Review of the Michael Jackson Musical 'Thriller Live' in London - WSJ.comLondon
'Thriller Live," a new West End show built around the music of Michael Jackson, features a moonwalking lookalike, zombie choreography and prepubescent singers who hit the high notes on "ABC." What's absent: any backstory about the elusive King of Pop.
To reel in audiences with a familiar hook, producers have long looked to "jukebox musicals" that weave a story around the songs of famous acts such as the Four Seasons, Queen or ABBA. Now, the creators of "Thriller Live" are stripping that model down. With a string of more than 30 song-and-dance numbers ranging from "Ben" to "Bad," they're mounting what's essentially a two-hour tribute concert, billed as a "musical celebration" on the posters plastered around London. There's no plot or dialogue -- just music.
"We don't have a big name in the cast to pay. There are no moving sets or scenery," says producer Paul Walden. Instead, his team is betting that Mr. Jackson's music will draw crowds as the troubled global economy makes people more picky about their entertainment choices.
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On Broadway, slow ticket sales have forced some shows to close and the credit crunch is hampering new productions. By comparison, London's theater industry has held stable, buoyed by a raft of musicals featuring stars cast via reality TV shows. As of mid-December, total box-office revenue had slipped by only 1% from the record gross of $686 million in 2007, according to the Society of London Theatre.
Beyond brother Tito Jackson's plans to attend the "Thriller Live" premiere, neither Michael Jackson nor his family are involved in the production. The star gets revenue from the show only indirectly, through standard fees that the production pays to Britain's Performing Rights Society, which collects royalties on behalf of songwriters. Mr. Jackson's record company, Sony, isn't connected to the show either, though a spokesman for Sony Music UK says it supports the production. The company is eager to promote Mr. Jackson's back catalog in lieu of new music -- he hasn't released an album of new material since "Invincible" in 2001. He's been in the studio with various producers and last year discussed a performance residency in Las Vegas, but the 50-year-old star has stayed out of the public eye since he was tried and acquitted of child-molestation charges in 2005.
Representatives for Mr. Jackson did not respond to requests for comment.
"Thriller Live" came out of the fandom of its creator, Adrian Grant. About 20 years ago the Reading native launched a Michael Jackson fan club magazine called "Off the Wall," which led to visits with his idol in the studio and at the Neverland Ranch. In 1991 Mr. Grant began staging talent shows where fans would flaunt their impressions and renditions of Mr. Jackson's music. These annual productions (including one attended by the star himself in 2001) eventually attracted the attention of Flying Music, a production company specializing in tribute shows based on the music of Fleetwood Mac, the Rat Pack and other acts.
In 2007, after refining the "Thriller Live" concept, Flying Music financed a six-week tour around the U.K. Attendance was "patchy" and reviews were mixed, says Mr. Walden. But the tour built steam, leading to two follow-up tours through the U.K. and Europe. Now, in addition to the West End run at the Lyric Theatre (opening Jan. 21 and booking into April), a separate "Thriller Live" show will go to Europe again starting in February. So far, at least, there are no plans to bring the show to the U.S.
On the stage of the Lyric Theatre, a 900-seat venue, two sets of stairs flank a video screen that flashes images of Mr. Jackson and declarations about his commercial clout, such as "The 'Thriller' album was at No. 1 for 37 weeks!" Eighteen cast members, split between singers and dancers, work through his catalog chronologically, starting with Jackson 5 fare such as "I Want You Back," pausing only for introductions and praise for Mr. Jackson's legacy.
Ricko Baird, an American dancer costumed in a fedora and black loafers, got some of the loudest applause at a preview show last week when he moonwalked, thrust his pelvis and executed other trademark Jackson moves.
Four boys have been cast to perform young Michael's material and will rotate through the performance schedule. They include 14-year-old Layton Williams, who recently shared the lead role in the London version of "Billy Elliot." The boys represent one of the show's biggest hooks -- cooing "aaws" from the crowd greeted 14-year-old Ashton Russell each time he appeared on stage last week -- as well as a potential weakness. "Unfortunately they quickly grow up," Mr. Walden says. "Once their voices break they can't sing the songs."
Another challenge for the show: The singing and dancing abilities of the cast members invite comparisons to Mr. Jackson in his prime. But with the pop star absent from the world stage for the foreseeable future, productions like "Thriller Live" might be the closest fans can get to the real thing. Even Mr. Walden tends to refer to Mr. Jackson in the past tense, saying, "Here was an artist who had an amazing career."