Michael Jackson is on the road again — even if Jackson himself can’t be there.
Jackson’s estate and Cirque du Soleil have created “Michael Jackson The Immortal World Tour,” a typically opulent and extravagant road show that launched earlier this month in Montreal and will visit 60 North American cities before wrapping up in early July in Chicago. The production then takes up residency at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in Las Vegas.
The 100-minute show — which features Jackson’s recorded vocals and filmed images performing in sync with a live band (led by Detroit native and Jackson veteran Greg Phillinganes) and a company of some five dozen dancers, gymnasts and aerialists — is one of the most extensive productions the Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil has ever created. With a production team that includes seven choreographers, the production incorporates all or part of about 60 Jackson songs mixed and mashed together in order to present what writer-director Jamie King calls “a celebration of the man and his legend and his immortality.”
“Even though he’s not there physically, you will feel him spiritually and emotionally because of what you’re visually seeing and hearing,” explains King, who was part of Jackson’s Dangerous World Tour in 1992 and has also worked with Madonna, Prince, Rihanna, Celine Dion, Britney Spears, the Spice Girls and others.
“It was easy for us because Michael has not only always been a fan of Cirque but has always lived in a kind of fairy tale, fantastical way.
“So in may ways he’s already kind of Cirquelike. ... He loves magic, fairy tale, theatricality and appreciates everything that Cirque provides. So now that we have this great marriage we have such a great opportunity to flip things upside down and make it larger than life.”
Discussions about some sort of Jackson stage production began shortly after Jackson’s death on June 25, 2009, which scotched plans for his This Is It residency at London’s O2 Arena the following month.
“We ... always felt it was important to have a live show that would be representative of Michael and his music and what he would have done,” says John Branca, Jackson’s longtime attorney and co-executor of his estate. Branca also took Jackson to see his first Cirque show, in Santa Monica, Calif.
“A lot of people were disappointed they did not get to see the This Is It show, so we’ve always believed that people would want to once again experience Michael in concert, and we felt this was the best way to do it.”
Estate attorney Howard Weitzman adds that as soon as the live show was broached, “Cirque du Soleil popped up in everyone’s mind. We contacted them. ... They were enthusiastic. We were enthusiastic. It’s a great marriage.”
King came on board as the first outside producer of a Cirque show and immediately started thinking big.
“Everything about this project has felt large,” King notes. “Being around (Jackson), he always wanted everything larger, bigger — more confetti, more pyro, more magic. He wanted fans to feel like they were getting the best experience ever, so we started with that and moved forward.
“With every aspect of this show we’ve pushed the envelope — costumes, music, going above and beyond what Michael was as a star and really putting it on steroids, taking it to the next level.”
For staging, King and set designer Mark Fisher created a reimagination of Jackson’s Neverland Ranch compound, centered around a nearly 60-foot high Giving Tree and including plenty of visual references to animals and children. “We get to go inside Michael’s head,” King explains, “inside this place of beauty and serenity and peace, and learn all the secrets that are Michael — from his human side to his political side to his love of anything childlike, whether it be animals or magic — and take this fantastic journey together.
“It really is based off of things we all really know of Michael.”
Doing the show with Cirque du Soleil, King adds, opened that envelope for the show’s possibilities. “It’s like a bag of new tricks, isn’t it?” King says. “If there’s something you’d typically see on the stage floor, they ask, ‘Can we put that in the air? Can we fly that performer doing the same type of choreography?’
“They really have been at the forefront of creating new imagery and different types of spectacle that the world hasn’t seen before. They really provide the magic.”
Weitzman says the Jackson estate kept “really close tabs” on the Immortal production during development and rehearsals and are pleased with the end result.
“I think the estate would like the show to be a celebration of Michael’s creativity, his legacy and his music and wants it to be an everlasting tribute to Michael’s art and his genius,” Weitzman says. “This definitely achieves that. It’s a ... spectacular presentation.”
The show also got a thumbs-up for Jackson’s mother, Katherine, who attended the opening night performance and said afterward that “I was looking for something amazing, but I found something far better. ... It captured Michael very well.”
A pair of soundtrack albums from the show will come out on Nov. 21 — a single album sporting 30 of the songs and a two-disc deluxe version with all of the music. And while The Immortal World Tour makes its round, the Jackson estate — which had nothing to do with last week’s tribute concert in Wales — is contemplating several other projects. The 25th anniversary of the “Bad” album in 2012 may be commemorated with a special package similar to 2008’s “Thriller 25,” while another set of unreleased material to follow 2010’s “Michael” collection is also being considered. “
“It’s a pretty vibrant estate in the sense that it continues to generate not just catalog opportunities but plenty of other ideas,” Weitzman says. “There’s a lot of conversation, a lot of brainstorming. It’s a really interesting think-tank kind of experience.”
WATCHING THE WHEELS OF JUSTICE TURN
The Estate of Michael Jackson is, of course, watching the murder trial of the star’s physician, Conrad Murray, in Los Angeles with great interest — but no formal involvement in the proceedings.
“The estate’s role will be to watch it,” attorney Howard Weitzman says. “Having done a few of these types of trials over the years myself, we know the evidence will play out, the jury will come to some decision, and we’ll watch it.
“From my personal perspective and from the estate’s perspective, we’d like justice to be done. We know the system sometimes has flaws and the result you’d like to see doesn’t always happen. All we can hope is that justice prevails here.”
As to how Jackson will be portrayed as the trial goes on, particularly during Murray’s defense, Weitzman says those maintaining the estate are “not worried about it. He may be portrayed differently than I’d like to see him portrayed, but his genius speaks itself.
“I like to say, ‘What do you want to know about Michael Jackson? Press the play button.’ That’s all there is to say.”
Cirque du Soleil’s “Michael Jackson The Immortal World Tour” plays at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 15, at Joe Louis Arena, 600 Civic Center Drive, Detroit. Tickets are $53-$253. Call 313-471-6606 or visit www.olympiaentertainment.com.
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