“The goal from the very beginning was to capture the essence of Michael, but also to create a new work of art”, describes the director and choreographer. Christophe Wheeldon of his work on “MJ the Musical”. The new Broadway musical captures a pivotal moment in the life of michael jackson through the use of the King of Pop’s iconic song catalog. But don’t expect the dance to be simply an imitation of the movements and staging of the old music videos. Wheeldon and writer Lynn Rating weren’t interested in simply staging a recreation. “It was seeing Michael’s musical language, his dance vocabulary, through the lens of Lynn Nottage, through my lens,” explains the director. This specific goal earned him two Tony Award nominations for directing and choreography. Watch the exclusive video interview above.
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The creators set the show in 1992, when Jackson was rehearsing for the “Dangerous” tour. Wheeldon points out that some critics have said this timing avoids some of the big controversies that continue to haunt the singer, he explains that “Michael was already living a very complex and lonely life.” The press was already harassing him with criticism and doubts. “He questioned himself as an artist and pushed very hard to innovate. And he was getting there, but wearing himself out in the process,” Wheeldon notes. This proved to be fertile ground for storytelling, as the production sets out to shine a light on what it takes to be a truly great artist.
Dance is Wheeldon’s favorite medium, having entered the world of musical theater via ballet. Thus, Jackson’s signature move set is a source of both admiration and inspiration. “His movement was so explosive, so articulate,” exclaims the choreographer, “I mean, maybe one of the most articulate dancers I’ve ever seen.” He asked for help from Rich and toned Talauega (who previously worked with the King of Pop) to help tailor the specific move to the star’s body Myles Frostbut Wheeldon was interested in how to apply this dance style to overall storytelling.
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One of the most impressive moments of dance storytelling occurs at the peak of Act 2. Actors Playing Bob Fosse, Fred Astaire and The Nicholas Brothers (three of MJ’s biggest inspirations) float across the stage. As each dance legend begins to cut a rug to the music, Frost’s Jackson joins in and absorbs bits of their body language: Fosse’s articulate fingers, Astaire’s hat tricks, acrobatic splits of the Nicholas Brothers. “We thought, what better way to start Act 2 than to do Michael’s anatomy as a dancer,” Wheeldon says of the inventive number. As a choreographer, he found it a fun challenge to show how the iconic dance language of pop stars was pieced together.
This isn’t the first time Wheeldon has garnered two Tony nominations for a single show. He has already been nominated for his direction and choreography of “An American in Paris”, winning the latter prize. While he’s sure to keep the awards race out of the room when making a piece of art, he admits it’s exhilarating to win a Tony Award. That’s largely because you’re, in his words, “standing on this stage looking out over the vast and iconic Radio City Music Hall.” It’s a place he admits he fell in love with after watching the movie “Annie” several times when he was younger. “So this is definitely a pinch moment for me,” he said with a smile.
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