Stage tribute to Jackson hits all the right notes

by Patrick ST. Michel

Special To The Japan Times

Like many people in the 1980s, Adrian Grant was a huge Michael Jackson fan. He was so fond of the “King of Pop” that he started a Jackson fan magazine titled “Off The Wall” in 1988. Grant says he wrote and designed the entire first issue by himself — in total, he published a scant 200 copies.

From those small beginnings in his native England, though, Grant eventually found bigger stages to share his fandom with the world, culminating in the creation of a concert titled “Thriller Live” in 2006. The 2½-hour show celebrating Jackson’s music has toured across Europe, and in South Africa and China. Since 2009, “Thriller Live” has played at the Lyric Theater in London’s famed West End theater district, and the show makes its Japanese debut on Sept. 29 at the Blue Theater in Tokyo’s Roppongi district. Additional shows are scheduled for Osaka around the end of December.

“It’s a journey through his career,” Grant says about the show. “Starting with the Jackson 5, and on to the ’70s and his solo career.”

Even though the show’s male lead, Sean Christopher, plays the role of Jackson and performs his iconic dance moves dressed in outfits based off the ones from his music videos, Grant is quick to point out that “Thriller Live” isn’t an impersonation show. Many segments don’t feature anyone dressed up like Jackson, but rather a mix of the 21 singers and dancers who make up the cast, including female lead Samantha Johnson.

“I am who I am because I’m affected by Michael Jackson,” she says, wearing a faded Jackson T-shirt. “So I feel that for me the show is very easy. When I got here it was like I just came and I was the fan I was. (This role is) not like being a performer, but being a fan who sings and dances. That’s how I look at it.”

Johnson, Christopher and Grant say the cast coming over for the show’s Japanese run are “overly passionate, huge Jackson fans,” and they make it a point to stress how important the singer has been to them personally.

“As a fan myself, this is my way of giving back to the fans,” Christopher says. “To say this is what he taught me and understand the passion of his music.”

Grant says he was in a similar frame of mind when he started his “Off The Wall” fanzine. “It was a way of bringing all the Michael Jackson fans together.”

The initiative to start the fanzine, though, came from another ’80s superstar. “There was a Prince fanzine, and I used to get that from the record store. And it was selling like 3,000 copies,” Grant says. “I thought, ‘If Prince has a magazine, why doesn’t Jackson have one?’ “

After asking for and receiving permission from Jackson’s record label, Sony, Grant put together the first issue of “Off The Wall.” Over time, the fanzine’s fortunes improved. Grant says readers began contributing their own articles about personal experiences with Jackson and his music. “Off The Wall” started selling more and more copies, and Grant says he eventually got the magazine into Virgin Record Stores, which upped sales from 200 copies to 2,000 copies. Soon afterward, the project went national in England and moved 25,000 copies.

The next big moment in Grant’s history as a fan came in 1990, when he met Jackson in person at the pop star’s famed Neverland Ranch in Santa Barbara, California. Grant says the star’s management team really liked “Off The Wall,” as did Jackson himself. So Grant was invited out to Jackson’s estate.

“I was waiting in a room and I could hear Michael singing. It was just incredible,” Grant recalls. “I had a really good day!”

Grant interviewed him for his fanzine and afterward asked if it would be alright to snap a few photos of Jackson to go with the piece. The singer’s management shot the idea down. Grant smiles as he finishes his story: “But Michael responded, ‘Yes, he can take pictures.’ “

Grant remained close with Jackson through the years, and wrote three books about the star. In 1991, Grant began producing the “Michael Jackson Tribute” show, an annual event that was kind of a “Thriller Live” prototype. Grant says the big difference between the two productions was that the “Tribute” show featured no professional performers. Jackson personally attended the 10th anniversary show in 2001.

Grant began developing “Thriller Live,” during the time when Jackson was on trial for child molestation charges, a case that had dominated the media for two years. “We wanted to bring the public back to Michael’s music, as the media at the time were just talking about the allegations,” Grant says. “People forgot what a great artist he was.”

“Thriller Live” accordingly avoids any mention of Jackson’s life outside of his music and, like Grant’s previous tribute show, caters to fans. Fans like Johnson.

“I felt like somewhat of an outcast at times (due to the perception of Jackson in the media),” she says. “There would be times during his interviews where he would look into the camera and say, ‘My real fans know what’s true, my real fans know who I am.’ I always felt like he was talking right to me.”

Theaters in 2006 weren’t as eager about “Thriller Live.” Grant says it was very difficult to get the show booked at some venues. Owners were cautious about having a show about Jackson during a period where his name wasn’t particularly marketable.

“But when people saw the show and the reviews were coming in very positive, that led us to more venues,” Grant says.

Following Jackson’s death in 2009, the situation completely changed.

“It was popular before Michael passed away, but after Michael passed away everyone wanted to book shows,” Grant says. “Thriller Live” has toured around Europe and, in 2011, made stops in China and Singapore. Next February, the production will debut on another continent, as “Thriller Live” shows are scheduled to be performed in Brazil.

Grant says that unless a promoter requests specific changes (like how the Brazil run will feature some Portuguese narration), the production remains pretty much the same from country to country, with Jackson’s music trumping language barriers.

“Each country is different, but the response from the audience is the same,” he says. “By the end of the show, everyone is on their feet, singing and dancing along.”

The Japanese run of “Thriller Live” is likely to have the same effect on audiences if early previews are anything to go by. The cast performed four sneak peeks of the show at this year’s Summer Sonic music festival in Chiba Prefecture. The actors start to glow as they talk about the experience.

“I love the Japanese fans,” Christopher says. “They heard the opening notes to the first song and just started going crazy.”

Johnson says her favorite moment at Summer Sonic was when the cast performed after Canadian pop star Nelly Furtado. “I walked out on stage and the fans just started cheering,” she laughs. “They didn’t know who I was, they were just so excited to see what was coming next.”

That post-Furtado “Thriller Live” performance came late during the first day of the festival. More impressive was its 11 a.m. showing on Sunday, a time when many punters either sleep in or prefer to catch a nap at the back of the venue. The morning preview brought a few hundred viewers to the festival’s large Mountain Stage area, and with each new song the crowd shook off their slumber and moved to classics such as The Jackson 5′s “I Want You Back” or Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” Even ads for the show that played between the live-music sets received a fair amount of cheers throughout the festival.

“We’ve had lots of inquiries about coming to Japan,” Grant says. “It’s an important market, especially because of how passionate Japanese fans are towards Michael. Michael loved Japan.”

Grant, Christopher and Johnson all emphasize how much the entire cast loves Jackson’s music and how that music has moved millions worldwide.

“I think it’s timeless,” Christopher says. “You can still feel the same energy now as when it first came out — every single generation knows it.”

It is Johnson, though, who hints that the show isn’t devoted solely to Jackson’s songs, but rather his impact on the world’s music scene.

“You can put something on and know it is inspired by him,” Johnson says. “You know (singers) Usher and Justin Timberlake are inspired by Michael Jackson to the point they might fall under the genre of Michael Jackson. With ‘Thriller Live,’ we are really celebrating a big umbrella of pop music.”

“Thriller Live” runs at Roppongi Blue Theater in Minato-ku, Tokyo, from Sept. 29 till Dec. 9 (dates and times vary). Tickets are ¥7,500 and ¥8,500 in advance, with a discount for students. “Thriller Live” travels to Osaka from Dec. 18-27. For more information, visit www.thrillerlive.jp .