After the advent of COVID-19 and other minor setbacks, MJ the Musical, or simply MJ, finally came to theatres on the 1st of February. The show looks back at the journey of the one and only Michael Jackson. The show has been out for nearly a month now, and at a glance, the reviews seem conflicted. Some absolutely love it, while others are a little more critical of the show given certain elements, or rather the lack thereof. If you want to know a little more with regard to what’s up with this show, strap yourselves in, we’re going for a ride.
Let’s kick this off with the issues those critical of the show have to say. The New York Times’ review of MJ the Musical contends that this project is one that is essentially “an authorized biography”. Normally, this wouldn’t be an issue, but in this particular case it is. Mostly because the show decides to look at everything that happens in Michael Jackson’s life, right up until the year 1992 wherein the pop star was preparing for his Dangerous tour.
There’s a reason 1992 is so significant as far as making the decision to end the show there. It effectively avoids some of the less flattering years of Michael Jackson’s life, the most notable being the accusations of pedophilia that police would come to investigate in August of 1993. To some, this move felt like the show was opting to edit history in a sense. When putting together a biography, one often expects the most complete picture possible of the subject or person in question. Leaving this part out, true or not, kind of compromises or at the very least undermines the show’s place in the genre of biography. As such, this has been the chief complaint reviewers have had when writing about MJ.
Vulture’s review held some similar views, in that the narrative suffered because it felt like the story itself was under “a cross-examination” of sorts. To wrap up the critical side of the reviews, if you’re looking for a complete, comprehensive recollection of the King of Pop’s life that leaves no stone unturned, this is not the show you’re looking for.
Despite the controversy surrounding the production and narrative choices of the show, MJ the Musical has some good things going for it. For one, an article from The Washington Post maintains that one of the highlights the show has to offer is exceptional choreography. With Christopher Wheeldon at the helm in this department, it is by no means far-fetched to say that the dance performances did well to capture the essence and grace of Michael Jackson as a performer. Wheeldon is noted not only for his penchant for perfection but is recognized as “one of the world’s eminent ballet choreographers”. It’s not hard to imagine that it certainly shows in MJ the Musical.
What’s more, their review of the show goes on to say that despite what’s left out, MJ still manages to put on an entertaining show attesting to the King of Pop’s genius and popularity.
The music catalog is exactly what you think it’d be, with songs like Bad, Billie Jean, and Thriller to name a few. They even do well to include some of Michael Jackson’s lesser-known songs that provide a little more range than you’re used to. In a nutshell, the show does a pretty good job of harping on nostalgia and exceptional performances in order to deliver a great night out on Broadway.
It’s quite a loaded question to answer, but in essence, it looks like MJ the Musical boils down to a question of expectation. The show’s mere existence lends itself to the conversation surrounding how we choose to remember Michael Jackson. Do we focus on how the man single-handedly revolutionized the Pop genre, or do we do well not to forget that he wasn’t as perfect as we thought he was? It is an approach you can take to just about anyone really (not everyone though), which is what makes this conversation so difficult. At the end of the day, it’s a conversation worth having.
In fairness, it is understandable why the Jackson Estate, which had a pretty active role in the production of MJ, made the decisions they did. The premise of a musical in general is that, more often than not, it’s supposed to be light-hearted and jovial and it’s clear they want to celebrate the legendary pop artist.
What appears to prevent the show from garnering unchallenged critical acclaim is its complex relationship with Michael Jackson’s history, one that people are still quite divided on. Perhaps striving to make this show more of a musical experience would have been a better route to take as opposed to the biographical alternative they ended up taking.
To err on the side of a lighter ending, it looks like a show you wouldn’t want to miss if you’re a fan of Michael Jackson. If you’re entranced by his music and his ability as a performer, this show is probably the closest thing you’ll get to feeling like you’re in a Michael Jackson concert.