This fall, singer, actor and dancer Ephraim Sykes juggled two of the most demanding jobs on Broadway. By night, he played the troubled, tortured David Ruffin in Ain’t Too Proud, the hit Broadway show about the life and music of the Temptations. But during the day, Sykes began preparing for what should be an even more demanding and controversial job: the lead role as Michael Jackson in a musical based on his life.
The Jackson estate first announced MJ: The Musical, Scheduled to open August 13th, 2020, in 2018 with a creative team including Tony-winning director Christopher Wheeldon and Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage. Set in 1992, the show will focus on Jackson’s life in his twenties and thirties and include two dozen of his songs.
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But in light of the ongoing controversies and sense of unease that linger around Jackson’s legacy, it’s no surprise that hurdles ensued. Initially called Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough, the show was scheduled for a tryout run in Chicago early this year. But those performances were canceled soon after the Sundance premiere of Leaving Neverland, the HBO documentary that alleged Jackson abused two then-young boys, Wade Robson and James Safechuck. (The official reason for the cancellation was “scheduling difficulties.”)
Throughout the show’s news cycle, one other uncertainty remained: Who would play Jackson? That question was answered last month when 34-year-old Sykes was announced as the lead. The seasoned performer has appeared in Hamilton, Motown and The Little Mermaid, and he’ll soon leave Ain’t Too Proud to start rehearsals for MJ in May. As Sykes tells RS, “I’m looking to take a couple of months off, rest and recuperate my voice, my body, my mind, find out who Ephraim is again, before I take on this next icon.”
How are you feeling about this undertaking right now?
Oh my God. I’m the most excited person in the entire world, but also the most frightened. Literally both of those extremes are happening at the same time right now. But at the end of the day, I’m grateful and honored to be able to portray the man who’s the reason I’m here at all – the reason why I started singing and dancing in the first place. And as an actor, I’m excited to take on such a huge talent, who I feel is maybe the most complicated person who ever walked the earth. Truly, truly complicated, to the level where we may never even know the truth and depth of it.
The show is set in 1992 as Jackson is preparing for the Dangerous tour. How finished and ready is it?
We did a whole workshop starting in October through the end of November. We worked out the entire piece, fully staged and choreographed. I was spending my days doing Michael Jackson, and then from 7 to 11 o’clock every night I was David Ruffin – possibly the two most extreme characters I could ever try to fit into my head at the same time. David Ruffin was this hothead and known as a coke addict and egomaniac. The most infamous words were tied to him. That, versus possibly the most meek, mild, humble, and, like, mousey person Michael Jackson could be sometimes; how insecure he could be sometimes except when he was onstage. They’re complete opposite ends of the spectrum.
The show supposedly features roles for a younger Michael, as well as possibly Berry Gordy, Marlon Jackson and Michael’s father Joe.
Yeah, it definitely has a way of showing you memories and things in in his head. But I’m in a lot of it. I’m still throughout the whole thing.
Given all the recent controversies around Michael, did you have any reservations about taking on the role, and how did they factor into your decision?
To be honest, man, it definitely factored in. And it’s something I still just have to grapple with every day. But at the end of the day, I just can’t know the whole story. Nobody can know exactly what went down. I just choose to look at it as a challenge, as a way for me to humanize as best I can somebody we held up; who we idolized beyond any other star. He’s almost like a demigod to us. And I want to talk about the things I do know in terms of how he was in pain physically, how he was abused physically as a kid, the painkillers.
We definitely know something wasn’t quite right. None of us can really put our finger on exactly what was happening, because he was also very private in a lot of ways. But with all his demons, he still inspired me to be the person I am, especially as a performer, and how he treated people and what he gave to the world and to people in need. Those are the aspects of him I still believe are worth celebrating.
We live in a country that can be one of the most hypocritical places of all time, and we find ways to try to celebrate this place we call the land of the free that was built on the backs of slaves. Somehow we try to celebrate people like Christopher Columbus and George Washington who did these monstrous things and still try to find the best of ourselves, even simultaneous with the ugliness that we are as people and as part of the human condition. That’s my hope, my purpose, in doing this show. I want to find ways to make us all be able to connect to our darkness as well as well to our light.
That connects Ruffin and Michael too.
Exactly. That’s one leg up [on finding] the pain and talk[ing] about it honestly.
How much does the MJ script touch on his issues?
I’ll say this: It touches on lots of controversy that was going on. It touches on a lot of problems and things he was facing. I can’t give anything away. But I do know we’re looking to try to fully encapsulate his creative genius as well as the monsters he was having to face internally. And we speak to some of the other really positive things that happened throughout this man’s life too and how much he gave – which still are undeniable.
My goal is to paint as full a picture as possible and then we can talk amongst ourselves about how we feel about him and ourselves, honestly. How much of our darkness and light do we accept – or allow other people to see? Who do we give grace and forgiveness to versus who do we choose to condemn? It’s a huge conversation that is very tricky, but that to me is interesting.
Do you think his fans will support the show bringing up things that weren’t always positive?
From what I’ve seen so far, with just the announcement that it was happening, a lot of his fans are ride and die. They’re already supportive. Then, of course, you have the skeptics who are somewhere in between. And you have people outright who are like, “We need to cancel Michael.” I always say all opinions are valid, but let’s just try to speak truth to power and be as open with our dialogue as possible. Everybody’s still going to have their own opinions about it, but at least we can still respect each other and be honest with each other.
It’s going to be interesting to see how people take to it, but I do know there’s a huge group of people who are going to love it. They still love him and his music. And with the people in between, when a Michael Jackson song comes on the radio or at a wedding, everybody’s still grooving. Everybody has a certain connection with him, for better and for worse, and I think everybody’s valid and I look for this to be another thing that hopefully brings us together.
At the very least, it won’t be a boring experience.
That it won’t be.
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