Friday, December 1

MJ: The Musical, a Thriller or just Dangerous?

So, this week we are going to talk about the age-old question of separating the art from the artist, especially when that artist is Michael Jackson and especially now when a big budget glossy stage musical about his life has just opened on Broadway.

In brief, MJ: The Musical tells the story of Jackson preparing for his 1992 Dangerous World tour, it was a big moment for the artist, his Thriller album was ground-breaking, and he was feeling the pressure to live up to his past success, so all effort was going in to make the Dangerous Tour one for the history books. The show splits between the rehearsal room and flashbacks to his past, it shows his relationship with his father Joe, his rise through The Jackson 5, battles with the media, pain pills, perfectionism and more. So far so ordinary for this kind of show. However, the big elephant in the room that has circled the production since it was first announced has been about the accusations levelled at Jackson by young boys who said he molested them.

And that is where we find ourselves today, an argument still very much fresh if the reviews are anything to go by. The show opened the other night to mixed reviews from critics, some praising the spectacle and energy of the show as well as the performances and of course the music, others seemed more interested in telling us that this whole endeavour was wrong.

Photo: Matthew Murphy

We have seen outrage on the theatre message boards from some screaming ‘how can you have a show running about a paedophile?’  Some of the critics have shouted the same (more on that later) but we have to remember that as unusual as Jackson was and him sharing beds with children IS disturbing, he was never found guilty of any crime (although paying them off sure didn’t look good). Michael is dead, gone, meaning we will never, ever, know the truth, especially when it came to recent allegations, and that’s what makes his legacy a difficult one.

Michael’s talent has never been questioned, and nor should it be, the man was an artistic genius, the likes of which we haven’t seen since from a male artist, but can we appreciate the art even though the artist was accused of one of the worst crimes imaginable?

People of my age grew up on Jackson and Madonna, the two major MTV artists who changed the game (Madonna is still going today, one of the last icons). We tried to moonwalk in our living rooms, we knew all the choreography to Thriller and we devoured his Off The Wall, Bad, Thriller and Dangerous albums, he was part of our childhoods, our memories are often tied to him in some way, and that is something that is impossible to erase, even if we wanted to, and I don’t.

The problem with MJ: The Musical is simple, even without seeing it, and that problem is it tells the story of Michael Jackson. The Jackson estate is one of the main producers on the show, meaning it was never going to go into any of the charges levelled against him, in fact some have accused the show of trying to rehabilitate his image… sorry Jackson family, that is never going to happen.

Photo: Matthew Murphy

People made their minds up long ago about the man, no amount of rehab will change that.

However, his musical and video output is something that could have been repackaged and presented to an audience that separated the art from the artist, and it’s somewhat bewildering that all involved chose not to go in that direction.

Years ago, I remember sitting with one of my friends Richard and having this conversation, how could a musical featuring the works of Michael exist today? The answer was simple, DO NOT MAKE IT ABOUT HIM. Every time we hear one of his songs we want to dance, but the moment we hear his name, it causes a conflict in our brains. The easiest thing in the world would have been to create a story around his music and his video visuals. Gangsters in the Smooth Criminal video could have been a perfect background, hell, even his thriller video could have been expanded on to make a musical featuring all of his hits, his videos were incredibly theatrical, right down to the lighting. Instead, however, The Jackson estate decided that telling his story on stage is what people would want, and sure, that might be true of his fans, but will it be true for regular audiences?

Here in the UK, we had Thriller Live, the show was basically a celebration of his music performed by lookalikes. When the show toured the UK and landed in London in 2008, it was playing to average audiences, people didn’t seem particularly interested, but then he died, and the show sold out night after night and played in London until closing in 2020. The show wasn’t about Michael as a person, but instead celebrated his work, even that made some people uncomfortable, but it was clearly a better way of presenting his output. After all, if no storyline, characters etc. exist, then we aren’t as outraged that the allegations were skipped over.

One can’t help thinking that The Jackson estate saw the success of Thriller Live and thought that audiences would be ready to re embrace him, and that’s how we ended up with M.J the Musical. Two problems however seem to have been overlooked, one, allegations like this are serious, they don’t just go away over time, especially when the Leaving Neverland documentary came out just a couple of years back, and two, today’s society is way more brutal when it comes to artists doing wrong (we cancel people over one bad word today). The team at M.J may have created a good show, and friends of mine who have seen it really enjoyed it, but it could never ever escape the allegations when they are purposely not addressed in the musical.

Photo: Matthew Murphy

The oncoming criticism must have been expected from everybody working on the show, nobody went into this blind, but one of the biggest surprises has come from the critics themselves. All of us all over the world know what Michael was accused of, we have eyes and ears, so for critics to spend so much time talking about it and not talking about the show itself seemed like it was a chance to take out the pen and use it as a knife to slit the throat of the artist. Critics, we don’t want to hear about your personal opinion of the man, because we already have one ourselves, we come to you for your opinions on the book, the music, the direction, the choreography etc. if they can’t even deliver that, then why even bother having them at all? Honestly, I’ve learned more about the show from the message boards and blog reviews than I did from any of the professional critics, and that is a sad state of affairs.

Now, we didn’t cancel Hamilton over its white washing of things like George Washington owning around 300 slaves, we didn’t crucify the countless shows based on Roald Dahl novels, a man who was a self-admitted anti Semite as well as a racist and sexist, so I guess an argument exists to accept MJ.  However, the differences are that Lin Manuel Miranda addressed the controversy over Hamilton and Roald Dahls stage adaptations were not about the man himself.

So, can a musical like MJ exist and succeed in today’s world of cancel culture? Well, it exists, it’s happened, the succeed part however is yet to be seen, at the moment the audiences seem to be largely Jackson fans, but how long can they keep it running?

Jacksons work deserves to be showcased, it’s unique and has that little sprinkle of magic that’s made it stand the test of time, but the man himself is far more complicated, and a musical was never going to cover the dark sides of the King of Pop, especially a jukebox musical which are designed with nostalgia for the music and time in mind (the horror of Tina Turner’s life with Ike has all the weight of a feather in the Tina musical). MJ has clearly been designed with that in mind, especially setting the show in 1992, one year before the allegations came to light. The show clearly wants you to relive the feelings you got when you first heard his music or saw him dance, but just as the memories of Jacksons music make us want to dance, it’s also asking us to clear our minds of anything that Jackson was accused of, memories are tough and not so easy to switch off.

So, what do you think folks, would you see MJ: The Musical?

Do you think they have gone the wrong way by making it about him?  Let me know.

Till next time.