Stage

The Deification of Michael Jackson

Will Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson ONE take celebrity idolatry to un-Vegas-like levels?
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Illustration by Travis Jackson

Sin City is succumbing to a saint … or so it seems.

As easy as it would be to surf this city’s cresting wave of Michael Jackson Ecstasy and ride it right into the theater at Mandalay Bay—where Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson ONE is in previews ahead of its June 29 opening—a reflexive resistance kicks in.

When do we—fans, PR spinners and media co-conspirators (guilty as charged)—stop worshipping, martyrizing and downright deifying this troubled-but-electrifying entertainer, rather than simply appreciating him? What is it about us that needs this enigmatic man-child to be nearly supernatural, an ethereal symbol of universal light

and love?While the “Heal the World”/“We Are the World” singer manufactured that image for himself through shrewd self-promotion and inflated it through media manipulation, we seem eager to buy into it in perpetuity. ONE arrives amid the wrongful-death trial involving Jackson’s concert promoters, the ugly family infighting over his estate and even new child molestation charges this month, leveled by a now-30-year-old accuser suing Jackson’s estate. On the surface, it appears to be unfortunate timing.

Or perhaps opportune timing, rerouting attention back to his music. Finally, in death, Jackson is a resident Strip star after several false starts during his life, earning him a well-deserved posthumous credit on his storied résumé. But …

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Recently, a press preview showcasing production numbers set to “Tabloid Junkie,” “Smooth Criminal,” “Stranger in Moscow” and “Bad” suggested that Michael Jackson ONE will be a kinetic, sensory-engulfing marvel, a mega-marriage of Cirque spectacle and Jackson idolatry. (See sidebar.)

There’s no shortage of the latter element in the PR blitz. Naturally, he’s hailed as “The King of Pop” (self-anointed, as opposed to Elvis “King of Rock ’n’ Roll” Presley and Frank “Chairman of the Board” Sinatra, who left the lionizing to others). Yet Cirque’s marketing informs us that Jackson’s also “The Genius, The Visionary, The One.”

ONE’s sneak peek hammered home the sentiment as the show’s overlords waxed rhapsodic over this MJ mysticism in a pre-performance spiel. Writer/director Jamie King (who also helmed the preceding Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour) explained the storyline of a quartet of misfits on a spiritual journey to embody Jackson’s qualities—love, playfulness, agility and courage—as they encounter his signature accoutrements.

“In this show, we present the Michael Jackson hat, the shoes, the glove, and [the characters] would be given special powers through the spirit of Michael, that you could fly, literally.”

Climaxing the preview, King and Welby Altidor (who wears the biblical title of Cirque’s Director of Creation) gathered cast members onstage. “His message at the end of the day is very simple,” King said of Jackson, then led everyone in a prayer-like chant:

“We are all one. … We are all one. … Can we all say it? … WE ARE ALL ONE.”

Yeah, OK, got it, thanks.

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Compare this spiritual elevation of an entertainer to our enduring Strip symbols: Frank, Dino, Elvis and Liberace. Imagine what these ace showmen who performed in showrooms would think walking into what Mandalay Bay and Cirque have built into a Church of Michael:

Six-foot-tall portraits of a moonwalking Jackson. Black and gold double doors in honor of his militaristic outfits. Sparkling blue-bejeweled lobby. Massive images of Jackson on a trio of enormous video screens, both onstage and abutting the stage. In the volatile Sinatra’s case, you could probably make up your own quote, add colorful profanities and be fairly accurate about how he’d react.

True, the transformation of Vegas over the years from a swingin’ lounge-and-showroom town to a Taj Mahal of diversionary delights helps account for the ballooning of our entertainment expectations. Broadway musicals and, particularly, Cirque shows—ONE is its eighth Strip blowout—are greatly responsible for supersizing Vegas razzle-dazzle.

Cirque du Jax Facts:

  • Producers describe Michael Jackson ONE as “a sonic, tonic fusion of acrobats, dance and visuals.”
  • Seventy percent of Jackson’s No. 1 hits are performed at their full length in 26 scenes by 63 performers.
  • A state-of-the-art sound system allows Jackson’s lead vocals to come through the theater’s front speakers, while the background vocals will be filtered through speakers in the headrests of the seats in front of patrons.
  • Cirque du Soleil is working with new dance crews for ONE, including those from South Korea, New Zealand and Puerto Rico.
  • ONE features the most acrobats Cirque has used in a single show.
  • Among the elaborate elements of ONE: paparazzi-style monsters tormenting the lead characters; a skeleton with an elephant head, referencing Jackson’s fascination with the bones of “Elephant Man” Joseph Merrick; rope-climbers; performers descending from the ceiling, including a woman in a silver-moon float and dancers with digital lettering across their chests; performers dressed as gangsters imitating Jackson’s forward lean from “Smooth Criminal.”
  • Jackson’s signature boots—just the boots—moonwalk across the stage.
  • Michael Jackson is the only subject used twice by Cirque du Soleil, which also created Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour, the Vegas leg of which launched at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in December 2011.

Having anchored itself to Vegas, Cirque has already plucked our pop-culture memories and tossed them into its spectacle-blender to whip up the hit The Beatles LOVE at The Mirage and the floperoo Viva Elvis at Aria. Plugged into its circus-meets-celeb model (and after Cirque’s touring version), Michael Jackson ONE is a natural next step, and potentially a hell of a moneymaker. Yet its predecessor shows honored the brilliant music of the Beatles and Presley without suggesting that its subjects wrapped their arms around the globe and cradled it in its loving embrace.

Michael Jackson ONE is apparently taking celebrity idolatry to a level that is so, well, … un-Vegas baby! Although famed as the world’s entertainment capital, and for all its monumental excesses, Vegas always projected a knowing irony about itself. Paeans to stars, especially in tribute shows with celebrity impersonators, are presented with a sense of kitsch. Elvis might still carry the “King” moniker, but no one who glimpses a bloated, jump-suited Elvis wannabe prowling the Strip imagines a heavenly choir trailing behind him.

Based on the marketing and promotion of this Cirque du Jax production, you’d think the choir is singing four-part harmony as Jackson hovers over it in white wings made of angel tears.

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My fatigue over Jackson as a crotch-grabbing Christ figure isn’t the exasperation of an MJ hater. Quite the contrary: My fandom dates back to his “ABC”/“I Want You Back” days with his brothers on American Bandstand, The Ed Sullivan Show and tinny AM transistor radios, and hit its zenith (along with everyone’s) in the ’80s.

One of my biggest journalism thrills was covering 1984’s Victory Tour with all the brothers, starring Michael in his prime, at the Meadowlands sports complex in New Jersey. Yes, it was exhilarating. Yes, I stood up on my chair at the end (but mostly so I wouldn’t have to stare at the ass of the ecstatic fan gyrating on his chair in front of me).

Nearly 30 years later, my music collection includes Michael Jackson HIStory, and my DVD library includes Michael Jackson’s Vision, a collection of his videos: entertaining, imaginative, groundbreaking—but not, excuse my blasphemy, touched by divinity.

Like all of us, Jackson was flawed, even personally tortured, and not what an organization actually named the International Group of The Anointed Michael Followers dubbed “an angel trapped inside human flesh.” (Given Jackson’s reported plastic surgeries, “flesh” might be pushing it.)

One website, MichaelJacksonism.com, seems to seesaw between whimsy and adulation. On its homepage, addressing its “Michael Jacksonaughts,” it declares: “Michael Jacksonism is the bold new religion for the 21st century.” Elsewhere, it states: “Some of us think Michael Jackson was the messiah, but that’s not compulsory. You must believe there was something about Michael Jackson above and beyond that which is normally found in human beings. … Radical theorizing and debate about the nature of Michael’s divinity is encouraged.”

Such extreme examples of pop-culture deification have been given a name by mental health professionals: “Celebrity Worship Syndrome,” or CWS for short.

While the proliferation of social and mainstream media exacerbates the phenomenon, it’s far from a modern invention. Nearly 90 years ago, the death of early film hero Rudolph Valentino triggered a media frenzy and fan hysteria. Flash forward to 2009, when Jackson’s death unleashed what seemed like an interstellar outpouring of garment-rending grief.

Quite simply: It was embarrassing.

Blame for such overblown adoration can be partially traced to baby boomers (of whom I am one) who grew up with little Michael from the Jackson 5 in the 1960s. Prone to overstating our generation’s importance to the culture, even claiming credit for ending the Vietnam War via college protests, some of us also crow about our role in civil rights advancement, insisting that Jackson engendered widespread acceptance of black entertainers.

Wrong: That was Sammy Davis Jr., who overcame the type of racial indignities and bigoted invective likely never encountered by Jackson, who came of age with soul-based Motown Records, whose songs were colossal hits with both blacks and whites.

Earnest but unrealistic disapprovers bemoan how we worship at the Altar of Pop/Sports Superstars while some of the worthiest among us—teachers, scientists, nurses, police officers, firefighters, etc.—are underpaid and underappreciated. Hey, welcome to contemporary America. We live to be entertained, and entertainers are our heroes—period, it won’t change, end of story.

Yet there is a line between overdone and overwrought, between admiring a talented human being and transforming him into a golden calf.

Here in Las Vegas, fantasy is central to our appeal. Let the fantasy flow at Michael Jackson ONE. Just one caveat: Check your prayer shawls, burning incense and heavenly illusions at the theater door.

Michael Jackson ONE

Michael Jackson Theatre at Mandalay Bay, Sat-Wed, times vary during current previews, 7 and 10 p.m. as of June 29 opening, $69 and up, 877-632-7400, MandalayBay.com.

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  • Mrkareemruiz

    Michael Jackson was a great man, Rip bro.

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