During his life, Michael Jackson was celebrated as the king of pop. But he also became 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 the Jackson catalog, from “Beat It” to “Billie Jean,” opens on Feb. 1, following a nearly two-month preview period. It arrives at a critical moment for Broadway, which has been trying to regain its box-office footing since the industry’s mid-2021 restart following an unprecedented pandemic shutdown of more than a year.
But the Jackson musical, produced at a reported budget of $20 million-plus, is far from being a surefire success, even given the pop icon’s towering track record. (Jackson’s earnings topped $4 billion in his lifetime, with at least another $2 billion since his passing in 2009, according to Forbes.)
The obvious question: Given the controversy that surrounds Jackson, which only grew with the release of the 2019 HBO documentary “Leaving Neverland,” will audiences shun the Broadway show as a matter of principle?
Further complicating matters: The show is being produced in association with the Jackson estate, which has led some to question how honest a portrait it 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 also doesn’t address the charges of sexual abuse in any direct way.
Officials with “MJ” declined to speak with MarketWatch for this story. John Branca, co-executor of the Jackson estate, didn’t respond for comment.
Many theater veterans are nevertheless bullish on the production’s chances. “I think the popularity of his music will definitely sustain the musical for quite a while,” says Craig Laurie, an executive vice president of RWS Entertainment Group, a New York-based theatrical 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 is director of Syracuse University’s Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture, says that while some artists do pay a price for past controversies, Jackson is “in a category all his own.”
“The kind of rules that normally apply seem to be different in the case of Michael Jackson,” Thompson adds.
Like others, Thompson is quick to point out that may partly stem from Jackson’s acquittal in 2005 after being charged with seven counts of child molestation two years earlier. “That’s an important fact,” Thompson says.
There’s also no denying the fervent attachment Jackson’s many fans have to 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 reverence more associated with a church service than a Broadway show. It also doesn’t hurt that Myles Frost, the actor who portrays the adult Jackson in the musical, embodies him so fully.
Sources close to the show note there have been no protests outside the theater at any of the “MJ” performances. Contrast that to the uproar surrounding a pre-pandemic 2020 Broadway revival of “West Side Story,” when protestors demanded the dismissal of cast member Amar Ramasar over his involvement in a sex-related scandal at the New York City Ballet two years prior.
Not that everyone is lining up to see “MJ.” Some theater professionals and industry observers have been critical of the project ever since it was announced in 2018. Or, at the very least, they have questioned its chances for success.
Johnny Oleksinski, who covers entertainment for The New York Post, observed that “Audiences don’t want to think about child abuse at a jukebox musical on Broadway. No way.”
Chris Peterson, founder of the OnStage Blog website, says the theater community has too often looked past issues of sexual abuse — and that makes the “MJ” musical’s existence all the more troubling. “It just sends a terrible message,” he says.
But Peterson wouldn’t be surprised if the show attracts a big audience. Echoing what others have said, he notes that Jackson’s fan base is as massive as ever. “They will show up,” he concludes.