A few reviews of MJ the Musical, a significant new Broadway production on Michael Jackson, which debuted earlier this year, made reference to the same Jackson song from his discography. The New York Times' headline read, "In MJ, No One's Looking at the Man in the Mirror." The Guardian's headline read, "Mesmerizing procession of hits doesn't look in the mirror." The headline on AP News was more blunt: "Some thriller, much terrible," while the headline on Vulture was more specialised: "MJ Exists in a Hyperbaric Chamber of Denial." But across the board, detractors voiced displeasure at how the programme appeared to praise Jackson without much inquiry, ignoring the long-running accusations of child sex abuse against him.
Regardless, the production is a smash sensation and has garnered four Tony Awards. This week, it was revealed that MJ will debut in London's West End in 2024, which strikes me as odd. A new musical about Jackson, whose legacy has long been overshadowed, was it really necessary? If we did, according to the signs from Broadway, it wasn't this one.
It does appear that MJ's creative staff was aware of that query. The 1992 Dangerous tour has been chosen as the backdrop for the musical, noting that this is the year before any claims against Jackson were published in the media. When an obnoxious MTV reporter approaches to quiz him about his odd behaviour, he allegedly responds, "With respect, I want to keep this about my music." He certainly does.
The play was created by renowned playwright Lynn Nottage, whose play Sweat, which explored the demise of manufacturing in America's rustbelt, received numerous accolades. It was directed by Christopher Wheeldon, who brought a stylish An American Paris to the stage. But more importantly, Jackson's estate, who have consistently adamantly refuted any accusations, has collaborated in its production. Jukebox musicals frequently follow this pattern: without the estate's support, it can be challenging to obtain the rights to utilise an artist's songs, but it's a hard deal, so the plot avoids any potential conflict. A Variety reporter was reportedly kicked off the red carpet at the Broadway premiere for posing "tough questions."
What ought we to do with this magnificent art of troubled individuals? One of the most heated discussions of our day is this one. It cannot be disputed that Jackson produced groundbreaking, nearly flawless pop music. And that song is still there for anyone to listen to whenever they want. It's okay if you still adore it; it's also okay if you find it difficult to perform his music. Recently, I felt as though I was trapped in a place where no one had read the news in 20 years while listening to one of Jackson's best hits in a café. Of course, those are just my personal feelings, and everyone's relationship with Jackson's music is unique. But how we choose to interpret his life—and, more importantly, whether or not we decide to celebrate it unrebuked—is a very different decision. It's also the one that's more difficult to forgive after Leaving Neverland, the 2019 documentary that featured in-depth, heartbreaking accounts from two of Jackson's victims.
It's becoming more and more obvious that the typical biopic isn't appropriate for the time in which we find ourselves. In our protracted mood of reckoning, glossing over the more difficult behaviour of public or historical characters is perceived as a moral failure. It's too clean, too template-like. Similar to how jukebox musicals, which are simply biopics with songs added, are sometimes unsuited for this degree of depth. Consider Tina: The Tina Turner Musical addressed the domestic violence her ex-husband Ike Turner subjected her to. While it was good to see a popular mainstream musical tackle such a touchy subject, it sat strangely; at the show I attended, the actor who played Ike was jeered during the curtain call like a pantomime character.
Get Up Stand Up, the Bob Marley musical from the previous year, at least made an effort to address the reggae star's infamous womanising by handing some of his best songs to the female performers. Gabrielle Brooks, who played Rita, performed No Woman No Cry as a song of agony while playing Rita. Of course, claims of severe crimes are considerably different from dark experiences or unattractive traits. But the problem still exists: these plays are basically made to provide audiences with a good night out, so more complex elements frequently come off as tonally incongruous. In their review of MJ, The New York Times stated that the show's avoidance of more difficult issues actually detracts from its quality. The issue with "MJ" is ultimately not its moral stance, but rather how that stance undermines the film's worth as entertainment, according to Jesse Green.
The majority of us will get an immediate emotion upon hearing the name "Michael Jackson". Some think he was innocent, but others don't. Some people can appreciate his music, while others simply can't. Some people will spend money on a MJ ticket and have a great night, while others won't touch it with a 10-foot stick. The West End will probably adore the musical because it has averaged over $1m in weekly box office revenue on Broadway. Yes, the music will endure, but it's not at all clear how to tell the tale of the man himself.