Michael Jackson revisited

THRILLER LIVE: The stage show is set for a performance in Auckland.
Irina Chira

THRILLER LIVE: The stage show is set for a performance in Auckland.

It's June 25, 2009. A young woman sits alone in her bedroom when she hears the news.

Her initial disbelief is quashed when her sister calls in hysterics, sobbing; "come get me, you have to come get me".

Across the world, another young woman wakes up to the news. Her family is heartbroken.

UNREAL: A performer, in yellow, on stage beside the Madame Tussaud's waxwork version of Michael Jackson.
Getty Images

UNREAL: A performer, in yellow, on stage beside the Madame Tussaud's waxwork version of Michael Jackson.

Everyone is crying, all day. There's no school, no work.

And in a quiet London pub, a man sees the news on the bar's flat screen and makes a phone call.

"Please just put the television on now because I think our lives just changed."

He is Phil Watts, the touring director for the hit West End Michael Jackson tribute concert, Thriller Live. And the day after news of the death of the King of Pop breaks, the show must go on.

"The next day I was up at 5am, we had a conference call with everyone to say; 'how are we going to do this today?'," he recalls.

"It was an incredibly emotional night. At the time we had a kid in the show - a little MJ - and that kid was the first person on stage, on his own. The song was Music and Me, there was just an acoustic guitar backing him, and he walked out on that stage in front of two and a half thousand people crying their eyes out. It was unbelievable."

The young women were Massachusetts local Samantha Johnson and Tongan-born Aussie Prinnie Stevens - now the two lead females in Thriller Live.

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"People always say; 'oh, why do you care so much? It's not like you knew him', but we did know him," Johnson says, impassioned.

"When all this stuff was going on with all the allegations and the baby dangling or whatever, he used to do these interviews and he would look right in the camera and say; 'my fans know what's real'. And I would feel like he was talking to me, like I'm part of the MJ army and I always will be. So I did know him, absolutely."

There is a passion when you talk to any of the cast and crew of this show about Michael Jackson. They change from polite interview conversation to sitting on the edges of their seats, their voices lowered, their eyes fiery and brimming with tears.

Ask any one of them why they do it and the answer is simple and comes with a shrug as if it should be obvious: "it's Michael."

After six years, Thriller Live has just entered the record books as the 20th longest-running musical in West End history, and now a touring company of some 40 cast and crew have joined with Australian counterparts like Prinnie Stevens and Mig Ayesa for an Australasian tour.

These guys make it clear though: it's not a musical, but a celebration of Michael Jackson, with five lead singers and a talented cast of dancers working through a fast-paced set of MJ's greatest hits from ABC to Thriller.

What most people won't realise, though, is that it all started when Jackson was still alive.

The show's executive producer, Adrian Grant, was a close friend of Jackson and was the organiser of his UK-based fan club events.

Inspired by Jackson, the idea for a West End show came about and the funding followed shortly after an initial showcase.

"Michael was actually slated to come see it in 2009," Watt recalls sadly.

"His brothers and sisters - with the exception of Janet - have all seen it, though. The key to it is Adrian's friendship with Michael - they knew Adrian would never disrespect him either personally or professionally."

As a result of that trust, the show's production team now works closely with Jackson's estate and it is the only show to have earned the rights to some of Jackson's songs, as well as his signature dance moves and even the Thriller zombies, making this a one-of-a-kind production, made by fans for fans.

Michael Jackson is undeniably one of the most successful artists of our time, with 13 Grammys, 40 Billboard Awards, 26 American Music Awards and EVEN A host of Guiness World Records. He continuously pushed the boundaries of pop music and how we consume it.

How, then, do you even begin to find performers to back up the Jackson family's trust and fill MJ's shoes?

Thriller Live'S musical director John Maher says it is an exacting process, and the hardest show he's ever had to cast.

"These singers have to be world class. It's Michael," he says matter-of-factly.

"With everything else - the dancing, the fashion, the videos, the drama - his sheer vocal talent is sort of overlooked, but he's absolutely up there in every way. He's just exquisite."

Maher sits in on auditions around the world with creative director and choreographer Gary Lloyd, watching young hopefuls come in by the hundreds, and watching just as many leave empty handed.

The vocal range alone rules out about 90 per cent of the men and

A large percentage of the women too, he says.

"A lot of people can sing. Not a lot of people can sing this. We're talking 40 years' worth of music and he's quite a chameleon.

"I remember, someone asked me once who my favourite rock singers were and I listed four or five and one was Michael Jackson and everyone laughed. Shortly thereafter, the video of Earth Song came out and I actually rang that person up and said; 'remember what I was saying about MJ being a great rock singer?'. So even of the ones that can hit the notes, they can't all get they style, can't capture the spirit of it."

However, every now and again someone comes along who changes all that.

Despite first impressions of being "some silly kid" with the wrong song choice, Alex Buchanan was one such performer, winning over Maher and Lloyd almost as soon as he started singing.

"He sang about three notes and I looked over at Gary [Lloyd] and we just smiled at each other and he walked out and we said, 'just book him now'. It doesn't happen often, but with the very best, you just know."

And indeed, Buchanan is something of a show-stealer on stage, encompassing the more rock 'n' roll side of Jackson, bringing boundless energy and a high-pitched voice that effortlessly recalls Jackson.

He's always laughing, joking, flirting - having a good time. But when he talks about the day Jackson died, his entire demeanour changes - he leans in and gets quiet and serious, as if he's about to drop a bombshell.

"I was performing. I had a gig, nothing special. They put it on the TV in the club and no-one beleived it, but then it hit that it was actually happening and I went back and changed my whole second set and I just played nothing but Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson for the whole set. I was devastated. I was very quiet. I didn't say nothing. It's so funny how someone so distant from you can feel so close," he says.

"But I was lucky 'cause I got the show just a few weeks after, and I was happy and sad at the same time. Happy that I could continue Michael's journey, and give all those people what they wanted to see when they were going to see his concert. So I went out with fire, and I'm still fired up now. That's why we do this."

At the Australasian opening of Thriller Live in Perth, there is an eclectic mix of Michael Jackson fans.

Age, race, fashion, genre - none of it matters here. Some are dressed up, others are singing Jackson classics, and as cars hunt for parks near the Crown Casino, the King of Pop can be heard blasting from their stereos.

The audience take their seats and flashing MJ gloves are raised in the dark, then the show starts and it's an all-singing, all-dancing trip through the ages from The Jackson 5 and Motown days to Off the Wall, and returning after an intermission to visit tracks from Thriller, Bad and Dangerous.

One of the male leads, Sean Christopher, is the epitome of Michael. Everything in the way he moves and holds himself screams MJ, and with that hat tipped over his face, you could almost swear it was the man himself, particularly as he leads the dancers through signature dances like Thriller and the Smooth Criminal lean.

Prinnie Stevens takes the female lead, belting out classics with impressive control and accuracy, and just the right amount of attitude. If you ask her, she'll tell you about the anxiety she has around performing a certain song because of a technical issue one night, but you wouldn't know it to watch her. She performs with ease and confidence and a certain amount of Michael's endearing demureness.

Throughout the show, there is laughter, there are tears, the audience sings along and by the end of it we are all on our feet and it's a party; the celebration the producers set out to create.

A row in front of me, a boy who can't be any more than 6 or 7 years old is dressed as Michael Jackson - specifically the Michael from the Thriller video. He's ecstatic.

"We see kids dressing up a lot," says Phil Watts.

"We're now in a position where these are kids who weren't even necessarily born when MJ died, let alone when the songs were current. So why is that? What is it about him that makes that happen? You know my favourite MJ song used to be Beat It, because it had that rock guitar solo, but then when I started doing the show it became Man in the Mirror because I watched the audience and saw how much that song means to so many people. That's what he was all about, that's what he did."

Thriller Live will be in New Zealand from February 12-22 at The Civic in Auckland. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster.

 - Sunday Star Times

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