It takes a lot more than a single spangled glove to pay proper tribute to the King of Pop. In fact, it requires an army of almost 200 people to reincarnate the magic of MJ. That’s according to Tara Young, artistic director of Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour, which stops in Orlando at the Amway Center Feb. 28-29. I spoke with Young last week about this new collaboration between the Jackson estate and Cirque du Soleil, which she described as “the biggest show hitting all of the arenas across North America.”
With Cirque-produced Beatles and Elvis shows already established in Las Vegas, a Cirque-Jackson mashup seemed inevitable. Indeed, though development of the show began after his death, Jackson “was a huge fan of Cirque du Soleil and often spoke with Cirque about doing a project with them,” Young says. The two parties make a logical match because both represent the drive for excellence, she adds.
As artistic director of the tour, Young is responsible for preserving and polishing the vision of writer-director Jamie King, who is an Emmy-nominated choreographer for Madonna and Rihanna, among others. It’s a role Young has performed on Broadway for more than 20 years, but with 63 performers, 100 technicians and dozens of staff to coordinate, the scope of this show is extraordinary. During the show’s development, whether dealing with dancers, acrobats or musicians, Young says King’s “constant focus [was], ‘How do we celebrate and honor Michael Jackson?’”
Speaking of musicians, the show’s live band includes performers that actually played with Jackson, which Young says provides a foundation of authenticity. They play behind Jackson’s original vocal tracks in a way Young says “fully honors Michael’s music. … You not only hear him singing throughout the show, you hear him speaking.” While Young wouldn’t divulge the set list, you can count on hearing hits like “Billie Jean,” “Beat It” and “Smooth Criminal” during the two-hour show, along with a few ballads communicating Jackson’s mantras of “peace, unity and equality.”
Thanks to MTV, Jackson’s work is as embedded in our collective visual memory as it is aurally ingrained. Acknowledging that, the tour’s creators realized the impossibility of improving upon the genius of John Landis’ video for “Thriller.” Rather than attempt radical reinvention, they decided to “honor Michael [and] start with the video” with the intention of “bringing it off the screen.” That goes double for the dancing (iconic moonwalk included, of course), which was choreographed by artists who worked with Michael like Travis Payne and Rich and Tone Talauega. At the same time, King and company aren’t striving for celebrity impersonation. “We don’t imitate Michael. You couldn’t do that; that would be a mistake,” Young says, explaining that though no single performer quote-unquote plays Jackson, audiences “really feel Michael’s presence on stage.”
Along with the music and elements audiences associate with Michael Jackson, the Immortal World Tour also aims to deliver the spectacle expected of any Cirque du Soleil show, with Cirque vets Germain Guillemot and Debra Brown overseeing the aerialists and acrobats. And Young says viewers “will be blown away by the size and scale” of the set, which is a star attraction in and of itself. Designed by Mark Fisher (the legendary architect of Pink Floyd’s inflatable animals), the stage comes complete with enormous LED video screens and takes approximately 35 trucks to transport across the country.
With so many moving parts, it falls to Young and her staff to watch every performance and give notes to the performers and techs. Keeping things fresh requires a regular regimen of workouts and rehearsals. “We’re always training and trying new things to improve the show,” Young says. And even though the cast is well into the tour, she says the show is never truly complete: “It evolves because we move and grow. Any show will evolve, even Broadway shows; they evolve, grow and get better.”
That constant striving for improvement is motivated by the fans who come to the tour, whose devotion to the late star can be intense. “[Jackson’s] passing is so recent, people who come to see the show truly were fans,” Young says. Living up to that devotion devours Young’s day, so she doubts she’ll make it to Epcot for a showing of Jackson’s Captain EO, though fellow cast members plan to visit Michael’s beloved parks while in town. The bottom line for Young, as she keeps this cast on its toes, is that “every audience should feel like they are seeing an opening night.”