’t. It briefly describes the setting with “When: 1992” and “Where: A Rehearsal Studio, Los Angeles,” but doesn’t engage with the plot. I went to the MJ: the Musical website to see if there’s a plot description there, or even a short blurb, but didn’t find anything. You raise a good question though. It would be really interesting to see how the creators themselves characterize the plot.

  3. Hi Willa and Lisha,

    Thanks so much for posting these insights about of the show! I’ve been following the “Startin’ Something” docuseries on YouTube, wishing I could go and see “MJ: The Musical”; but it looks like I won’t be able to travel to New York anytime soon. (I also hope there won’t be many more Covid-related cancellations of the performances.) I envy anyone who’s been there, so I guess I’ll have to live vicariously through your experience!

    By all accounts I’ve read, the performances are spectacular and right on target. I can imagine that it’s somewhat disappointing to see a use of clothing that doesn’t match what we’ve grown to expect. Other things that may be at odds with our knowledge of the chronology of Michael Jackson’s life and career —like his financial woes, which pretty much didn’t exist at the moment of “Dangerous”—could be understood as “poetic license.” The writer would need to condense a hugely complex life history into the relatively short running time of the play, and to offer a dramatic tension to the unfolding story this way, as you’ve mentioned.

    Recently, the New York Times Style magazine ran a cover story profiling four contemporary artists. One was “MJ:The Musical”‘s writer, Lynn Nottage, who was interviewed by Susan Dominus:

    “It’s written,” she says. “But musicals are really written in rehearsal. You don’t know what you have until it’s up there.” The musical is set in 1992, during the two days before Jackson embarked on his “Dangerous” tour, which was ultimately canceled following his confession of addiction to painkillers, which he attributed to the allegations of child abuse. “Part of the reason we make art,” Nottage says, “is to lean into the complexity of the stories and characters we’re exploring, and I think that Michael Jackson is no different.” The play does not pretend to know exactly what transpired between Jackson and his accusers; its project is the question of art, not of guilt. “It’s not my place to be judge and jury,” says Nottage. “My job in this process is to decipher who he is as an artist.”

    Elsewhere, in a 2017 book called “What Playwrights Talk About When They Talk About Writing” (edited by Jeffrey Sweet), Nottage says:

    NOTTAGE: As a playwright I write around my stuff. All of us have early traumas, which are part of the foundation of who we are. I think my impulse is always to write away from that and try and find some other piece of landscape where I can dwell. And I think that becomes the place I occupy as a writer.

    When I was writing “Ruined,” I had taped over my computer: ‘Sustain the complexity.’ There are going to be characters that we don’t like or who we find questionable.

    [….] But I try to go inside and understand why they’re making the choices that they make. Which is what I attempted to do when I was writing Sweat. How do I get to the sources of the choices that my characters make, find the humanity, and understand how that humanity can be corrupted?”
    ________________________

    Since the Michael Jackson Estate was deeply involved in this project, I can well imagine they sought control over which aspects of Michael Jackson’s life would be represented in this show. For dramatic effect, his financial problems might do well as one of his significant challenges; but material deemed too controversial (or damning)—i.e., the allegations, and his drug use—would likely be off-limits. So once the historical time frame was decided (rehearsals for the Dangerous tour), the way the show would treat his financial woes would have to be squeezed into that period, regardless of whether these challenges matched the chronology of Michael Jackson’s life.

    Just some thoughts here.

    • Hi Nina. It’s great to hear your insights, as always. I actually read your comment the other day and have been thinking about it. One thing it really brought to the forefront for me was how many different audiences Nottage was writing for as she worked on the script, including the Michael Jackson Estate. I hadn’t really thought about the implications of that before. It’s really hard to write when you have so many imagined viewers looking over your shoulder!

      So I agree with your point that Nottage was confined in what she could write about, both by the Estate and by popular opinion. Michael Jackson certainly had a lot of challenges facing him as he began the Dangerous tour – in fact, money worries was one of the few things not confronting him – but most were not suitable for some reason. So I can see why financial worries was chosen as the central conflict, but that causes its own problems as we tried to explain in the post.

      Thanks as always for your insights. I’ll keep mulling this over…

  4. Brad Sundberg has posted a video review of MJ the Musical on Facebook and I thought you might be interested:

    http://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?ref=watch_permalink&v=524485752513250

    • Thanks for posting, Willa! I plan to check it out later, and hope it’s still online. Brad’s seminar is another event I’d love to attend (again) sometime.

  5. I just want to thank you both for everything you do… the research, the analysis, the reviews, the thoughtfulness, the time…. just EVERYTHING! Loved this review. I think you should send parts to Lynn so she can rethink some things while in previews! I am going Feb. 17. I can’t wait.

    • Thank you, Lucia! I really appreciate it. By the way, I’d love to hear an update about the show – like whether they layer “They Don’t Care about Us” and “Earth Song” during the press conference or play them one after the other, or anything else you notice.

  6. Thank you for writing the review! Am sad the musical probably won’t come to Europe. I found a really interesting interview with Wheeldon… For once a mainstream media article that talks about Michael Jackson’s brilliance as a dancer: https://www.washingtonpost.com/theater-dance/2022/02/11/michael-jackson-musical-director-wheeldon/ (My browser’s ”reading” mode let me bypass the paywall.)

    • Here’s a quote (for those who can’t pass the paywall):
      Ultimately, Wheeldon preserved what most astonished his practiced eye: Jackson’s unique clarity of movement.
      “He danced with this superhuman speed and precision and attack, which ballet dancers certainly can understand,” the choreographer says. “But what you don’t necessarily connect with the dancing of a pop star is that you can pause him anywhere through a sequence, and you realize he is attacking each pose with infinite amounts of precision.

      “I was just in awe of the articulation in his body,” Wheeldon continues. “The ability to seemingly isolate every bone, every muscle, and to be so full of attack in those isolations, and then below, be like mercury in his legs. Seamlessly shape shifting.”

      • Hi Bjørn. Thanks so much for posting this article! I find the above quote absolutely thrilling––that someone of Wheeldon’s stature as a found a way to analyze and articulate how incredible the Michael Jackson’s work really is––well beyond the ordinary perception of him as “a pop star.”

        Isn’t it interesting that “MJ: The Musical” and the Cirque Du Soleil shows are both directed by dancers who understand Michael Jackson’s movement? Something to ponder.

        I hope somehow or other you do end up seeing the show someday! Would love to hear your take on it.

  7. Hello to all! A big thank you for all the great comments here. I appreciate every word.

    I thought I would add a something here, seemingly unrelated, about “the business side of show business.” I think it gets at some of the cultural blind spots that persist in understanding Michael Jackson’s financial success and why I find the narrative in this show so problematic regarding what really happened to the corporate sponsorship of the Dangerous tour, and why it was impossible to ever fully recover from that blow. Long story short, it wasn’t about the cost of the tour, no matter how prodigious the spending!

    This is a segment from CBS Sunday Morning about Byron Allen, an entertainer turned media mogul who just put in an offer to buy the Denver Broncos. If the deal goes through, he would become the first African American to own an NFL team. https://youtu.be/DAL2qRxSb_0

    Allen says he actually cried the day Berry Gordy sold Motown, fully understanding why black ownership was so essential in the music business, but also so difficult: “Do we or do we not have economic inclusion? The answer is no. We have to correct the greatest trade deficit in America, which is the trade deficit between white corporate America and Black America.”

  8. Nina Fonoroff

    Here’s a conversation with Myles Frost on YouTube about his role in “MJ.”

    • That was great, Nina! Thanks so much for posting. What an incredible guy with an incredible story. One never knows when the stars will align like that! Amazing.

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