Christopher Wheeldon interview: ‘MJ’ director and choreographer

“The goal from the very beginning was to capture the essence of Michael, but also make a new piece of art,” describes director and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon of his work on “MJ the Musical.” The new Broadway musical captures a pivotal moment in the life of Michael Jackson through the use of the King of Pop’s iconic song catalog. But don’t expect the dancing to merely be a mimic of the moves and staging found in past music videos. Wheeldon and book writer Lynn Nottage weren’t interested in simply staging a recreation. “It was seeing Michael’s musical language, his dance vocabulary, through the lens of Lynn Nottage, through my lens,” explains the director. That specific lens earned him double Tony Award nominations for directing and choreography. Watch the exclusive video interview above.

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The creators set the show in 1992, while Jackson was rehearsing for the “Dangerous” tour. Wheeldon points out that some critics have said that this timing avoids some of the major controversies that continue to haunt the singer, he explains that “Michael was already living a very complex and lonely life.” Press was already hounding him with criticisms and doubts. “He was questioning himself as an artist and pushing really hard to innovate. And he was achieving that, but wearing himself thin in the process,” notes Wheeldon. This proved to be fertile storytelling ground, as the production sets out to shine a light on what it takes to be a truly great artist.

Dance is Wheeldon’s medium of choice, having entered the world of musical theater via ballet. So Jackson’s signature move set is a source of both awe and inspiration. “His movement was so explosive, so articulate,” exclaims the choreographer, “I mean, maybe one of the most articulate dancers I’ve ever seen.” He enlisted the help of Rich and Tone Talauega (who had previously worked with the King of Pop) to help fit the specific movement onto the body of star Myles Frost, but Wheeldon was interested in how to apply this dance style to the overall storytelling.

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One of the most impressive moments of dance storytelling occurs at the top of Act 2. Actors playing Bob Fosse, Fred Astaire and The Nicholas Brothers (three of MJ’s biggest sources of inspiration) float across the stage. As each dance legend starts to cut a rug to the music, Frost’s Jackson joins in and absorbs pieces of their movement language: the articulate fingers of Fosse, the hat tricks of Astaire, the acrobatic splits of the Nicholas Brothers. “We thought, what better way to start Act 2 than doing the anatomy of Michael as a dancer,” explains Wheeldon of the inventive number. He considered it a fun challenge as a choreographer, to show how the pop stars’ iconic dance language was pieced together.

This isn’t the first time Wheeldon has earned two Tony nominations for a single show. He was previously nominated for his direction and choreography of “An American in Paris,” winning the latter award. While he is sure to keep the awards race out of the room when making a piece of art, he admits that it’s exhilarating to win a Tony Award. That’s largely because you’re, in his words, “standing up on that stage and looking out at the vast, iconic, Radio City Music Hall.” It’s a venue that he admits he first fell in love with after repeated viewings of the movie “Annie” when he was younger. “So it’s definitely a pinch me moment,” he says with a smile.

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UPLOADED May 28, 2022 3:02 pm