In the first of several such scenes in MJ, the new Broadway musical about one of the pop’s most explosive and, now, polarizing figures, a fictional MTV reporter tries to get Michael Jackson to open up. Jackson, played by Myles Frost down to the trademark billowy white shirt, curly ponytail, and feathery voice, demurs: “I want to keep this about music.” To which the reporter responds, “Is it possible to separate your life from your music?”
Returning to the topic later in the show, Jackson also tells her, “Listen to my music. It gives you all the answers you need.” Yet that original question hovers throughout the two and half hours of MJ, finally premiering on Broadway after a lengthy Covid-relayed delay. Bio-musicals have come to be a tourist-friendly tradition on Broadway. But from its equally beloved and debated subject to its often inventive structure, MJ is far more unconventional — and far more complicated — than previous shows on the sagas of the Four Seasons, Cher or Carole King. You’ll leave the Neil Simon Theatre (where the show opens tonight) both on a giddy high from Jackson’s music but also grappling with what was and wasn’t incorporated.
Produced with the cooperation of Jackson’s estate, MJ makes it clear from the start where it won’t be venturing. As theatergoers are still finding their seats, cast members (portraying backup dancers, musicians and technicians) begin wandering onto the set, which is made to resemble a workaday warehouse space. It’s 1992, a few days before Jackson’s Dangerous tour is scheduled to start, and Jackson and his team are putting the finishing touches on the show. Also mimicking real life, they’re joined on this day by the above mentioned fictional MTV producer and her cameraman, there to make what the camera guy calls a “puff piece” promoting the tour. They’re promised behind-the-scenes access to watch the show come together and interview the notoriously press-shy star, who hasn’t granted an interview in (the show says) in 14 years.
Written by Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage and directed by Christopher Wheeldon, the British choreographer known for his work in the ballet world, MJ doesn’t completely dispense with the standard bio-musical narrative tradition. The show recreates some of Jackson’s career milestones, at least until 1992: rehearsing with the Jackson 5 in their home, meeting Berry Gordy (who signs them to Motown), collaborating with Quincy Jones on Off the Wall and Thriller, being handed Grammy after Grammy, reuniting with his brothers for the semi-botched Victory reunion tour.
As we watch Jackson and his team fine-tune the Dangerous show, those moments in time are woven into the story as flashbacks. A quick exchange with the MTV producer (played by Whitney Bashor) or a rehearsal of an older Jackson 5 hit triggers Jackson, pulling him back in time to remember either a happy or painful moment in his life. “It’s not the old songs,” he tells her of his reticence to sing his former group’s hits. “It’s the memories.”
The setup sounds clunky, but most of the transitions between past and present are seamless, thanks to Wheeldon and also to cast members portraying more than one role. As both the Dangerous tour director and Jackson’s overbearing father Joseph, Quentin Earl Darrington (who looks a bit like Dwayne Johnson’s less beefy brother) navigates between those roles in several scenes. A rehearsal of a Jackson 5 medley pulls Jackson back into his childhood: In one, he watches as his childhood self (exquisitely portrayed by Christian Wilson, one of two actors in that early-Michael role) and his mother (played by Anaya George) duet on “I’ll Be There.” The pained look on Frost’s face as he watches is among the show’s most poignant moments. That moment is one of several in which one of Jackson’s hits — like ”Human Nature” and “Stranger in Moscow” — is used astutely as a commentary on his mindset and actions, rather than just as a way to recreate a well-known performance. (That’s the case with “Billie Jean,” presented as if it’s straight out of of the Motown 25 special.) Forced to live up to a commitment to give a press conference to promote the tour, Jackson is surrounded by dark-lit “reporters” who resemble vampires, leading into a performance of “They Don’t Care About Us,” one of his angriest and most defensive songs.
Frost, who has appeared on The Voice and had a small role in the 2019 film All In, has clearly studied Jackson’s moves. He mimics the moonwalks and body ticks — the way Jackson could shrug each shoulder up and down or flick his wrist while performing. He doesn’t just capture his playfulness and pillow-soft voice but also the flashes of anger and frustration that would sometimes emerge when he spoke. The performance reminds you how much Jackson brought to pop, choreography and celebrity mystique. The show also benefits from the songs, which, like Frost’s performance, are largely note-for-note recreations: from Jackson 5 hits (“I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “Dancing Machine”) up through various songs from Jackson’s own catalog. There are some head-scratchers: During a scene in which Jackson is guilt-tripped into participating in the 1984 “Victory” tour with his brothers, the cast breaks into the O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money,” but one of the key tracks on Dangerous, “Remember the Time,” isn’t heard at all.
All that said, MJ doesn’t tell us anything we don’t know: The narrative is a collection of Jackson’s greatest character-shaping hits. We already know that Joseph Jackson was so driven and so hungry for a piece of fame that he hit or threatened his young son for seeming to disobey him. We know Michael wasn’t thrilled to partake in the “Victory” tour but went along with his father and brothers. We know he became addicted to painkillers thanks to having part of his scalp burned during that horrific 1984 soda commercial filming. We know that, by 1992, he was keeping up on business and was feeling the pressure to compete with hip hop, grunge and more recent pop acts. (“God will give the idea to Prince,” he says with a giggle when he tosses out a new production idea.)
During one of his “interviews,” Jackson lashes out at the press for the “lies,” prompting Rachel, the MTV producer, to respectfully confront him about the way he also works the media and may secretly want all that attention. But by and large, the portrait of Jackson is largely sympathetic. He’s a victim, worn down by the media, his addiction and his own ambitions, and relentlessly haunted by his relationship with his father. (As Rob the tour manager barks at him at one point, “You’re not eating or sleeping!”) We see him come down hard on one of his dancers or toss off so many new ideas for tour staging (a Jetpack!) that a business manager has to repeatedly barge into the rehearsals and tell him he’s spending too much. If Jackson is guilty of anything, MJ says, it’s being too creative and driven for his own good, all In his quest for a level of perfection that has its roots in Joe Jackson (in another flashback) mocking young Michael for his “big fat nose.”
And, of course, setting the story in 1992 allows the creators to completely sidestep the child-molestation accusations and lawsuits that began piling up a year later. (In 2005 Jackson was acquitted of all criminal charges.) That eruption led to the cancellation of the planned last leg of the Dangerous tour, since Jackson also claimed he’d become addicted to pills to cope with the stress. The only hint of this pending controversy is the moment when one of the tour executives, complaining about the runaway spending on the show, quickly asks about the “family” that will be accompanying Jackson on the road. The clear-cut villain remains his father. The darkest moment in MJ arrives during a late-show production number in which Jackson is chased around a hellscape set by a demonic figure, again played by Darrington. Is Darrington evoking Joseph Jackson or just one of the horror-movie monsters Jackson himself was drawn to? Either way, Jackson is left looking shell-shocked and traumatized. The closing special effect — no spoilers — rams home how world-conquering but alone he was.
MJ ends without any updates on Jackson’s life after 1992, which is likely to gratify some and infuriate others. As part of his posthumous rehabilitation effort, MJ wants you to remember all the best things about him and not dwell on what came next. You’d almost think Jackson died right after Dangerous and not 17 years later. And maybe in that way, this equally exhilarating and confounding show really does have it right: Whether you believe the allegations made against him or not, there’s no question that a part of Jackson left the building on those world stages nearly 30 years ago.