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Why I am Shook by Broadway's MJ

Updated: Jul 31, 2023

I just saw the Broadway musical MJ, about the life of the King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson. I have oh-so-many thoughts about it, as per usual, when it comes to me and Broadway musicals, and my reaction is probably not exactly what one might expect.

First of all, what extraordinary performers! Understudy Aramie Payton as MJ performed more like a Tony nominee than an understudy. We’re obviously all going to come with a little hesitation to see someone take on the role of one of the greatest performers of all time. I wasn’t expecting him to nail it, getting the essence of Michael’s moves and persona down so believably, but that he did (and I’m a child of the ’80’s, and was an MTV addict in my awkward years, so don’t mess with my memories of the real MJ!). All of the performers were excellent, and I’m not just saying that out of bias, being that Walter Russell III, the talented young actor playing Little Michael, is my voice student (and lit up the stage with his smile and stage presence every time). Tavon Olds-Sample also shined bright as Micheal (Michael Jackson in his late teen/early adult years). The dancing was phenomenal. The sequences were LIT. Beautiful direction. And the sub-woofer itself deserves a Tony - I think it made my seat shake to the beat.

Now for my take on the whole thing. NY Times critic, Jesse Green, complained of the show being too white-washed a portrayal of the late King of Pop. It did feel to me more like a show you’d see somewhere like Epcot Center, where the objective is to learn information about a person rather than the really tell their story. That said, I don’t need to see gratuitous or graphic details about Michael Jackson’s life, nor do I desire to see any more of his skeletons unearthed just to give the public further opportunities to judge a deceased man’s character, simply for the satisfaction of doing so. But what struck me was something different.

Why are we telling Michael Jackson’s story now?

There’s the question that ought to come to mind about this show, which is, “Why are we telling Michael Jackson’s story now?” I don’t know the answer, and it does feel like random timing to me. But what strikes me is the blatant exploitation of this man’s life for the sake of us all being entertained. He gave all of himself constantly for his art, so that we, the audience, could have a life-changing experience every time he performed. And what was the cost to him? His very life.

He clearly lived his life in his music and dance, living at his fullest when he was performing in front of an audience. It was his escape from pain and people who used and abused him, and served as an escape of sorts - the one area of the world he felt he could control, and in which he could express his true self. What the musical seemed to show clearly was that the pressure put on him by his father drove him ultimately to his drug addiction that ultimately took his life (the musical doesn’t get as far as his last moments, but we all know where the pill-popping ultimately leads). (Spoiler alert:) In the end of the musical, the one story element that comes around to bring some crumb of closure is that his father seems to have been the inspiration for the demon/zombies famously featured in his Thriller video. Which makes sense, and made for a brilliant tying together of his personal life and his artistry.

But why are we watching this and enjoying it? After the latter Thriller sequence with this reveal, the musical staging and effects were all so electrifying, the audience burst into uproarious applause, some standing on their feet, almost stopping the show. I, on the other hand, sat bawling my eyes out. I wanted to clap for the extraordinary performers, but I was so disturbed within me at what that sequence revealed. A child trying to escape the clutches of his father’s control may have found some freedom in his own artistic and career choices, but could never escape the demonic power of that influence, which took him into adulthood, into pill-popping, and led to his untimely end. Then what was the musical’s response to this? The sequence ended with Michael standing alone, after supposedly conquering this demon (although it’s not possible to conquer any demon without the power of Jesus Christ, which was not portrayed, thus I didn’t find the moment victorious at all), soon accompanied by the musical intro to the final song of the show, Man in the Mirror, arranged as a full ensemble, meant-to-uplift-finale number. So the answer to being demonized and trapped by his father’s influence his whole life was to look at himself and make a change? Nuh-uh, that’s not how it works.

Maybe we, the audience, are the ones who should look at ourselves and make a change. We’re the ones consuming and consuming with no regard for the human beings in the spotlight. We take and we take what they give because it feeds our souls for a moment, allowing us to continually be distracted from our own problems and character flaws. And then, when we find out some gossip about them, we judge and we judge, as if it’s our right. According to the story, and probably true in life, there were people surrounding Michael Jackson who were concerned about him. But forgive me for getting convicting here in a musical theater blog, I can’t help but consider that our (as in, Americans) voracious appetite to never be bored and never face our own hearts and constantly have a means of artistic fulfillment through these brilliant, talented human beings - as if all that matters is their brilliance and talent, and not their own hearts or lives - might also make us partly culpable for their downfall. Perhaps it’s time to turn away from entertainment as a way of feeding us, and instead fill ourselves with, oh, I don’t know, perhaps more compassion towards others for starters. Maybe turn our attention more towards people we actually know, rather than feeding like parasites off of humans we’ve turned into icons and idols to be worshiped.

Maybe we, the audience, are the ones who should look at ourselves and make a change.

Perhaps Michael Jackson’s soul wasn’t the only casualty of our worshiping him, but our own as well. This might sound a little harsh, but partly why I’m bothered by the timing of this musical is because Michael Jackson died merely thirteen years ago of a drug overdose, from what we know. Many of us still have the memory of his talent and persona still fresh in our minds. If we truly cared about the person, shouldn’t we care more about what went wrong in his life? But by hooting and hollering at a musical biopic that entertains us by trying to mimic him, it felt to me that we are continuing to consume his music at his expense for the sake of our own pleasure, but this time without him even being around to receive the honor for it. On the flip side, the rosiest way to look at it might be that for those who miss him, this is a nostalgia piece through which we can continue to celebrate him. And if we are looking for something artistically extraordinary, it makes sense to draw source material from one of the greatest artists to ever live. But is this what Broadway has boiled down to now: nostalgia and rehashing the art of the deceased? So that we can continue to exploit and idolize them, even after they're gone? I'm still waiting for the change we're gonna make to see every person - even celebrities - as human beings, and not something to be used.

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