MJ: The Musical Chronicles the Creative Side of Michael Jackson and Despite Decades of Sexual Abuse Allegations, Audiences Are Still Paying Big To See It While Ignoring The Elephant In The Room
MJ: The Musical— Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough
Currently playing at the Neil Simon Theatre, Broadway’s 4-time Tony Award winning MJ: The Musical celebrates one of pop music’s undeniable icons, Michael Jackson.
Featuring radio hits like Billie Jean, Beat It, Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, Thriller and Man in the Mirror, MJ centers on the making of Jackson’s 1992 Dangerous World Tour.
Directed and choreographed by Tony Award winning Christopher Wheeldon (An American in Paris) and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage (Sweat, Ruined), the jukebox musical transcends Michael Jackson’s trademark sounds and moves by offering an exclusive glimpse at the man behind the mirror, but just not too much of a glimpse.
MJ foregrounds Jackson’s creativity and collaborative spirit, giving audiences a backstage pass into how a legend is made.
MJ’s Critical Reception: Good or Bad?
After an extended pandemic delay, the production opened in February of 2022 receiving mixed to negative reviews. Time Out’s theatre critic Adam Feldman left the theater entertained, but not convinced he had really seen the man in the smoke and mirrors. Maya Phillips of The New York Times characterized the musical as inherently hollow, finding the material to lack cohesion.
Positive attention for the show includes Deadline’s assessment of the visually and sonically ravishing enterprise while Peter Marks of The Washington Post also praised the show’s adrenaline rush vibe and the cast, notably utterly persuasive Myles Frost.
Frost went on to win the 2022 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical. The dance-heavy show also won a Tony Award and an Outer Critics Circle Award for Wheeldon’s choreography as well as Drama Desk and Tony Awards for design elements.
Wanna Be Sellin’ Somethin’: Tickets!
By all metrics MJ has been very successful at the box office, averaging well over a million dollars each week, and in the last few months, operating at almost 100% of its potential capacity.
Following the Tonys (featuring Frost’s win and Smooth Criminal performance) , the show's weekly gross catapulted to $1,661,000, with sold-out shows every day and advance sales booming. It was the biggest box office jump that week on Broadway. Numbers have stayed high since then.
Why Did Ephraim Sykes Beat It?
In June of 2021, Tony nominee Ephraim Sykes (Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations)— the actor originally slated to portray MJ’s titular character— announced that he would be departing the production due to pandemic related scheduling conflicts. Sykes also appeared in Season 2 of Netflix’s popular streamer Russian Doll.
In his press statement, Broadway vet Sykes thanked the team, expressed a bittersweetness about leaving the production, and wished everyone well.
While some speculate that Sykes departure is due to matters more complicated than logistics, he has yet to speak to such rumors, However, in an interview with Rolling Stone in 2019, Sykes openly admitted that the controversies surrounding Michael Jackson factored into his decision to play the role.
Ultimately– at least at the time– he decided to look at it as a challenge because nobody could ever know the whole story, as Jackson died in June 2009.
Sykes wanted to celebrate the artist so many (including himself) idolized. More than a year– and a global pandemic later– Sykes finally bowed out.
Smooth Criminal? Audiences Say Otherwise
While rumors of Michael Jackson’s alleged sex crimes had been widely circulated and hotly debated prior to MJ (some dating all the way back to 1993), it was 2019’s controversial documentary Leaving Neverland that reignited such matters, bringing allegations of Jackson’s sexual abuse toward minors into the spotlight.
While the King of Pop was acquitted of all criminal charges in 2005, the court of public opinion was not so easily convinced. Jackson died four years later at the age of 50, due to drug related cardiac arrest.
Leaving Neverland Documentary Contains Disturbing Allegations
The release of Leaving Neverland coincided with the development timeline of MJ but the stage musical does not (and never did) include that aspect of Jackson’s personal life. Michael Jackson's estate, which continues to deny all allegations, has sued HBO for distributing Dan Reed’s revealing and riveting documentary, citing it a posthumous character assassination. Jackson himself also denied all allegations during his lifetime.
Despite his claims of innocence, Jackson reportedly paid $25 million to settle the 1993 lawsuit, with $18 million going to Jordie Chandler, $2.5 million to each parent, and the rest of the $25 million sum to lawyers. According to statements, Jackson hoped to avoid a long and drawn out ordeal.
The Short Memory of Broadway Audiences
But Broadway audiences a) have a very short memory in this 24-hour news cycle of a culture, b) take Jackson at his word and believe in his innocence or c) can easily separate the art from the artist, able to enjoy the sheer mind-blowing artistry of one single human.
Industry folks certainly predicted more resistance to a bio-musical revolving around Jackson but current (and advance) ticket sales suggest otherwise. Audiences can seemingly experience the time capsule of a show, concentrating on Michael Jackson’s creative legacy rather than his alleged misdeeds towards minors.
The protesters never showed up and show producers breathed a sigh of relief.