‘MJ’ is One of the Greatest Broadway Productions Ever
For much of Michael Jackson’s life, there was controversy. Extraordinary genius is not often reverenced by those who attempt to control it, exploit it or covet it as theirs. Sometimes it is least understood by the person who possesses such talent, until it is too late, and there are only a few years left to try to get it all down.
One-of-a-kind greatness is as ineffable and mighty as what we imagine divinity is. But divinity streams in a multitude of directions. In spirit and light it is incapable of being contained. A bit of that was Michael Jackson’s talent, genius, divinity that he emblazoned on our planet for too brief a time. It is a bit of that Michael Jackson which Myles Frost so lovingly portrays with precision, excellence and prodigious beauty in MJ, with the book by the sterling Lynn Nottage that currently runs on Broadway at the Neil Simon Theatre. This production is an unforgettable, blinding amazement, full of wonder.
Unlike other shows that have been dubbed jukebox musicals, MJ cannot be categorized as such and defies pat, convenient labels. First, though Michael Jackson’s music is featured throughout, the music threads who he is albeit “through a glass darkly,” if we can ever know another individual. The production soars because, as Myles’ MJ tells MTV documentarian Rachel (Whitney Bashor), if we “listen” to his music, it “answers questions” we might have. Thus, if we really intend to know who Michael Jackson is, we must examine his music. MJ does this by presenting riffs of his treasured, award-winning songs in two acts, though not in completeness because the breadth of his work would require days to display in full.
Wisely, Nottage focuses on a period in Michael’s life which manifests a turning point right before he travels globally on his Dangerous tour. It is 1992 in a L.A. rehearsal studio. Through flashback and flashing forward, framed by the present in the studio, Nottage provides richness and depth, crystallizing vital themes and conflicts MJ confronted externally and internally. These include: 1) the media’s rapacious hunger to exploit scandal and create MJ’s twisted identity that it hypocritically blamed him for; 2)his struggles with his father in going solo and breaking from his family to obtain his own autonomy as a person and artist; 3)his struggles to evolve his music beyond his industry producers and labels represented by his father Joseph (Antoine L. Smith), Berry Gordy (Ramone Nelson), and Quincy Jones (Apollo Levine).
Additionally, Nottage examines his work ethic and quest to be perfect, a recurrent theme in MJ. For example after rehearsing various numbers for the Dangerous tour to the breaking point, MJ asks, “But is it perfect?” It is a refrain he’s internalized from his childhood when his father pushed the Jackson 5 to the brink and didn’t allow them to “be children.” Finally, MJ is representational as a black every man striving against the color bar everywhere. Thus, we see his father, his family and his life struggles against institutional racism in the music industry and culture.
Complexly encapsulated throughout, Nottage reveals his personal struggles to manifest love, and overthrow the cruel abuse he received as a child, teen and adult (in the media and entertainment industry). He must do this to spread the love in his music and not transfer the culture’s hatred which is so easy to internalize. This is most probably the most difficult ask of himself that Michael pushes himself toward. This is the thing which is impossible, not the incredible nature of his tours or finding the money his financial manager Dave (Joey Sorge), requires, using his Neverland Ranch as collateral to fund the Dangerous tour. Importantly, Nottage notes his personal struggle to understand and forgive himself reflected in the incredible performance of “Man in the Mirror.” However, does he achieve self-love finally, the bane of all human existence? Ah, well…
Interwoven to spotlight these themes and conflicts is Michael Jackson’s fabulous music featured with the dancers in later songs during the rehearsal period for the Dangerous tour and in memory vignettes. Also, we enjoy featured songs in MJ’s discussion of his work with Rachel which includes numbers from his albums Off the Wall and Thriller.
From his childhood Little Michael’s ( the superbly talented Walter Russell and Christian Wilson alternate) incredible voice shines with his brothers portrayed by performers who also take on different roles. In the segments when Myles’ MJ in the present reflects about correlating events in his childhood, we note his father’s gruff, abusive prodding as a taskmaster (portrayed by Antoine L. Smith the night I saw the production). And we appreciate his loving mother’s comfort as a counterbalance who MJ relies on. Katherine Jackson’s incredible voice is poignant and lovely as she sings with Little Michael, i.e. “I’ll Be There.” When MJ comes back from his thoughts about the past, answering questions from the documentarian at times and other times just letting memories emerge, Myles as the adult MJ sings with Little Michael and they encapsulate the convergence of the past with the present. Perhaps this is a healing, self-revelatory moment.
Likewise, the same occurs with teenage Michael, portrayed by Tavon Olds-Sample as Nottage explores the height of the Jackson’s fame with their appearance on Soul Train performing “Dancing Machine.” Especially when MJ steps back into the past, songs in the vignettes explore his emotions at the time. Then MJ comes back to the present into the rehearsal studio where the dancers are singing the same number. The past turmoil is concurrent with the turmoil he goes through in the present with his managers and directors telling him what he wants isn’t possible. It is a refrain he received his entire life and must overcome continually. The transitions from flashback to forward present are beautifully effective as rendered in songs.
Wisely, the structure and organization of MJ is complexly framed by the present and is driven by a confluence of emotional and personal issues which erupt throughout the production. These issues, Nottage intimates were the ones to spiral out of control later in Jackson’s life. The issues explored in flashbacks reveal that MJ is a fluid memory piece and musical. It is as if Jackson, given over to his own talent and unconscious, becomes haunted by the past which intrudes upon the present to generate the direction of his art and personal life. It is that past from which “he runs” (a superficial assessment by the media). Regardless, it is that chaos and emotional angst from the past which infuses and creates the greatness of his being and work, Nottage suggests throughout. It is even reflected in the words of Barry Gordy who claims that Little Michael sings with the pain of an adult’s experience.
Though I wasn’t a Michael Jackson fan, after seeing MJ, I have become one, learning of some the facets of his talent and genius which he attempted to perfect and which anyone who looks deeper into his life with understanding recognizes what he accomplished as one of the most significant global cultural icons of the twentieth century. Importantly, MJ is a celebration of Michael Jackson’s goodness, graciousness, gentleness and love, revealed in his spectacular ability to compose, sing, dance, produce and innovate new music styles and initiate forward trends in all these listed, including fashion.
MJ is also a memorial to Michael Jackson’s work given that through great pain comes art which is timeless. Though some would quibble that “his” type of music isn’t art, Nottage’s book and this production rises above that inanity in its affirmation that what Michael Jackson accomplished must be reviewed seriously apart from scurrilous tabloid journalism or even an attempt at documentary. Though he was Known as the “King of Pop,” the Broadway production reveals that “handle” was a superficial, limiting meme.
He was a phenomenon that we will not see again, a sensitive maverick “music man” who morphed into mythic beings and as easily shapeshifted out of them into new personas. As he evolved, he swiftly left history and the media in the dust, something which the media appears to refuse to understand. One has only to view his vast body of awards and global recognition, his millions of record sales the dollar amounts, the presidential awards, global awards, the breaking of 39 Guinness World records to begin to “get this.” Indeed, he is the most awarded individual music artist in history.
MJ the Musical begins in an L.A. rehearsal studio in 1992 as dancers and the soft-spoken Michael (the shining Myles Frost) suggests ways to improve “Beat It,” the number the dancers work on. Sequestered in a corner, a two-person MTV documentary film crew records until the overexcited camera man, Alejandro (Gabriel Ruiz), loses his cool in the presence of this living myth and MJ “yells” about the how and why of cameras in the studio. Rachel (Whitney Bashor) steps in and saves the day assuring Rob (Antoine L. Smith) and Michael they are “unobtrusively” there to record MJ’s process of putting together his Dangerous World Tour. Frost’s Jackson quietly explains that the tour to promote his album Dangerous will travel four continents excluding the U.S. and Canada in the hope of raising $100 million for his newly established charity Heal the World Foundation to help children and the environment.
Immediately, the strains and pressures of conflict between the media’s mission to raise dirt, versus the sensitive artist and the private individual who yearn to be understood are manifest. Behind MJ’s back Rachel affirms to Alejandro that she wants to delve into his personal struggles, blowing by his art. It is the reason why they insinuated themselves into the rehearsal studios with the guise of filming his tour preparations. Once again, MJ is trusting and allows her to stay to publicize the tour.
Intriguingly, Nottage points out that the documentarian attempts cinema veritae. However, by the end of MJ we see this is a blind. Rachel gets “what she wants.” She has overheard a conversation by MJ’s close associates Rob (Antoine L. Smith) and Nick (Ramone Nelson) about his taking too many painkillers because of the accident filming a Pepsi commercial. Instead of concentrating on his music, though she says she will be fair, we understand “fair” means not necessarily giving MJ the benefit of the doubt. It is “The Price of Fame” that he learns from his father and without which he couldn’t perform. Regardless, it is a cul de sac in which “You Can’t Win,” sung by Berry Gordy (Ramone Nelson) and teenage Michael (Tavon Olds-Sample).
By the conclusion of MJ, we discover that “facts,” too can be twisted into untruths, and what is called for and never pursued by the media is understanding and empathy. Thus, as a theme media exploitation manifests three minutes into MJ, revealing what dogged him and grew to an insanity by the end of his life. The media’s rapacious commercialism to get “the exclusive” scandal to tear down the myth it grudgingly helped to create is integral to MJ. The constant struggle with the media later strengthened him to transcend every barrier institutional racism put up to thwart him in exploitative cruelty that Jackson later excoriated and exposed, using his songs as a weapon to beat back injustice, planet devastation, global child trafficking and more.
In a perfect meld of music and dance numbers, Nottage’s book is the skeleton upon which the creative team of Jason Michael Webb (music direction, orchestrations, arrangements), David Holcenberg (music supervision, orchestrations, arrangements), and Christopher Wheeldon (director, choreographer) sculpt the greatness of Michael Jackson’s artistry in his humanity. Songs represented are from all of his albums; in alphabetical order they include (ABC, Bad, Beat it, Billie Jean, Black or White, Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough, Keep the Faith, Rock With You, Smooth Criminal, The Way You Make Me Feel, Wanna Be Startin’ Something) to name only a few. With Thriller (look at how his father in costume moves off stage into the nightmare world which emerges from his imagination) how the song is incorporated with his living, awake nightmares in his own life at this point in time is just fantastic.
The set design (Derek McLane) exemplifies MJ’s inner and outer conflicts magnificently, in vibrant colors for the dynamic award winning numbers. They even get the opening propulsion up from the trap under the stage for a huge WOW! It signifies MJ successfully got his crew to do this for his Dangerous tour. See the production MJ for this rush of excitement, and explosive fun surprise. Or look it up on YouTube if you are not coming to NYC.
For the “smaller” intimate moments in the Jackson family home, the design is simpler, but functional and appropriate to the time. The retro look continued for the Soul Train vignette is heartwarming as the introductory music opens, reminding us of our youth and the time in the nation where black entertainers like Michael rarely crossed over. They had to appear on Soul Train for publicity. The lighting (Natasha Katz), complementing the set design for the maximum striking “fantastical,” especially with the “Thriller” number that just kills it are all other-worldly, as Paul Tazewell’s costumes provide the fearful/graveyard monster touch. The costumes of course are so varied, but all are MJ. Importantly, Gareth Owen’s sound design is spot on so the lyrics are clear, the music strongly wonderful.
Peter Negrini’s production design, Charles LaPointe’s wig and hair design, Joe Dulude II’s make-up design all thrust the actors and especially Myles Frost into glory and provide the unity of spectacle this production so fabulously renders. Enough cannot be said about Myles Frost’s portrayal that is emotionally devastating because he is Michael Jackson’s beating heart and so gratefully appreciated for his amazing talents and will to become MJ for each of the nights of the week. Shepherded by Christopher Wheeldon’s masterful direction and thrilling, hot choreography, they are MJ‘s lifeblood along with the cast who entertain us to their last nerve. All are nonpareil.
We see that in the songs in his later life, MJ attempts to overthrow the forces that exemplify the worst manifestations of greed, pernicious exploitation, hypocrisy, falsehood and hatred in the culture and in his personal life. What he went through first with the media which built him up to destroy him, we have witnessed these past years in the propaganda used to destroy in the service of furthering others’ hidden agendas, regardless of the facts in this heightened time of political power plays.
As the last individual walks away from the Neil Simon Theatre, after seeing MJ, they should leave with the knowledge that what Michael Jackson represented to fans, foes, colleagues and those nearest and dearest to him is incalculable. Whether one scorned, predatorized, idolized, exploited, manipulated, in short any action word you might use to exemplify how people related to him, Michael Jackson impacted all of us through his music, his humanity and his tragedy. Lynn Nottage, the actors and the creative team have done a sensational and dazzling job of assisting Myles Frost in bringing the legend to life.
Finally, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. With regard to Michael Jackson and the production’s greatness, this scripture seems appropriate to leave you with.
For tickets and times go to the MJ website: https://mjthemusical.com/