Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage was giddy when she was asked to write the book for a Michael Jackson musical.

Jackson, after all, had provided the soundtrack for much of her life.

“When was last time you went to a wedding or a bar mitzvah or any form of celebration that they didn’t break out a Michael Jackson song at some point?” Nottage said. “Michael created music that made people dance, that made them feel joy and have a lot of fun.”

Nottage teamed up with British director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon for “MJ the Musical” to bring the artist’s story alive onstage. “MJ” won four Tonys, including for sound designer Gareth Owen, who re-created the studio sound of Jackson’s albums in a live theatrical setting.

“Once you hear something with great sound, there’s no going back,” said Owen, who has mixed stadium concerts for the likes of the Who and the Rolling Stones. “I’m used to dealing with big, exacting personalities, what we did with MJ, as with all my work, was match the ideas and dreams of the past with today’s technology.”

Roman Banks, a 25-year-old Stone Mountain, Ga., native, plays the title character in the Broadway tour of “MJ,” which opens a two-week run Tuesday at Minneapolis’ Orpheum Theatre. Banks has a familial connection to Jackson. He has an uncle, Abe Clark, who danced in Jackson’s “Bad” video.

“It’s the honor of my life to play MJ,” Banks said. “And I share a few things with him, including a perfectionism that I’m working on.”

The Star Tribune spoke with Nottage about crafting a work around a complicated icon. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: “Man in the Mirror,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough” — there are so many song titles that could have been used to title this show?

A: And we toyed with all of them. We ran the gamut. But in the end, people really loved MJ, which is what a lot of fans called him.

Q: As you dived into his life, what did you learn that surprised or shocked you?

A: I wouldn’t say that I was shocked or surprised but the thing I really discovered was how intentional he was about everything that he did musically. Michael was a very private person. He wanted control of every aspect of his public image and his perfectionism became one of the more troubling aspects of his creative process.

Q: Why focus on the 1992 Dangerous Tour?

A: It was going to be perhaps the biggest tour ever for any artist and he’d just been dubbed the King of Pop. So, it’s a moment when Michael was very much feeling his power but also feeling his fragility. I think that there was real fear on his part that he was not going to be able to top himself and there’s a real struggle within him to figure out, “How do I continue to innovate and push the boundaries of the industry and make good music.”

Q: The moment was also fraught for pop music, right?

A: The industry was beginning to shift with bands like Nirvana coming in. There was a lot of pushback against pop music. So, I think that he was feeling all of the complexity of what it means to be the King of Pop in the moment when pop music was under siege.

Q: His songs are iconic. What was your approach to using his music in “MJ”?

A: We wanted to use some of the music diegetically — to celebrate Michael Jackson’s musicianship but also tell us a story about his life. That’s why we came up with the narrative that we did interweaving his past with the present in a way that feels seamless and doesn’t feel like we’re trying to cover every single beat in his life. One of the things that we really very intentionally wanted to do was deviate from the traditional bio musical tropes of looking at someone’s life from the cradle to the grave.

Q: Everyone has their own version, if you will, of Michael Jackson’s music. Did you say, OK, I’m going to give the audience 60% of what it knows and rearrange the other 40% of the songs?

A: To be honest we weren’t thinking of it that way. We were asking how we could be in dialogue with Michael’s music and create something that was representative of who he was as an artist — something that also pushed the audience’s understanding of his art. So, some of that meant highlighting lyrics of the songs and some of that meant highlighting the music.

Q: I was particularly interested in how you used some of the songs expressionistically versus as interior dialogue?

A: The songs that exist in the rehearsal room tend to function more traditionally than the songs that exist in Michael’s imagination. That’s how we played with it. One of the songs that I really love but that we have packaged in a different way is “Thriller.” We use it narratively to explore Michael’s relationship to his own fears about his career, his father. I guess we were asking what Michael Jackson’s nightmare might look like. It asks the audience to hear “Thriller” in a new way that pushes the boundaries of that song and to think about Michael Jackson differently.

‘MJ the Musical’

Where: Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.

When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Fri., 2 & 7:30 p.m. Sat., 1 & 6:30 p.m. Sun. Ends May 26.

Tickets: $50-$199. Hennepintheatretrust.org.



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