A Broadway-bound Michael Jackson musical is already stirring controversy, and it hasn’t even been seen yet.
Last week, the show’s book writer, Lynn Nottage, stepped into a minefield when she gave an interview to the Daily Mail in which she suggested that she found the two men who detailed abuse allegations against Jackson in a new documentary to be truthful.
Jackson’s most passionate defenders — a group known for its ardency — went to war, immediately demanding that Ms. Nottage, a two-time Pulitzer winner and one of America’s most respected dramatists, be fired.
This was not the first time the documentary, “Leaving Neverland,” has cast a shadow over the embryonic musical, “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough.” In the days before the documentary aired on HBO in March, the musical’s producers — the Michael Jackson Estate and Columbia Live Stage — postponed a scheduled developmental session, citing a labor issue, and canceled a planned pre-Broadway production in Chicago.
But now the musical’s producers say they are back on track, planning a workshop this fall and aiming for Broadway next summer.
And Ms. Nottage, joined by the musical’s director and choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon, sat down for an interview to discuss the documentary and their show.
Both are lifelong Jackson fans — she was wowed by “ABC” and “Off the Wall,” and he by “Bad.” And both have impressive credentials — Ms. Nottage, best known for the plays “Ruined” and “Sweat,” is now adapting “The Secret Life of Bees” as an Off Broadway musical, and Mr. Wheeldon’s 2015 stage version of “An American in Paris” earned 12 Tony Award nominations.
Here are edited excerpts from the conversation:
When the documentary came out, did you think about withdrawing from this project?
WHEELDON I don’t think we did. This is obviously challenging — it makes this not without its complications, for sure — but part of what we do as artists is we respond to complexity.
NOTTAGE All of the emotions that I was feeling were very complicated, and I think a lot of people out there are processing and dealing with those same emotions. I see the artwork that we’re making as a way to more deeply understand Michael Jackson and process feelings, and ultimately that’s what theater can do.
Does either of you believe that Michael Jackson was a child molester?
WHEELDON It’s a very difficult question to answer, especially in the position that we are, making this musical right now. The recent documentary is very believable, but our position in making this show is that we’re trying to make a show that’s balanced. So I don’t know that I have a definitive answer for you. Those are questions that we’re asking in our process.
NOTTAGE It’s really hard to traffic in absolutes. Do I believe he was a pedophile? I don’t know that I can say one way or the other. I don’t think any of us can say with absolute certainty, because we’ve been presented with some information, but Michael Jackson is dead, he’s not in a position to defend himself. It does hurt my heart to think about the possibility that it could be true, and I pray that it isn’t true, and that’s all I can do. I’m not going to be a Michael apologist, but I can’t say 100 percent.
You were quoted saying you believed the men who accused him.
NOTTAGE What I was saying, and what I was getting at, is that the men came across as very believable. But here’s the caveat: Were they ultimately telling the truth? I cannot 100 percent say so, because I’m not judge and jury, and it’s not my place to do that.
WHEELDON You can’t watch the documentary without being profoundly disturbed by it, but again, we’re not judge and jury. In our process, we’re facing it pretty much head on, but we’re also studying the many facets of Michael Jackson.
NOTTAGE We’re not journalists. Folks have to remember we’re theater artists that are examining the life of this very complicated artist. We can ask certain questions, but our job is not to answer those questions. My job is to reflect and interrogate and present.
WHEELDON And paint a balanced picture. Yes, lean into the complexities, lean into the darkness, but also recognize the great amount of music and film and choreography that Michael left behind.
Did the estate put any restrictions on what you could address?
NOTTAGE No, they absolutely didn’t. Up until this point they have not, and I don’t believe they will. Initially when we sat down to do this musical we really had a very honest conversation with the estate — that if we can’t tell this full story then perhaps we are not the right people to do it. They know who I am as a writer. I’m very deeply invested in approaching my work with honesty and integrity.
WHEELDON I don’t think either Lynn or I would be working on this if we felt like there were restrictions on what we can and can’t talk about.
NOTTAGE That said, we don’t know whether it’s going to be a musical about some of the issues that your colleagues have raised. But we need the room for discovery and we need the room for process without being censored before we get there.
Have you considered walking away?
NOTTAGE I’m very committed to this collaboration with Chris. We have, up until this point, created a piece of art that I feel very proud of, and I think it would be a damn shame to walk away from it now. We created a piece of art that’s very truthful and very beautiful. That said, have I had restless, sleepless nights? Absolutely, and I probably will continue until the day we open.
Some fans are calling for you to be fired.
NOTTAGE There will be people from every side who, no matter what we create, will condemn us, and we are prepared to enter into that very difficult space in order to make art.
The fan base is intense.
NOTTAGE I would ask that the fans be respectful to the process, and trust us as artists. And I do in some ways feel up to the challenge of telling this story, as scary as it is, because of the great divide that exists. But, in this day and age, I feel like if we as artists run away from complexity, then who are we?
What is your approach to this project?
NOTTAGE We didn’t want to create the typical jukebox musical. One of the things that I reject is when you try to do these cradle-to-grave stories — I don’t think they’re that interesting. So we’re focusing on just one period of his life that’s really representative of his life as a whole — we opted to look at the early ’90s, and very specifically the “Dangerous” tour, which was the apotheosis of his creative journey.
How are you dealing with the more problematic aspects of his life?
WHEELDON We’re about to go back to our rewriting process, and obviously we’re not doing the show in a vacuum. We’re sensitive to what’s going on and we’ll see whether it works into the show or not. But the primary focus of our show has always been focusing on Michael’s creative process.
NOTTAGE I know that everyone wants us to say, “This is what we’re doing,” but we’re trying to figure out what we want to do day by day. We’re really trying to figure out how do we tell this story in a way that’s respectful.
Respectful to who?
NOTTAGE To all of us. To all of the people who are involved in the collaboration. Respectful to the music that was made. We’re doing the due diligence to think about how do you talk about the musical legacy of someone who was a genius but also came with a lot of baggage?
Does musical theater allow for a serious discussion of tough issues?
NOTTAGE We’re really deeply invested in shifting the paradigm of musical-making, and particularly the jukebox musical. And Broadway certainly is ready for a musical that’s a little more serious. We want this to be a musical that everyone can come to, regardless of how they feel about Michael Jackson, and they will leave with a better understanding of who he was as a human being.
Follow Michael Paulson on Twitter: @MichaelPaulson.
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