During his lifetime, Michael Jackson was celebrated as the King of Pop. But he has also become a figure of endless controversy, stemming in large part from accusations that he sexually abused minors.
Now, more than a decade after his death, a new chapter is being written in the Jackson saga. Or rather, a new Broadway musical.
“MJ,” a biographical show that features much of Jackson’s catalog, from “Beat It” to “Billie Jean,” opens Feb. 1, after a nearly two-month preview period. It comes at a critical time for Broadway, which has been trying to regain its place at the box office since the industry restarted in mid-2021 following an unprecedented pandemic shutdown lasting more than a year.
But the musical Jackson, produced at an announced budget over $20 million, is far from a surefire hit, even given the pop icon’s impressive track record. (Jackson Earnings surpassed $4 billion in his lifetimewith at least $2 billion more since his death in 2009, according to Forbes.)
The obvious question: Given the controversy surrounding Jackson, which only grew with the release of the 2019 HBO documentary “Leaving Neverland,” will audiences avoid the Broadway show on principle?
To complicate matters further: the show is produced in association with the Jackson estate, which has led some to question how honest a portrayal can be. Indeed, while the musical, with a book by two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, doesn’t shy away from painting a picture of Jackson as a complex, even troubled individual, it doesn’t deal either plus accusations of sexual violence. abuse in any way.
“MJ” officials declined to speak to MarketWatch for this story. John Branca, co-executor of Jackson’s estate, did not respond for comment.
Many theater veterans are nonetheless optimistic about the production’s chances. “I think the popularity of his music will definitely sustain the musical for a while,” said Craig Laurie, executive vice president of RWS Entertainment Group, a New York-based theater and event production company.
““I think the popularity of (Jackson’s) music will definitely sustain the musical for quite a while.””
Robert Thompson, a pop culture expert who serves as director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, says that while some artists are paying the price for past controversies, Jackson is “in a league of its own.” .
“The kind of rules that normally apply seem to be different in Michael Jackson’s case,” Thompson adds.
Like others, Thompson is quick to point out that some of this may stem from Jackson’s 2005 acquittal after being charged with seven counts of child molestation two years earlier. “That’s an important fact,” Thompson said.
There’s also no denying the fervent attachment Jackson’s many fans have for the star – and it’s something that’s impossible not to notice during a performance of “MJ.” As this reporter observed at a recent preview, the crowd displayed a bow more associated with a church service than a Broadway show. It also doesn’t hurt that Myles Frost, the actor who plays the adult Jackson in the musical, embodies him so fully.
Sources familiar with the show note that there were no protests outside the theater during “MJ” performances. Compare that to the uproar surrounding a 2020 pre-pandemic Broadway revival of “West Side Story,” when protesters demanded the dismissal of actor Amar Ramasar for his involvement in a sex scandal at New York City Ballet two years prior.
Not that everyone is lining up to see “MJ”. Some theater professionals and industry observers criticized the project since its announcement in 2018. Or, at the very least, they questioned his chances of success.
Johnny Oleksinski, who covers entertainment for the New York Post, observed that “Audiences don’t want to think about child abuse in a musical jukebox on Broadway. Certainly not.”
Chris Peterson, founder of the OnStage Blog website, says the theater community has looked too often at issues of sexual abuse – and that makes the existence of the musical ‘MJ’ all the more troubling. “It just sends a terrible message,” he says.
But Peterson wouldn’t be surprised if the show draws large audiences. Echoing what others have said, he notes that Jackson’s fanbase is bigger than ever. “They will show themselves,” he concludes.