Elijah Rhea Johnson is the latest performer to take on The King of Pop in the hit Broadway homage to Michael Jackson, MJ: The Musical. Johnson has been passed the iconic fedora and crystal glove from Tony winner Myles Frost, who left the show in early April. NY1 News entertainment journalist Frank DiLella recently caught up with Johnson to talk about breathing new life into the icon on Broadway.
This is your Broadway debut. What does this moment mean to you?
This moment is everything. It’s a full-circle moment as an actor: I was a part of the workshop, but I’m also an MJ fan. Michael was the reason I started performing when I was 8, living in Detroit. I love music, I love dance, and I love the feeling Michael gave me.
What was your opening night like?
It was insane! One of the things that has been so crucial for me with jumping in — whether it was rehearsals or getting on stage — is that I feel so supported by the cast and producers and director from top to bottom. Everyone came in and was supportive and trusted in me. Opening night felt like home.
You’re stepping into big shoes. Any advice from Myles Frost for playing MJ?
Pace yourself. [Laughs.] The biggest thing I’m doing in the show is showing people a side of Michael that people didn’t really see a lot. I think he showed himself through his music, and we show that. And he did a lot through his charitable work, which we obviously all know. But personally, we didn’t really see vulnerable moments; he didn’t show that too often. And we show that in a very candid and truthful way. Myles also told me to have fun, and it is a very fun show to perform.
This is a demanding role. How do you stay in shape for this show?
I try not to talk when I’m not at the theatre. Which is hard for me, because I’m a talker. [Laughs.] Vocal rest is key. Lots of water and tea. I work out twice a week. The show is a workout, so I try not to push it.
This isn’t your first time working on this show — you participated in the workshop of MJ.
I was living in L.A. in 2018. I auditioned, as one does. I was a struggling actor trying to do his thing. My agent called me and said, “They’re doing a Michael Jackson Broadway show. Are you interested in auditioning for that?” And I was like, “Yeah, absolutely!” And from there it snowballed. When I first started with the workshop, I was in a different place in my life and I think there was a lot of growth that needed to be had, not only as a person but as an actor. In the workshop I played a different part.
I hear the creative team has created a Michael Jackson Boot Camp to prep performers with playing Michael on Broadway…
Yes. Rich and Tone, the two brothers who choreographed for Michael and danced with him, they got me in a room and we just danced. And I joke — I’ve been dancing for a long time, so I think I know how to do the Michael moves. And so much of the feedback has been from the brothers: “That’s pretty good, but you’re doing this wrong,” or they’ll say, “It’s this foot, not that foot.” But they gave me the space to nail down the moves. And I worked a lot with Chris Wheeldon, our director, especially with the acting. It was a lot of work — very quickly.
What was the hardest Michael move to nail down? How’s your moonwalk?
I will brag about this: Out of all the dance moves Rich and Tone had to correct, my moonwalk was good enough for them. [Laughs.] I feel very proud of myself for that. But the hardest thing — it’s in “Bad.” There’s a certain part in the song where they’re “scooting,” and they’re these tiny hops. That is still one of the hardest moves for me to get down because it’s all in the hips.
There are so many incredible songs in this show. Favorite MJ tune to perform?
Probably “Human Nature,” which is my hardest song to sing, because I dance around so much and that song is pretty low and it’s so relaxed in the body.
Do you feel a responsibility, playing such an icon?
I do. Playing Michael is a lot. He’s the greatest entertainer who ever lived. To do that, to carry that legacy and to play that man, comes with a lot of things around it. I definitely feel the pressure and understand what I’m carrying. Michael is the reason why I’m performing today.
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