“If I’m not there to receive these ideas, God might give them to Prince,” Michael Jackson said once (to the director of This Is It, the documentary about rehearsals for his ill-fated farewell tour). A variation of the line plays as a punchline in the new Broadway musical MJ The Musical, one of several pieces of dialogue taken straight from his interviews or song lyrics. Score one for authenticity.
Prince and Michael Jackson are the highest tentpoles of Black pop superstardom from the ’80s and ’90s this side of Whitney Houston. But when Prince released his first album, Jackson had already been used to number one hits, Beatlemania levels of fame and popularity for nine years. MJ shares the dramatic highs and lows of Jackson’s historic career up through 1992 rehearsals for the Dangerous World Tour, staging some of the most well-known African-American music on Broadway since Motown: The Musical or Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations.
MJ, written by Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, begins with the star doing a dynamic run-through of “Beat It” with his dancers and quickly settles into the plot: an MTV reporter searching for a deeper story than Jackson’s media-averse, soundbite answers reveal. Lead actor Myles Frost (of Netflix’s Family Reunion) nails all of the vigorous choreography and plays a mid-30s M.J. mainly by balling both fists, leading with his forehead (head down, eyes up) and speaking soft as a feather.
The MJ story finds its pathos in Joe Jackson, the late patriarch of the Jackson family, whom the play largely redeems as much as Lifetime’s recent authorized Janet Jackson documentary attempts. The play paints Papa Joe—who passed away four years ago—as a notoriously unforgiving taskmaster, but Nottage serves a twist by making the link between Michael Jackson’s demanding perfectionism (running his dancers through the motions) with his father’s unrelenting expectations.
The production acknowledges the original video choreography of Michael Peters, Gregg Burke and Vincent Paterson in MJ’s program. But with Halloween’s annual “Thriller” flashmobs desensitizing us all a little bit to those amazing moves, it’s refreshing that a few alterations were made (to “Thriller” in particular) by the musical's director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon.
Most major milestones of Michael Jackson’s overly documented lifespan are accounted for here: the Jacksons’ flight from Motown; producer Quincy Jones nicknaming him “Smelly”; the Off the Wall Grammy Awards snub and Thriller retribution; the Pepsi commercial disaster; even his growing addiction to Demerol afterwards. What’s only alluded to (predictably) are his child molestation allegations, which resurfaced even recently as the subject of HBO’s Leaving Neverland (2019).
Produced “by special arrangement with the Michael Jackson estate” according to the Playbill, no holds were barred reproducing his famous wardrobe choices (courtesy of designer Paul Tazwell) and his even more famous discography—solo hits (“Thriller,” “Bad”), Jackson 5 hits (“ABC,” “I’ll Be There”), The Wiz hits (“Ease on Down the Road”), outtakes (“Price of Fame”), fan favorites (“Smooth Criminal”) and not-so-favorites (“Tabloid Junkie”). Though the whole enterprise sometimes feels like an excuse for dancing in the aisles, Michael Jackson's fans certainly won’t leave disappointed.