The King of Pop is at the center of Broadway’s latest jukebox tuner MJ: The Musical. Under the direction of internationally celebrated director and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, the show is set during the final rehearsal period for Jackson’s 1992 Dangerous World Tour and chronicles the megastar’s rise to international legend. Donning the Bob Fosse–like black fedora and wearing the classic white glove is Broadway newcomer Myles Frost. Entertainment journalist Frank DiLella recently caught up with Wheeldon and Frost to talk creating quite the musical thriller at the Neil Simon Theatre.
Christopher, you helmed An American in Paris on Broadway. How did you get involved with this Michael Jackson project?
Christopher Wheeldon: I was invited by our lead producer and the Michael Jackson estate to have a meeting with playwright Lynn Nottage, who was already attached to the project. And I remember our first meeting was quite awkward because I was starstruck to be meeting the great playwright Lynn Nottage. I think we’re sort of unlikely on paper; I think we’re unlikely collaborators. I don’t think you would put a British ballet choreographer with one of the most hard-hitting poetic playwrights of our time, especially around this subject. I left that meeting thinking, “That did not go very well.” But clearly it did, and we moved forward.
Myles, what’s it like to play the King of Pop?
Myles Frost: It is an honor and blessing. I think about the people who are in New York alone who love Michael and would live and die for the opportunity to do this, and I was the one who was chosen to play him. And I don’t take that for granted.
Who is Michael Jackson to you?
MF: Michael Jackson is the reason I do what I do. The reason why I’m an artist. Not just because of his music, but also his passion and drive and determination to make the best at whatever he’s doing.
Christopher, talk about your concept for this musical.
CW:MJ: The Musical is set in a rehearsal studio in L.A. in 1992. It’s surrounding the final rehearsals for the Dangerous tour, and all the people in Michael’s rehearsal are striving to create this epic concert show. And all the people within the room become characters from Michael’s life. So it’s sort of a “company of players” type of piece, and we have Michael at the center of it.
The Michael Jackson song catalog and his iconic moves are sacred to entertainment-industry members and fans alike. What was it like to dive into this world and put your own stamp on Michael Jackson?
CW: This has been a project that has been so incredibly rewarding for me as an artist because it’s pushed me to places I never expected to go. What more of a gift for an artist who has been creating for many years to have this opportunity to work with a style that doesn’t necessarily live within me or my body. Many of Michael’s influences were my influences. He was inspired by Astaire and Fosse and the old movie-musical geniuses. And he loved the ballet — he loved Baryshnikov. He was completely enchanted and really moved by the art of ballet.
How did you find Myles Frost?
CW: Myles came to us really late in the process because we were working with another actor who was going to play Michael, and then he got an opportunity to pursue a Hollywood dream. So we lost him — and, let’s be honest, it’s not easy to find actors who can play Michael Jackson. And Myles came in to audition one day. We had seen two other potential candidates, and he walked in, and I remember he had a piece of paper that really wasn’t a résumé and his photograph wasn’t a proper headshot. And he said, “Hello, my name is Myles Frost and I’m here to audition for Michael Jackson.” And he had his fedora. And I giggled a little bit; I said, “Myles, we know why you’re here.” And he displayed this poise and calm — that was the first thing I noticed about him. He just seemed grounded. And I remember it was during the first round of COVID and we didn’t have a rehearsal pianist and the sound system was put up to full blast and our music director pressed the wrong track. And Myles was in the back of the room and was prepared to perform “Billie Jean,” and instead “Beat It” came on really loudly and all of us were like, “Turn it off!” And I looked at Myles and he was still there. He just seemed completely focused. And then sure enough he started to sing and move, and it became very clear this was going to be a young actor who was going to give us something close to the essence of Michael without imitating him.
Myles, how did you find out you booked the role of Michael?
MF: I was at home in Maryland with my sister. I was on a Zoom with Christopher Wheeldon and Chris said, “Myles, I want to talk to you. We would like to offer you the role of Michael Jackson.” And for 20 seconds I was like, “OH MY GOD! AHHHH!” And he said, “You don’t have to answer right now,” and then we ended the Zoom call. And then I went into my sister’s room and said, “I got it!” and she was like, “AHHHHH!” And then I got super laser-focused and thought, “This is where the work starts.”
Michael’s children were at the opening. Have you gotten any feedback from them?
MF: I met Prince Jackson during previews and we had an amazing discussion, and he told me that he appreciated the fact that I wasn’t trying to impersonate his father. I spoke to Paris a little bit as well and she said the same thing — that I really embody her father. And that meant the world to me.
The musical numbers in this show are electric! Was there one Michael song that you were scared to tackle based on its popularity with fans?
CW: I think you know the answer. [Laughs.] “Thriller”! Lynn Nottage and I had this idea quite early on that “Thriller” would be the emotional climax of Michael’s relationship with his father, and the frustrations of putting on this massive concert — all of that built up inside of him.
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