MJ, a megawatt new jukebox musical on Michael Jackson which opened on Broadway this week, is from the outset a dubious proposition. There is, first of all, the challenge of finding new things to say about an artist who is both ubiquitous – his music and dancing elemental to modern pop – and famously inscrutable. And then there’s the permanent stain on any mention of Jackson’s legacy: the allegations of child sexual abuse, detailed at length in the disturbing, meticulous 2019 HBO documentary Leaving Neverland. (The Jackson estate, which collaborated on the development of MJ the Musical, vehemently denies all allegations; Jackson was acquitted of child molestation in 2005.) If your head is not in the sand, there’s no way to enter the Neil Simon Theatre without a load of uncomfortable baggage.
MJ the Musical, directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon from a book by the Pulitzer-winning dramatist Lynn Nottage, mostly ignores that baggage via an electric and absorbing spin through Jackson’s career. It’s a rollicking parade of hits, vocal high points, and a sanitized spin through Jackson’s life that sketches demons without filling them in. It’s also a discomfiting experience, in both what’s obviously left off-stage (this is a commercial Broadway musical which ejected a Variety reporter for asking cast about the allegations at the premiere) and its portrayal of Michael Jackson as a lonely Peter Pan in turmoil. The tone is triumphant; the story is a tragedy.
MJ opens in 1992, in the final rehearsals for the Dangerous tour, a decision which bypasses many of Jackson’s infamous tabloid stories – the hyperbaric chamber, Bubbles the chimp, his disappearing nose; also the molestation trial and his death from a cocktail of prescription medications in 2009. MJ (an outstanding Myles Frost), as his team calls him, is on edge, making extensive last-minute edits played for uneasy laughs. Unbeknown to him, his tour manager, Rob (Quentin Earl Darrington, who doubles as Joe Jackson), has permitted an MTV journalist, Rachel (Whitney Bashor), and a cameraman, Alejandro (Gabriel Ruiz), to film rehearsals.
The tension is obvious – the dancers are overworked (yet still sinuous, enjoyable to watch), the tour is hemorrhaging funds and MJ is reliant on painkillers. As Rachel presses, MJ begins to reflect on his life, prompting several seamless, Technicolor flashback sequences that lift the pall of what we now know about Jackson. There’s Little Michael (an excellent Christian Wilson, and in other performances Walter Russell III) in the Jackson 5, coaxed into the spotlight by his older brothers, abusive and demeaning father Joe, and pliant mother Katherine (Ayana George, whose stunning voice prompted cheers from the audience multiple times). There’s Motown and Soul Train and teenage Michael (a remarkable Tavon Olds-Sample) busting at the seams with creative energy and insecurities; there’s Quincy Jones (Apollo Levine) and Thriller and the eight Grammys and Bad.
This roll through the hits, like Jackson the pop star, casts an alluring spell. At the performance I attended, audience shouts of “Sing it!” and “Whew!” peppered the performance, the magic of Jackson’s art, even when embodied by others, still that potent. The spectacle is effective; a reimagining of Thriller as a haunted carnival of MJ’s psychological demons – the toll of perfectionism and the ghosts of bad ideologies with a phantasmagoric Joe Jackson presiding – brought the house down. Sound design by Gareth Owen layered a bass so thick I thought it gave me a heart arrhythmia (in a good way). Orchestration and arrangement by Jason Michael Webb and David Holcenberg, lighting by Natasha Katz, and costumes Paul Tazewell are Technicolor, whimsical and exact. If you can forget, it’s a fun ride.
As for that forgetting: it’s not total. There’s no mention of “abuse” but there is a demand from a reporter in a scrum – “What do you have to say about the recent allegations?” – wedged in with questions about his tour, fame and plastic surgery. But it’s a small out – the elephant in the room cast in the dimmest light, nodded at once or twice.
Though the musical – and the audience, in the show I attended, as I imagine all the others – are firmly on the side of Jackson as the hero and creative visionary, there are glimpses of different visions: Jackson the mercurial star on the wane, the addict, the unreasonable boss, the eerily childish adult, the exacting perfectionist, the pop star who spent lavishly and traveled with an unusual entourage. “Who is this family he wants to bring on tour?” a member of his beleaguered staff asks, the other moment when the script gestures to the shadow looming overhead. Frost accomplishes the impressive feat of embodying the King of Pop – moonwalk, willowy yet commanding presence, delicate voice – as both haunted human and alien, unsure what it means to love and live. His MJ is a fragile stress ball, an electric performer and a strange creature.
“I want to keep this about my music,” he tells Rachel in one interview, when she presses on his feelings. MJ the Musical is bound by design and collaboration with the estate to that request, honored to at times mesmerizing, ultimately discomforting effect. Certainly many viewers will abide by the same compartmentalization and have a guiltless good time, and others, myself included, will find that impossible.