Black excellence on Broadway: ‘MJ’ the musical highlights creative genius of Michael Jackson

The year is 1992 and Michael Jackson (MJ) is on the precipice of shocking the world with his Dangerous Tour— that’s if he can get it off the ground. 

From financial woes to childhood trauma, a myriad of challenges face the global pop star as he tries to mount the show that is set to be performed on four continents. 

Will MJ find the sound, the look and the feel he’s yearning for audiences to experience? Will the nightmares of his past keep him from realizing the potential of his future? And what about those pills? 

All of these questions and more are staring down the King of Pop in the new musical, “MJ.”  Complete with top-tier choreography, lighting and sound, the musical is directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon.

Elijah Rhea Johnson delivers a riveting performance as Michael Jackson in his adult years, striving to push boundaries and maintain his idea of perfection in the ever demanding show business industry. 

Johnson spoke with the AFRO about how he prepared for the role and the importance of Black actors on Broadway shortly after his matinee performance on Aug.12. 

“It was a lot of research and a lot of looking at archival footage of Michael,” said Johnson. “I was studying his music, but honestly,  I’ve been singing and dancing — and Michael is the reason I started at age 8 or 9. A lot of the groundwork was done throughout my childhood.”

Johnson spoke on why it was important to have Black creatives on the stages of Broadway. 

“We’re here and we have stories. Now, we are getting the opportunity to show that more,” said Johnson. “We are as good as anybody else and we have stories worth telling.”

“MJ” offers an exhilarating tour down memory lane inside of the Neil Simon Theatre in New York City every night of the week, excluding Monday. 

Johnson nails the smooth falsetto of Michael Jackson with a moonwalk that is even smoother. 

The show includes high-energy numbers like “Smooth Criminal,” “Billie Jean” and of course “Thriller,” while weaving in and out of the past with new renditions of old Jackson 5 hits, like the “I’ll Be There” duet performed by Bane Griffith and Ayana Jackson, in the roles of Little Michael and Katherine Jackson, respectively. 

While the play does not address the scandals brought on by allegations of sex abuse or fully delve into the drug use that would ultimately claim his life, the musical does show the fateful Jan. 27, 1984 stage accident that left the superstar with second and third degree burns and years of pain. It also shows how MJ dealt with years of emotional and even physical abuse at the hands of his father, Joe Jackson. 

The four time Tony award winning show opened to the public in February 2022 and has garnered national attention since that time. Though Johnson is currently in the role of Michael Jackson, when the show debuted last year, D.C native and Bowie State University student Myles Frost dazzled audiences and garnered the 2022 Tony for Best Actor in a Musical. 

Though Frost is no longer wowing American audience members, he will reprise the role of MJ when the show opens in London next year. 

Previews for the London showing of MJ begin March 6, 2024. In the United States, the traveling cast of MJ already hit the road, starting this month. Tickets for the Broadway version of the show in New York  are currently on sale through Jan. 21, 2024. 

Antoine L. Smith, who played the roles of Rob and Joseph Jackson on Aug.12 is from Gary, Ind., which Michael Jackson and his family also called home. 

“Being from Gary, Ind., he is a hometown idol,” said Smith. 

“MJ” is Smith’s sixth show on Broadway, he said about being Black on “The Great White Way.”

“As people always say, representation matters,” said Smith. “The more that we see ourselves— the more we understand that we can do this.” Smith told the AFRO this is especially true for young people who are exposed to the stage. 

Amiera Wilson, a 14-year-old dancer from Baltimore, said the musical gave her a different view of the world renowned superstar. She also thoroughly enjoyed the choreography routines on display.

“It shows the ups and downs of Michael Jackson,” said Wilson. “I think it’s very unique. The play is mixed with modern and jazz style and it’s very interesting to watch.”

“I’ve always been inspired by seeing Black dancers on stage, being able to express themselves with movement,” she continued. “Black people don’t get as many opportunities as other people do because of the color of their skin.”

Audience members of all ages packed out the theatre house to enjoy the moonwalks and classic sounds of what could have easily been a real, live MJ show. 

Mamie Thomas, 91, of Brooklyn, New York was surprised by her daughter, Regina Mugo, with birthday tickets to the show. The show had special meaning for Thomas, who said her late son was a Michael Jackson fan.

“I lost a son who loves to dance,” said Thomas. “I was waiting for “Thriller” and “Beat It” because my son, who died some 20 odd years ago, liked it.” 

“I was very fascinated— it was beautiful,” Thomas said standing outside of the theatre immediately after the show. “As you grow older you learn to appreciate what goes into theatre. I can appreciate the stage, the preparation of the stage and the lighting.”