Michael Jackson sold hundreds of millions of records during his lifetime. Even after his death in 2009, Jackson's estate is estimated to have earned more than $1 billion, with $383 million of that attributed to record sales.
Jackson's posthumous popularity gets another boost thanks to the Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil, whose combination of theatrics and jaw-dropping acrobatics have made it almost as well known as Jackson. The company's current show, Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour, which moonwalks into Boise's Taco Bell Arena on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2012, (the Wednesday, Jan. 4 show has been canceled due to Cirque du Soleil scheduling conflicts) should keep both in the public eye for a few more decades.
Jackson's life--and certainly his death--was comparable to a circus as a frenzy of paparazzi surrounded him from the time he was a young child in the Jackson 5. His awkward marriage to Lisa-Marie Presley, accusations of child molestation, the amusement-park atmosphere of Neverland Ranch, his plastic surgeries--everything Jackson did or said was of interest to fans and detractors.
His oddness often overshadowed his music, but it is because of his music that he still reigns as the King of Pop. According to Maxime Charbonneau, Cirque du Soleil's publicist, Jackson's persona and his iconic catalog made him a natural fit for Cirque du Soleil's particular brand of entertainment.
"This is a massive, massive arena-touring show production," Charbonneau said. "It's a hybrid between a pop-rock concert and a Cirque du Soleil production. You're going to get both worlds: the dancing and the live music mixed with Cirque du Soleil's all original costumes and acrobatics. This show is not just acrobatics, though. You're going to get great dancing, too."
The 65-member full-time cast (none of whom have understudies) includes French dance phenoms Larry and Laurent Bourgeois--better known as Les Twins--as well as a one-legged breakdancer. As acrobats fly through the air, dancers fill the stage in costumes that light up, along with a giant white glove. Hits like "Billie Jean" and lesser-known songs like "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" fill the arena. And all of the music--except for Jackson's voice--is performed live. Of the 12-member band, five toured or recorded with Jackson, including drummer Jonathan Moffett, who played in the Jackson 5.
"We have that knowledge and that expertise from people who spent time with Michael," Charbonneau said. "It's a privilege [for them] to be part of such a production and continue Michael Jackson's legacy. ... They're all older guys, but they're having a blast performing on this show and making sure Michael's music is properly represented."
The music is not only well represented but is one of the stars of the show. For some that spotlight comes at the expense of a story. Cirque du Soleil shows usually have a central theme and Immortal's lack of narrative has been an issue for a number of reviewers. The Los Angeles Times wrote, "Instead of properly capturing the wonder and talent of Michael Jackson, Cirque du Soleil's 'Immortal' serves a heavy dose of Las Vegas gaudiness."
However, a larger-than-life tribute to Jackson by the almost mythical Cirque du Soleil seems apropos and Immortal director Jamie King seems not to have wanted to tell a tale but to let Jackson's music speak for itself.
King--who toured as a dancer with Jackson in the early '90s and who has directed tours for Madonna and Celine Dion, among others--also wanted Jackson's music to be as authentic as possible. With full approval from the Jackson Family Estate (which is underwriting the show), King obtained the original recordings of Jackson's voice. He stripped away the music and remixed all of the songs, keeping all of Jackson's vocals totally intact. There are three backup singers in the show but all of Jackson's parts are sung only by him.
On many levels, Immortal is one of the largest shows Cirque du Soleil has put on in its nearly 30 years. Ten choreographers lent their talents, each taking a section of Immortal. The production spent several weeks at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, where at the end of this tour, a theater will be built for a different, but permanent, version of the show. The tour will last a total of about three-and-a-half years with more than 200 full-time cast and crew.
Along with the performers and musicians, the show employs its own caterers and 44 full-time drivers for the trucks and buses needed to move such an extensive touring production. Taco Bell Arena marketing manager McQ Olsen compared it to "a small village" and said that the arena began planning for Immortal more than nine months ago. Olsen said that Cirque du Soleil is a well oiled machine and mostly self contained--this is the third Cirque show to come to the Taco Bell Arena. It's a boost not only for the arena but for the local economy as well.
"All of the talent will [stay the night] locally, which is good for all the hotel space they'll take up while they're here," Olsen said.
He also explained that Taco Bell Arena is happy to be able to hire some people, even if only for a night.
"We employ ushers, security, stagehands and concessions workers. It's interesting to sit back and think, 'Wow, look at the impact that the arena is having on the lives of a lot of folks.'"
Jackson and his music continue to have an impact, as evidenced by the popularity of Immortal. Forbes reports that since it opened in October, it is "already approaching $100 million in ticket sales." And while the financial benefits of Immortal could certainly be a motivator, according to Charbonneau, the inspiration comes from a much-simpler place.
"I've worked many Cirque du Soleil shows but on this show, all of the artists have said they're here for one reason: They're here for Michael," Charbonneau said. "And that's quite unique. On all the other shows, we create a concept. This show is about only Michael Jackson."