- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Flipboard
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Tumblr
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
Michael Jackson knew how to tell a story. He could channel regret with the mournful sorrow of an old man or playfully disclose his romantic desires with the youthfulness of first love. He experimented with vocal intonations, body movements and facial expressions to become the heartthrob of fantasies and the ghoulish figure of nightmares. Jackson relinquished himself to the narrative. He was a wizard, and every song, video and live performance was an opportunity to transform.
Such ease with shape-shifting comes at a cost. The King of Pop transported his devotees to fantastical places, but he remained relatively inscrutable. The real Michael Jackson was shrouded in mystery. For a while it didn’t matter — the message was in the music. But then his facial features changed, his skin lightened and investigations accusing him of sexual abuse were opened. Contradictions began to pile up. Who was Michael Jackson? That question was difficult to answer when he was alive and is even more so now after his death.
MJ, a remarkable Broadway musical written by Lynn Nottage and directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, deftly probes this weighty topic. The show was produced by arrangement with the musician’s estate, and uses Jackson’s archives and place within the public’s imagination to conduct a Freudian analysis of the artist’s life. How do you tell a story of a person who dissolved into the roles he created for himself and the roles the public created for him? Well, it depends on where and when you start.
Nottage sets MJ in 1992, two days before the start of Jackson’s Dangerous World Tour. America was in the middle of a recession. The first allegation of child abuse hadn’t been lodged against Jackson (those would come in 1993). And the singer had not yet appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s show, where he revealed he had vitiligo. In 1992, Michael Jackson, played with incredible verve here by Myles Frost, was mostly concerned with staging an unforgettable tour for his fans and raising money for charity.
However, unbeknownst to the musician, his tour manager, Rob (Quentin Earl Darington), has given two reporters from MTV permission to film the crew’s rehearsals and interview the singer for a story. Before Michael, or MJ as Rob calls him, even meets Rachel (Whitney Bashor) and her camera guy Alejandro (Gabriel Ruiz), he’s perturbed. But the enterprising duo promise to stay out of his way. They insist they will be flies on the wall. It’s clever of Nottage to frame MJ as a fictional behind-the-scenes reportage, which sets up the singer’s tense relationship to journalists and highlights how much of our understanding of Jackson was mediated through the press.
Michael’s memories guide MJ, and Nottage speeds through the early years of Jackson’s life. The pace initially seems breathless but it mirrors the associative nature of recollection and the exponential rate of the singer’s fame.
It was Berry Gordy (Antoine L. Smith), the founder of Motown records, who realized that the youngest member of the Jackson 5, with his charming presence and hypnotic voice, could be a star. (Christian Wilson played the young Michael at the performance reviewed; he alternates in the role with Walter Russell III.) Nottage highlights young Michael’s relationship with his brothers, his devotion to his mother Katherine (Ayana George) and the growing tension with his father Joe (also played by Darrington). The brilliant set, designed by Derek McLane, coupled with striking lighting by Natasha Katz, bolsters these elegantly staged flashbacks.
As Michael got older (an incredible Tavon Olds-Sample plays him as a young adult), the chasm between his real self and his performed self widened. While giving his audience all his energy and spirit, the artist struggled in his personal life.
Nottage casts Joe as the central terrifying figure in Michael’s formative years, a claim that echoes the critic Margo Jefferson’s argument in On Michael Jackson. The patriarch’s abuse of Michael is well-known, but MJ explicitly connects this mistreatment to the musician’s fractured psyche. Memories of Joe haunt Michael throughout his rehearsals, pushing him to demand more from his crew and from himself. At the root of this perfectionism, the musical suggests, is a desire for his father’s approval.
This argument might be too simplistic for some viewers, especially those expecting some kind of retribution or guidance on what to make of Jackson’s complicated legacy. MJ provides a clear portrait of Jackson as an abused person, but side-steps thornier questions about him as an abuser. As Jefferson writes: “What began with Joseph Jackson was passed on by Michael Joseph Jackson.” This makes it impossible to have an easy relationship to his music, requiring more of us than passive consumption.
But having audiences focus exclusively on his music was what Jackson wanted, and MJ largely honors that wish. David Holcenberg’s arrangements use the musician’s catalog to great effect, creating a euphoric production. The cast, especially the three Michaels, deserves every accolade for the passion and ecstatic energy they bring to Jackson’s records, from “Beat It” and “Jam” to “Billie Jean” and “Thriller.” Wheeldon’s magnetic choreography faithfully reproduces Jackson’s signature moves, from the infamous moonwalk to the slick 45-degree tilt of “Smooth Criminal,” adding subtle twists to sharpen the shifts between Michael’s personality on and off the stage.
During a preview I attended, an audience member rose to her feet and waved her hands in the air, as if she had caught the Holy Spirit: an affirmation that to be in Jackson’s presence — even if only through gifted performers — is to experience a spiritual rapture.
MJ, like its subject, is captivating and hard to shake. The musical takes audiences through Jackson’s life and catalog with impressive ease, expertly chronicling major milestones. After breaking up with Motown records, Michael goes to Epic, where he works with Quincy Jones to produce Off the Wall and Thriller. His vision and work ethic become more exacting, his drive to best himself at once breathtaking and worrisome. As the narrative burrows deeper into Michael’s mind, the toll his artistry took on him is clear. He wanted to bring his audiences joyful and spectacular experiences, but he felt isolated and misunderstood.
Nottage’s production arrives at an interesting cultural moment, one in which we are being shepherded back to the gospel of the Jacksons. Janet Jackson recently released a Lifetime documentary special that establishes her own narrative. But times have changed, especially the public’s scrutiny of celebrity accounts, along with conversations around what constitutes abuse and its impact on mental health. MJ will undoubtedly introduce a new generation to the artist’s work, but I wonder if it will cast the same spell.
Venue: Neil Simon Theatre, New York
Cast: Myles Frost, Quentin Earl Darrington, Whitney Bashor, Gabriel Ruiz, Walter Russell III, Christian Wilson, Tavon Olds-Sample, Devin Trey Campbell, Antoine L. Smith, Joey Sorge, Raymond Baynard, John Edwards, Ayana George
Director-choreographer: Christopher Wheeldon
Book: Lynn Nottage
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Paul Tazewell
Lighting designer: Natasha Katz
Sound designer: Gareth Owen
Executive producer: Michael David
Presented by Lia Vollack, John Branca, John McClain, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Sony Music Entertainment, Roy Furman, Cue to Cue Productions, James L. Nederlander, Kumiko Yoshi, Naoya Kinoshita, Latitude Link, Candy Spelling, Stephen C. Byrd, John Gore Organization, Sandy Robertson, Ed Walson, Peter W. May, CJ Enm, Martin Bandier, Michael Cassel Group, Albert Nocciolino, Playful Productions, Ken Schur, Willette & Manny Klausner, Doug Morris, by special arrangement with the Estate of Michael Jackson
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day
More from The Hollywood Reporter
Billie Eilish Slams Critics Who Called Her a “Sellout” for Being More Feminine: “Let Women Live”
How Amber Ruffin’s Mission to Have Fun Helped “Destroy and Then Rebuild” ‘Some Like It Hot’ for Broadway
‘Succession’: Why Kendall Is Wearing a Flashy Richard Mille Watch and Cousin Greg Rocks a Rolex “Pepsi” GMT