“The King of Pop” comes to the Great White Way in MJ: The Musical

The long-awaited and highly controversial Michael Jakson musical has finally made its way to the Broadway stage. The show centers around rehearsals for Jackson’s 1992 Dangerous world tour. A reporter from MTV comes into the studio with her camera crew to capture behind-the-scenes action. But the real story unfolds when she picks up some unexpected soundbites on Jackson and his tour director’s body mikes…talk of financial strain, accusations, pills, a difficult upbringing, and tremendous pressure to produce a show greater than ever before. Throughout the show, Jackson’s canon of musical hits is woven into flashbacks, dream sequences, and show-within-a-show moments. And like several biopic musicals we’ve seen of late (i.e. The Cher Show, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical), three actors take on the role of Michael Jackson at different points in his life: little Michael of the Jackson 5, teen/young adult Michael Jackson of his breakout solo career, and present-day (well, “1992”) MJ. 

The dancing in MJ is some of the most dynamic I’ve seen on Broadway in awhile. It is not purely the choreography from Jackson’s tours and music videos (credit to Michael Peters, Vincent Paterson, and Gregg Burge who thankfully get a nod in the Playbill). But MJ’s iconic steps (the robot, the moonwalk, the ‘Thriller’ chorus) and movement vocabulary are all impeccably executed—Beyond an impersonation or impression of the man (the myth, the legend), in the musical, Jackson’s ‘ography, moments of improv, and even pedestrian walking are refreshingly organic, clear, and evolutionary across the three Michaels. This credit goes to the show’s “Michael Jackson Movement” coaches, Rich and Tone Talauega, brothers who danced with Jackson starting in the mid-90s. Several times in the show, we see references to those artists who inspired Jackson himself—the Nicholas brothers, Fred Astaire, and Bob Fosse, to name a few. While I appreciated the nod to dance history, the execution of these dance icons felt campy and inauthentic compared to the precision and purity of Jackson. The authenticity of the three Michaels’ movements is what grounds this Broadway musical in a sense of truth (even if Michael Jackson’s entire complicated life and legacy are not addressed within the two-and-a-half hours…Were you really expecting it to?). Spectacles can be financed and voice impressions aren’t terribly uncommon, but the integrity in Michael’s physicality—coached by two dancers who were ‘in the room where it happened’—somehow makes you listen much more intently.

To me, it was Michael Jackson’s dancing that made him the “King of Pop.” Sure, his chart-topping songs, smooth yet staccato high tenor voice, over-the-top showmanship, and ever-swirling controversies contributed to this as well. But it was his movement—both intensely inspired and magically distinctive—that communicated Jackson’s truth…joy, anger, sensuality, frustration, playfulness, and, ultimately, hope. The juxtaposition of hard-hitting locks with liquid transitions captivate audiences—a marriage of music and movement so harmonious that you wonder which actually came first. 

I appreciated that the musical’s choreography was not verbatim from Michael Jackson’s actual works—his music videos, television appearances, and stage shows of the seventies, eighties, and nineties. With permission from Jackson’s estate, director/choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon, breathes (maybe not ‘new’, but different) life into the dance—adapting edited music videos and huge stadium choreography to a Broadway stage. While the dancing is both entertaining and mesmerizing (this ensemble is FULL OUT, NO MARKING!), the numbers lack cohesion. The show centers around the 1992 rehearsal period and we keep jumping to flashbacks from Jackson’s younger years. Each ‘modern day’ character in the rehearsal studio also plays a pivotal role in these flashbacks (i.e. the actor who plays Michael’s tour director also plays his father, Joe Jackson). This is a creative take on Broadway’s somewhat redundant biopic musical formula. However, Lynn Nottage’s book snags the potential ease and magic of these transitions with awkward intros and even more abrupt outros back into dialogue. In an attempt to ‘make it all fit,’ Jackson’s songs are beautifully arranged (props to Jason Michael Webb and David Holcenberg) but again uncomfortably disconnected. Some become part of the plot (i.e. his mother, Katherine Jackson, singing “I’ll Be There” to young Michael after yet another abusive rehearsal with his father). A few songs represent dream-like trances, taking Jackson out of the present and into his ‘perfect world.’ And still others are pure performances for entertainment’s sake rather than to forward the plot along.

While the choreography (Wheeldon’s and Peters’, Paterson’s, Burge’s, and the Talauega brothers’) is dynamic, full out, and groovy, the disconnect between songs and story leaves room for the ‘newer’ dancing (Wheeldon’s) to take different shapes. The movement vocabulary in some songs is historically accurate while others are more contemporary than the time in which Jackson performed (in the context of the plot, that would be 1969 up to 1992). Some moments, however memorable, turn a bit too “So You Think You Can Dance” when I would have liked us to stay fully immersed in Jackson’s world—and head. It also struck me that just Wheeldon was Tony-nominated for Best Choreography, rather than the conglomeration of all those voices—including Jackson’s —that made up this movement…

Even as a critic, I was nervous to see this musical as if attending somehow showed my “support” for Michael Jackson (both his legacy and liability). Though sanctioned by his estate, the show by no means paints the man in a perfect light. Does it resolve any of the controversy surrounding Jackson’s personal life? Absolutely not. But it doesn’t completely ignore it either. The musical honors the genius artistry of Michael Jackson while at the same time inciting more questions than providing answers. I left the theater with a smile, humming those iconic songs that I honestly hadn’t heard in some time, and eager to learn more about the man, the music, and the mystery.

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