Broadway’s ‘MJ’ zooms in on Michael Jackson’s genius while neglecting his abuse
Musical dances around some of the ugly facts of his biography
One of the first things a photography student learns about is a concept known as depth of field. If a person focuses a lens on an object in their foreground, they must compromise on rendering the objects farther behind it.
Depth of field, and how it’s employed, is about choice — the choice of what the photographer wishes to emphasize in the picture they are making, and what they are comfortable allowing to recede into a blur.
In MJ, the Broadway musical with 10 Tony nominations, including one for its book writer, Lynn Nottage, the sharp focus is on Michael Jackson as a genius of music, dance and creativity. His well-documented predations, addictions and status as a survivor of abuse remain largely obscured in metaphor and subtext.
The show is set in 1992 during rehearsals for Jackson’s upcoming Dangerous world tour, which is to say, well before Vanity Fair published a feature on the public allegations of sexual misconduct against Jackson, first made by a teenage boy in 1993. Jackson settled a civil suit against him, brought by the boy and his family, for $25 million in 1994.
From this base camp, the biographical jukebox show uses flashbacks to various eras of Jackson’s life and career. Nottage (a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who remarkably had three shows on Broadway this season, including this one) and director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon (the Tony-winning choreographer of An American in Paris and former New York City Ballet soloist) keep MJ moving briskly, though it’s still interrupted by stretches of didactic biographical details delivered by three characters who play Jackson at different ages. One is the precocious, Afro-ed scene-stealer of The Jackson 5 (played on alternating nights by Walter Russell III or Christian Wilson), the second is the shy adolescent who struggles with his nose and acne (played by Tavon Olds-Sample), and the third is a 30-something Michael (played by the Tony-nominated Myles Frost) ensconced in an artistic rivalry with Prince.
It’s the adult Michael who interacts with Rachel (Whitney Bashor), a television journalist serving as an audience surrogate, accompanied by her camera operator, Alejandro (Gabriel Ruiz). Perhaps it’s mere coincidence, but in style and appearance, Ruiz resembles Martin Bashir, the infamous interlocutor with dubious ethics who delivered two of the most explosive celebrity specials to land on television: An Interview with HRH The Princess of Wales (1995) and Living With Michael Jackson (2003). The camera Alejandro is always wielding turns out to be the show’s most consequential prop.
Frost delivers an astonishingly tender and grounded performance as adult Michael, offset by moments of childlike levity. His dancing and stage presence are impeccable, and if there is one thing the show is unambiguous about in its homage to Jackson, it’s the King of Pop’s reputation as an artistically probing, ambitious perfectionist. This includes some unexpected moments — a dance interlude of Jackson’s various influences clears the stage for tributes to Fred Astaire, the Nicholas Brothers and Bob Fosse. Another vignette provides a quick look into the process of building a pop hit from scratch.
There is a loose storyline — Jackson is willing to risk financial ruin to deliver the concert he sees in his mind. His handlers, including his manager Rob (Quentin Earl Darrington, who also doubles as father Joe) would prefer he play it safe with his cash. At the same time, Jackson is surrounded by enablers too scared to confront him about a painkiller addiction — a clumsy stand-in for the rumors that Jackson was sexually abusing children. Finally, said handlers can no longer ignore the problems their cash cow appears to be harboring because Rachel confronts them with audio they’ve spoken into a hot mic about Jackson’s addiction.
This confrontation does not go well, and Nottage and Wheeldon put their full force behind the idea that Jackson was persecuted by the media with one of the most visually astonishing numbers in the show. A ticked-off Jackson stands on a platform, addressing a phalanx of relentless reporters dressed in black trench coats set off with newsprint detailing on the lapels and collars, exquisitely rendered by costume designer Paul Tazewell (Mr. Saturday Night, Ain’t Too Proud, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, Escape to Margaritaville). Above and behind them, the stage is filled with oversize shards of glass. Their source is a broken camera lens. And the song married to this tableau? “They Don’t Care About Us.”
When the subject of MJ is the media’s voracious and parasitic relationship with Jackson’s celebrity, tragedy and descent into inscrutable weirdness, the focus is sharp. It’s the center of MJ’s depth of field. But when allegations of Jackson’s predations must be confronted, it’s with the soft focus of stage metaphor. A show teeming with dialogue that explains Jackson’s biography suddenly turns abstract, and its audience is expected to read between the lines. The closest MJ comes to acknowledging the accusations of children like Wade Robson and James Safechuck, the two accusers who appear in Leaving Neverland, is with its spectacular rendering of “Thriller” and the introspective, contemplative ballad that follows it, “Man in the Mirror.” “Thriller” and its groundbreaking music video was about turning into a monster with the encroachment of evening and the dangers that lurk in the dark. For this number, scenic designer Derek McLane turns the stage into a breathtakingly creepy three-dimensional rendering of the carnival show that graces the cover of the Dangerous album. But even then, the show hedges — for it’s Rob/Joe who undergoes the transformation to werewolf while Jackson remains safe from any literal implications.
Again, it’s a choice, and one that’s backed up with documented experiences. “[Joe] didn’t steal money,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Margo Jefferson writes in her 2019 book On Michael Jackson. “He stole Michael’s birthright: a father’s love.” In the book’s introduction, Jefferson declares, “Molestation and abuse are harsh, unambiguous words, but we can’t fully understand them unless we understand that they are often inseparable from the lures and ambiguities of seduction. So we must not separate the acts and aura of seduction from the acts and aura of abuse.”
But not everyone wishes to face this. Certainly not Jackson’s estate (the show is produced by Lia Vollack Productions “by special arrangement with The Estate of Michael Jackson”). Nor his baby sister Janet who, in a 2022 multipart Lifetime documentary, denies that Jackson ever committed any wrongdoing. And not the adoring fans shelling out $200-plus for an orchestra seat.
MJ presents us with a question of conscience: Is there any other way to make commercial theater about a figure with predations that ruined the lives of others? Especially when his fame, talent and money did a great deal to both create those opportunities for predation, and allow him to escape accountability for them?
It’s difficult, because Jackson could credibly claim unfair treatment, not just from the American tabloid media, but from his own family. He did live his life in the viewfinders of seemingly ever-present cameras, and he also invited them in. And he did create so much visual and musical magic, a legacy that contributed to the blossoming and appreciation for later acts such as Lil Nas X, Usher, Chris Brown, Destiny’s Child and Justin Timberlake among others. When the instantly identifiable rhythms of “Blame It on the Boogie” or “Billie Jean” or “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ ” rise from the orchestra pit, it’s nearly impossible to contain the urge to bob one’s head or tap one’s foot, to “just enjoy yourself/Groove/Let the madness in the music get to you.”
And so MJ absolves the audience from thinking too much about the grime lurking beneath that sparkling gloved hand, with a euphoric groove that thrums in the chest and pours into the streets of Manhattan. What does harm reduction even look like in this instance? What’s the depth of field for that?
MJ is currently running at New York’s Neil Simon Theatre.