There is every reason in the world to do a Michael Jackson musical.
There is every reason in the world not to do a Michael Jackson musical.
Start with the plus column: Amazing dance possibilities, an amazing role for a charismatic actor, a matchless catalog of hits: “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” “Thriller,” “Bad,” “Don’t Stop ‘Till You Get Enough,” “ABC,” “I’ll Be There,” and on and on.
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“MJ: The Musical,” opening Feb. 1 at the Neil Simon Theatre (previews begin Dec. 6) will reportedly contain 25 songs.
It has a promising lead actor in Myles Frost, recently announced (the actor originally slated, Ephraim Sykes of “Hamilton” and “Ain’t Too Proud,” has left the cast). It has a much honored director-choreographer in the person of British Christopher Wheeldon, who is — as of 2016 — an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) .
It also has Michael Jackson. Or at least, his ghost.
Which brings us to the debit column.
That’s Michael Jackson as in “Leaving Neverland” — the acclaimed 2019 HBO documentary that showcased damning revelations about Jackson’s alleged history as a serial abuser of young boys.
He was acquitted of the charges in 2005, and the Jackson family has always insisted it was a frame-up. So have a multitude of die-hard fans. But the jury of public opinion — as opposed to the jury of the Santa Barbara County Superior Court — is still very much out. And “MJ: The Musical” has not been without controversy in the two years since the jukebox musical was announced.
To some, it’s a bit like announcing “Woody Allen: The Musical” or “Harvey Weinstein: The Musical.”
“There is a very large cloud over large portions of Michael Jackson’s life,” said Caseen Gaines, a Hackensack cultural historian and theater director whose recent book, “Footnotes,” deals with the history of Broadway’s first Black musical hit, 1921’s “Shuffle Along.”
“There are people who are able to divorce the art from the artist,” Gaines said. “I don’t know if I’m one of those people. For me, credible allegations against an artist tend to really sully my enjoyment of their work. Particularly when their work is so wrapped up in who they were as people. Woody Allen comes to mind. Bill Cosby comes to mind. Their position of power in their given industry was due to their art, and led directly to the actions they were accused of. I will be skipping ‘MJ: The Musical.’ “
There are other people who come down, very passionately, on the other side.
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Celeste Bateman is director of Newark’s Elmart Theatre Service, which has been running busses full of Black theatergoers to Broadway since 1969 (the company was co-founded by her mother). For more than a year, their activities have been curtailed by COVID. Now they can’t wait to get back to the orchestra seats. Their first show up on January 5: “MJ: The Musical.”
“I can tell you, if we use my group as a microcosm, it won’t be an issue,” Bateman said. “My community loves Michael Jackson — period. And Michael Jackson was never convicted of anything. They can ride on that.”
Plan of attack
The producers have been closed-mouthed about how — if at all — “MJ: The Musical” will deal with MJ: The Scandal. “The production is not commenting on the content of show as it is in development,” said a team spokesman, Rick Miramontez, to the New York Times. But given that the Jackson family sued HBO for $100 million, it’s reasonable to suppose they wouldn’t authorize a show that portrayed the superstar in a bad light.
One hint of the tack “MJ: The Musical” will take comes from the book of the show, by Pulitzer prize-winner Lynn Nottage (“Crumbs from the Table of Joy,” “Ruined”).
“MJ: The Musical” — originally called “Don’t Stop ‘Till You Get Enough” during its development period in Chicago — will focus on the backstage drama of a single tour, in 1992. The first allegations against Jackson surfaced in 1993.
“Is he guilty or not? I’m not sure,” said Erika Williams, a Hackensack resident and producer of concerts in the Bergen County area.
“In the end of the day, he had a very private life,” she said. “But maybe it would have been better to have had more of an opportunity to be a child when he was young, and not always try to relive his childhood when he was older.”
Yet none of this, she said, would be a deal-breaker, in terms of the Broadway show. “I would still go,” she said.
That’s the thing about Michael Jackson: whatever you think about him, there’s no difference of opinion about his music. Everyone loves it.
“Like everyone, I grew up with the music of Michael Jackson,” Gaines said. “I think that Michael Jackson is a musical genius. But he left a very complicated legacy.”
Jim Beckerman is an entertainment and culture reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to his insightful reports about how you spend your leisure time, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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