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Expressing The King Of Pop With Music, Acrobatics


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, actor Anthony Mackie stars in this summer's fantasy thriller, "Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter," but what's the movie that Mackie could watch over and over again? We'll find out in a few minutes.

First, though, we want to talk about the late king of pop, Michael Jackson. You remember that he died suddenly in 2009, and his family is back in the news because family members have been squabbling privately and publicly over his will and whether his children are being adequately cared for.

But even as those issues have been tabloid fodder for some days now, Michael Jackson's music has been the backdrop and inspiration for what has become the number one stage show in the country.


MICHAEL JACKSON: (Singing) Jam. It ain't too much stuff. It ain't too much. It ain't too much for me to jam.

MARTIN: Audiences everywhere are jamming at Cirque du Soleil's "Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour." The show is the top-grossing North American tour right now, with almost $80 million in ticket sales in the first half of this year.

Tara Young is the artistic director of the show, and we caught up with her at member station WBEZ in Chicago, when the show stopped there recently.

Tara, welcome to the program. Thanks so much for joining us.

TARA YOUNG: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: Well, tell us a little bit about the show, for people who haven't yet had a chance to see it: kind of a concert, acrobatics, a tribute all rolled into one. How would you describe it?

YOUNG: Well, that's beautifully said by you, Michel. Combining Cirque du Soleil's excellence and the legend, Michael Jackson, the king of pop, together creates an evening of extraordinary feats. Whenever you saw a Cirque du Soleil show or a Michael Jackson show, you really had the sense that anything was possible. And when we brought those two forces together, I really, really do believe there is a presence there of excellence, as I say, but also life-changing.

MARTIN: I remember practicing the "Thriller" moves, you know, for, like, hours, you know, with my friends. And so there are people sometimes who will go to an event like this that's a tribute, and they will expect it to be kind of a recapitulation of that person. Right? So how did you avoid that?

YOUNG: Well, you know, what we did mostly - and we continue to do - is we honor the king of pop. And, in honoring him, we're celebrating his life. Let's take it back a little bit to educate people of how this all came about, and then that gets us to where we are every night performing.

Michael Jackson was a huge fan of Cirque du Soleil, and he always had dreams to collaborate with them. So it was a natural progression in a time when it was so devastating and sad that we lost the king of pop, it was a natural progression for these two forces to join together. So that's the first thing that happened. And there is a responsibility when something like that happens, but I will tell you that when audiences come to see the show, I am very certain that they feel his presence and that if Michael Jackson saw the show himself, he indeed would be proud.

MARTIN: By all accounts, I mean, there's a reason why there have been - the show has grossed almost $80 million, and that is that people come away both invigorated by the connection to the Michael Jackson that they already know and love, or the tradition or the legacy of Michael Jackson, but also inspired by the artistry of the Cirque du Soleil performance.

So I have to ask: Are these acrobats who learned to dance, or are these dancers who learned to do acrobatics?

YOUNG: That's a great question. Our show has 61 artists that perform every single night that we're performing. And in that group of artists, we have indeed acrobats. We also have dancers. We have singers, one of which worked with Michael Jackson. We have musicians, where a handful of them also worked with Michael Jackson. And then we have specialty acts. And that's what raises the bar a little bit from it being just a concert with dance.

So it's that collaboration of excellence that I think is certainly expected from a Cirque du Soleil concert, but also, when you put Michael Jackson, there's an expectation that you will push the barriers.

MARTIN: There's one performer - when you talk about pushing the envelope - who has only one leg, who gets resounding applause.

YOUNG: Yeah. He certainly does.

MARTIN: Tell us about him. Is it Jean Sok?

YOUNG: Absolutely. Yeah.

MARTIN: Tell us about him.

YOUNG: Well, he's the first to tell us and everybody that he celebrates exactly who he is right now in his life. He is certainly not wishing to have another leg. He works with what he has, and he does push the envelope because we see him doing the iconic choreography that all the other dancers are doing, but he's doing it on one leg. So when you see "Thriller," the choreography that everybody remembers from the video, you see him doing it on one leg.


JACKSON: (Singing) 'Cause this is thriller, thriller night. There ain't no second chance against the thing with 40 eyes, girl. Thriller, thriller night. You're fighting for your life inside a killer, thriller tonight.

YOUNG: Michael Jackson was known for celebrating all humanity, all people from different countries, from different races. And this is much like our show. We have a cast from all over the world that we fully celebrated, and Michael certainly would've fully celebrated.

MARTIN: I'm sure people will want to ask - well, I'm sure there are some who will wonder whether Mr. Jackson's family had any role in the conception or execution of the show?

YOUNG: Absolutely. We worked very closely with the estate. And in terms of Michael's immediate family, his mother, his children, his brothers, they all came to see the show. And the collaboration, indeed, was that they celebrated the show. And they're very, very proud of the work, and we received only positive feedback.

MARTIN: Do I have it right, that some of the members of the touring cast and crew were from Michael Jackson's band, who toured with him?

YOUNG: You do have that right. That is indeed correct.

MARTIN: It must be kind of an emotional experience for them.

YOUNG: Well, it is. It certainly is emotional, but I also think there's a part of it for them that is the closure that they needed, because just as Michael Jackson said in his song "Gone Too Soon," I think for them, he was gone too soon. So I think in many ways, they needed to do this for their own personal journey of closure.


JACKSON: (Singing) Like a rainbow fading in a twinkling of an eye, gone too soon. Shiny and sparkly and splendidly bright, here one day, gone one night.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm speaking with Tara Young. She is the artistic director of the number one live show touring North America right now. That is Cirque du Soleil's "Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour."

I understand that you've been dancing since you were three.

YOUNG: That is correct.

MARTIN: And you landed your first professional dancing job at the age of 19 at Radio City Music Hall with Liza Minnelli, who was a close friend of Michael Jacksons'. And, you know, here we are now. You are the artistic director of the show with Michael Jackson...

YOUNG: Yeah. That worked out nicely, didn't?


MARTIN: But what about that? I mean...

YOUNG: That actually - that's a wonderful coincidence. I will say something: I never met Michael Jackson personally. When I was working with Liza for - I worked with her for about three years. She spoke of him often. And the similarity between those two legends is their desire for excellence and their perfectionist ways to always improve, and there's always room for improvement. And that was a wonderful way to start my career. And I instill that every day in myself and then the people I surround myself with, certainly. I ask them to live by that professionally, for sure.

MARTIN: How do you catch up with the rest of your life, like, while you're gone? I mean, what do you do? Pay your bills online? Or what do you...

YOUNG: I sort of put it on pause. I'm good with the pause button. I know that this is a temporary moment in time. Oh, everything's paid online. I own an apartment in New York, and it's all - everything is paid online, and we just - we travel. But this is a moment, you know, I - Michel, I look at it that we were all chosen and really lucky to be carrying on his legacy at this time in our life, and it's not forever. So New York will always be there.

MARTIN: What is it that you think is the key to this? Do you think it's that - what is the key? Because you can see - easily see a scenario where this could be eerie, even creepy for people, right? But it isn't.

YOUNG: Yeah.

MARTIN: What do you think of the trick of it? What do you think is the key to it, if you can even unpack that without losing the magic of it?

YOUNG: Yeah. I think Michael Jackson was known for his many, many messages. But a few that we celebrate in the show and deliver to the audience are messages of peace, of unity, of love, of hope. And when you keep that constant as a focal point throughout an evening of entertainment, it doesn't become anything other than that. But when you do messages of peace, unity, love and hope, that means that you will be on an emotional ride for sure. So, at times, people will be teary-eyed watching the show. At times, they'll be on their feet doing the choreography, because there's a celebration and there's also a loss. And that's what is so unique about this two-and-a-half-hour evening.

MARTIN: I'm sure it's bittersweet, though. I understand that Michael Jackson was actually at the very first Cirque du Soleil 25 years ago, when the show first opened in America. And as you mentioned earlier, he always hoped to collaborate with the group. And you can certainly see why in terms of their exploration of physical space, of gravity, of, you know, pushing beyond the limits of what most people think the human body can do.

YOUNG: Yeah. Absolutely.

MARTIN: So in a way, it's kind of wonderful that the collaboration actually took place. But it's a little bittersweet, isn't it, that it happened this way? I don't know.

YOUNG: Of course. It is that. And when we performed and we saw his children in the front row, that is something that you never expect that you're going to experience in your life. So it is bittersweet, for sure. But as I said earlier, if Michael Jackson saw this concert, I do really feel he would be proud, as proud as his children are and his mother and his brothers.

MARTIN: I do have to ask you because, you know, I have to ask. What's your favorite Michael Jackson song?

YOUNG: In the place that I am today, right now, I would say that "I'll Be There" is my favorite. I love the simplicity of it. I love the presence of Michael Jackson, his voice. He was such a young child when he was singing that. That's a moment in our show that I love, but I also - I have always loved that song.


THE JACKSON FIVE: (Singing) I'll reach out my hand to you. I'll have faith in all you do. Just call my name, and I'll be there. I'll be there. And, oh, I'll be there to comfort you...

MARTIN: Tara Young is the artistic director of the Cirque du Soleil's "Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour." The show is still running in cities throughout the summer, and it heads overseas for an international tour later this year. And Tara was kind enough to join us from member station WBEZ in Chicago.

Tara, thank you so much for speaking with us.

YOUNG: Absolutely. My pleasure. Thank you, Michel.


FIVE: (Singing) Let me fill your heart with joy and laughter. Togetherness, girl, it's all I'm after. Whenever you need me, I'll be there. I'll be there. I'll be there to protect you. Yeah, baby. With an unselfish love, I'll respect you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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