“MJ,” on Broadway at the Neil Simon Theatre—directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, with a book by Lynn Nottage and music (mostly) by, well, M.J. himself—begins before the lights go down. While the audience members settle into their seats, a sheer, bluish scrim stretches from the ceiling to the edge of the stage. On it are printed hand-written inspirational notes, short, self-helpy sparks of tough motivation: “study the greats and become greater”; “get all Bob Fosse movie dances, study these inside out know every cut, move, music, etc.” It’s a legendary figure’s notebook gone public, an id bent on besting its forebears, framed as crucial context for the show to come. Behind the scrim, dancers are chatting and stretching and warming up in a dingy, warehouse-like rehearsal space.
And so, before a note is sung, this musical, which swims with obvious labor against the current of its protagonist’s troubled biography, announces its interest not in glamour but in work. “Beat It” is the crowd-pleasing first number, but within the world of the show it’s a work in progress that Michael Jackson isn’t totally happy with. The thirty-three-year-old star (played by the energetic and vulnerable Myles Frost, formerly a contestant on “The Voice”) has already been dubbed the King of Pop and is preparing to embark on a global tour following the success of his album “Dangerous.” He’s wearing what passes, in his universe, for casual clothing: black trousers and loafers, an open white button-down over a tee. He’s critiquing the dancers and giving notes to the band. He’s high-pitched and childish, always ready with a prank—at one point, he puts on a clown nose and cracks himself up—but it’s clear, too, that he’s got no problem being a tremendous pain in the ass in order to get what he wants.