Whenever you hear news about Michael Jackson these days, you expect at least a touch of the bizarre. The latest Jacko-flash is no exception: there are plans to turn his iconic “Thriller” video into a Broadway musical.
But this is one piece of Jackson news that may not be as off the wall as it initially sounds.
Producer James Nederlander announced that he’s acquired the rights to mount a stage version of the horror movie spoof video, along with songs from Jackson’s “Thriller” and “Off the Wall” albums.
It’s hard to remember, but before he became a moon-walking joke, thanks to face-altering antics, sham marriages, baby-dangling stunts, stomach-turning molestation accusations and, of course, that creepy Neverland Ranch, Jackson was the biggest force in pop. “Thriller” remains the best selling album of all time.
The key to the Broadway deal isn’t necessarily the video, but the contents of the two landmark albums, packed with hits: “Billie Jean,” “Beat it,” “Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough,” “Rock With You,” to name a scant few.
Much-mocked jukebox musicals – shows featuring the catalogs of popular artists or genres – have proven a hit-or-miss proposition.
“Movin’ Out” (Billy Joel), “Tommy” (The Who), “Mama Mia” (Abba), and “Jersey Boys” (The Four Seasons) are among the success stories. Others, like “Good Vibrations” (The Beach Boys) and “All Shook up” (Elvis Presley), only added to the broken hearts on Broadway.
The time may be ripe for a Jackson revival: “Rock of Ages,” featuring 1980s hits from groups like Journey, Twisted Sister and Foreigner is set to hit Broadway in March, following a well-received off-Broadway run. Jackson’s mix of love songs and beat-driven 1980s pop could draw new audiences -- and families -- to the theater.
Another plus is Nederlander, who has Broadway in his blood and whose Manhattan theaters currently house hits like “Wicked” and “In the Heights.”
The big question is the story, to be based on the 13-plus-minute 1983 video in which Jackson turns into a werewolf and dances with zombies. Directed by John Landis, the short film quickly became a Jackson classic. More than a quarter century later, it’s been rediscovered, ringing up more than 31 million YouTube views.
So can a video sustain a show? Scary-movie camp has worked before. (Think “Rocky Horror.”)
The more successful jukebox musicals have original plots, or tell the story of the artists, as in the cases of “Jersey Boys” and “Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story.”
In Jackson's case, the show has a shot as long as it’s not HIStory. That would be too frightening to contemplate.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.