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Celine Dion, Elton John, Tim McGraw and Cee Lo Green (and later this year, Britney Spears) all showcase the chart-topping moments of their careers in spectacular residencies along the Las Vegas Strip. And this month, the timeless tracks of Michael Jackson will come to life in Michael Jackson One, a new theater production at Mandalay Bay by Cirque du Soleil that is written and directed by veteran concert director Jamie King, whose client list includes Spears, Dion, Madonna, Rihanna and Christina Aguilera.
One is King’s second creative collaboration with Cirque, as the former Jackson backup dancer also penned and directed Michael Jackson The Immortal World Tour. The traveling arena show first premiered in October 2011 and has become Cirque’s largest and most expensive production to date, breaking its own records for the highest attendance of a single performance.
Yet rather than honoring the legendary musician’s memory with elephants, mimes and giant white gloves dancing to mash-ups of memorable songs, King opts for a character-driven plot for the Mandalay Bay Theatre. With 26 scenes, 60 performers and full versions of Jackson’s biggest hits, One follows four misfits on a transformative journey that leads them to personify Jackson’s personality traits: agility, courage, playfulness and love.
“Michael was a storyteller, and certainly he was a showman – he had all these great MTV music video moments and dance stage performances that we all remember,” King tells The Hollywood Reporter, citing “Moonwalker” and “Thriller” as standouts. “You can’t do that in an arena; there’s 16,000 people, they can’t understand, they’re too far away. Whereas in a 2,000-seat theater, you’re right in the show, so you can go on the journey with our heroes.”
The title of the show is a triple entendre: 70 percent of the set list is Jackson’s number one hits. Michael Jackson was also a one-of-a-kind artist and one of the most influential of all time. But at its core, One aims to celebrate the ethos of love and unity that Jackson captured throughout his career, through his concerts, song lyrics and philanthropy.
“The running theme by the end of the show [is] that we’re just all the same, because we are all the same,” says King. “It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, we’re all the same. It’s that oneness that I want people to leave with, because that was Michael’s message ‘til the end.”
With full access from John Branca and the Michael Jackson Estate to the musician’s library of master recordings, musical director Kevin Antunes made sure to showcase the intricate layers that often get lost in a song’s final cut. For example, the theater’s front speakers play Jackson’s lead vocals, while the headrest’s speakers in each seat swoon with his background vocals, giving attendees the experience of being in the recording studio with Jackson himself.
“You’re not listening to a CD or an MP3, you’re listening to the raw audio of these master recordings in their full complete embodiment – you’re hearing it in a way that only Michael and his engineers had heard it when they had done [it],” says Antunes, who has also overseen the music for Justin Timberlake, Rihanna and Madonna, including her Super Bowl halftime gig. “What is true mastery is when you listen to his background vocals while his lead vocal is singing. If he was in the studio and he had his headphones on and he’s recording layer after layer of background vocals, it’s the things that he’s doing while he’s listening to his lead on his background track: he’s snapping, and he might ghost some of the lyrics, he could whisper some of the lyrics. Hearing that stuff, that’s the kind of stuff that I’d want the fans to get a chance to hear, and I contour some of the arrangements so that some of those things can be highlighted, because it gives you a true look into the artistry of this incredible entertainer. And nobody gets to really hear that except in this theater.”
Differing from Cirque du Soleil’s other tribute productions, One never has a performer portraying Jackson onstage. Instead, the show strategically uses video and audio footage of the singer throughout the plot’s peaks and valleys.
“His presence, even on video, is so powerful, that it can be very tricky to use him,” says Welby Altidor, One’s director of creation. “What we wanted to do in this show is build Michael’s presence through his voice and feeling his shadow, to feeling him progressively becoming more and more present throughout the show, until we can create the longing. And then the apex, the moment where we’ll really feel that he’s there and he’s still with us.”
One is Cirque du Soleil’s most ambitious endeavor to date, as no production has ever had so many acrobatic performances in a single show. To avoid recycling routines from The Immortal, choreographers take advantage of the intimate theater setting and spotlight Jackson’s iconic moves at new heights. Cirque is also working with dance crews for the first time, having found new inspiration in groups from South Korea, New Zealand and Puerto Rico. All stage performers are dressed by Zaldy Goco, Jackson’s This Is It costume designer, who also outfitted Lady Gaga’s first North American Monster Ball tour and joined with Gwen Stefani for her L.A.M.B. label.
The high level of ambition for originality in One is familiar to choreographer Travis Payne, who has worked with Beyonce, Shakira, Usher and Jennifer Lopez, and collaborated with Jackson on and off for more than 15 years.
“Michael was always very, very clear that he just wanted to get to the best idea – it did not always have to come from him, the only thing he asked is that it’s something he’d never seen before,” Payne tells THR. “If it was anything that felt similar to anything else that’d come before it, he didn’t want any part of it. That’s what made him so innovative in all of his music and visuals … a lot of times, he was just inspired and motivated by things around him in everyday life. He might come into rehearsal with a drawing he did on a napkin the evening before because he just got a great idea, and then it becomes the set for ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ in This Is It. … You always left exhausted because he always pulled everything out of you and wouldn’t allow you to settle, because he wasn’t gonna settle.”
Many steps of One draw from Jackson’s creative process and attention to detail, which King witnessed firsthand during his first gig in showbiz as a dancer on Jackson’s Dangerous tour in 1992. He recalls watching Jackson backstage as he prepared for arena shows that had yet to use enhancements like video screens.
“You could see the attention to detail: every light mattered, where he was positioned so that he could get the right silhouette mattered,” says King. “To watch that level of interest and detail and to really care about every aspect of the stage so that it matches his movement and really goes along to the music so that every accent is hit with the lights, it was something I’ll never forget.”
Cirque du Soleil already has seven resident shows along the Las Vegas Strip, but One is Mandalay Bay’s first Cirque production and moves into a theater that previously housed musicals Mamma Mia! and The Lion King. The Mandalay Bay Theatre’s entry is now outfitted with six floor-to-ceiling portraits of Jackson dancing the moonwalk in his white socks, sequined jacket and black hat. Brightly lit jewels accessorize the sapphire blue lobby, which features black and gold double doors that pay homage to Jackson’s signature military-inspired blazers.
“To be the entertainment capital of the world and now to feature the work of the greatest entertainer of all time, it didn’t take me too long when [Cirque du Soleil] presented the opportunity to us, I said, ‘Where do we sign?'” says Chuck Bowling, president and COO of Mandalay Bay. “We think Michael Jackson’s music is generational, relevant and crosses so many genres overall. As long as people continue to love and want to celebrate Michael’s music, we’re gonna be the home for it for many, many years to come.”
But even with all the venue changes, master recordings and record number of acrobatics, the question remains: how can anyone make a Michael Jackson show that isn’t created by Michael Jackson himself?
“I do a lot of, what would Michael think? And how would he feel about this? Not trying to replicate anything that he would do, because we can’t do that. There’s only one Michael Jackson,” says Payne. “But to think, would Michael get a kick out of that? Would he think this is really great? Would he think that this is thematic enough? Or would he think this is strong enough? We’re just grinding in rehearsals to make the answers to all of those questions ‘yes’ and make it a piece in entirety that Michael would love and he would enjoy being an audience member at, that he would enjoy bringing his mother and his children to.”
Michael Jackson One opens at the Mandalay Bay Theatre on June 29, with previews beginning on May 23. Tickets range from $69 to $150 for nightly performances Saturday through Wednesday at 7 p.m.
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