The inspiration for Cirque du Soleil's new show, "Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour," began in the late 1980s when Michael Jackson hopped into a van (sans security) with his longtime attorney John Branca to see the French Canadian performance troupe for the first time in Santa Monica.
The mega-pop star was fascinated by the avant-garde circus and asked to meet the cast backstage, said Branca, who was named co-executor of Jackson's estate along with music executive John McClain in accordance with Jackson's 2002 will. Over the years, Jackson took his three children to Cirque shows and toured Cirque's home base in Montreal.
Branca said the estate -- which is divided among Jackson's mother, Katherine, his children and charities -- wished to pay homage to the performer after his death on June 25, 2009. Though the estate released the film of Jackson's concert rehearsals for a would-be comeback series, "This Is It," shortly after he died, Branca said they wanted to present Jackson's songs and dance legacy in a live setting. Given the performer's appreciation for Cirque, the idea for "Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour" was born several months after his death .
"We wanted to have a live show, because, as [Motown Records founder] Berry Gordy said, 'Michael was the greatest entertainer that ever lived,' " Branca said recently over breakfast in Los Angeles. "We couldn't ever imagine having an impersonator, or a tribute show, because no one's Michael. That would just be unthinkable."
The glitzy spectacle pairs Jackson's tunes with Cirque's signature acrobatics, the singer's iconic dance moves and Jackson's voice and video imagery. The show will hit the Staples Center -- the same venue that hosted Jackson's public memorial service -- on Friday. Because of strong demand, two new dates for Aug. 14 and 15 were recently added. The tour is directed by longtime Jackson collaborator Jamie King, with costumes by "This Is It" designer Zaldy Goco, dance numbers by 10 choreographers including Travis Payne, and musical design courtesy of Kevin Antunes.
Despite the talent and effort behind the show, not everyone is bedazzled with the production, or how Jackson's legacy is being handled.
"The show lacks focus, and only occasionally touches the larger-than-life stage presence that Michael Jackson projected in his concerts," wrote the Oregonian's Grant Butler last November, adding that the tour was "a carnival that's as much of a head-scratching paradox as the scandal-plagued last decade of Jackson's life."
And Jackson's siblings Randy and Jermaine had criticized family and the estate for supporting tributes to their brother such as the lavish "Michael Forever" concert last October in Wales, claiming it was ill-timed during the manslaughter trial of Jackson's physician Conrad Murray.
Katherine Jackson, however, ended up walking the red carpet the day "Immortal" opened in Montreal last October.
"There was a special artistic relationship between Michael and Cirque du Soleil," said Cirque President Daniel Lamarre, who hosted Michael Jackson in Montreal in 2002. "When John Branca came to Michael's mother, Katherine, to talk about the show, because there were so many companies interested, she said it was a no-brainer, that Michael wanted to work with Cirque du Soleil all his life."
An icon's legacy
Planning the production began in earnest in the fall of '09, when Branca got a call from Celine Dion's rep, saying Dion's husband, Rene Angelil, wanted to introduce the Jackson estate to Cirque co-founder and Chief Ex- ecutive Guy Laliberte. Laliberte was in orbit, literally, as part of a space tourist program.
After Laliberte returned from space, Branca told him a permanent show in Las Vegas would be ideal, in the tradition of Cirque's Beatles "Love" show, but Laliberte persuaded Branca and McClain to expand beyond that, to a touring show at rock arenas. A permanent, more intimate, tech-heavy show in Las Vegas will open at Mandalay Bay in early 2013, as the tour winds down its global leg.
Still, the estate wanted to make sure the production was "a Michael show," said Branca, instead of, well, a circus.
"We said to Kevin, 'Listen, we don't want to hear any accordions in 'Beat It.' ... It's gotta be Michael Jackson,'" Branca said. "We said to Jamie [King], 'We don't want any -- and I don't want to insult anybody -- French clowns dancing at a Michael Jackson show.' "
King's name topped the pack as director because he danced with Jackson on his '92 "Dangerous" world tour and had a background in pop and hip-hop. He wanted to include multiple forms of movement, including mime, which Jackson studied with Marcel Marceau.
Antunes hunkered down for a year listening to Jackson's master recordings before launching into rearranging the tunes. He decided to start "Thriller" with finger snaps and only Jackson's voice to show the layers of the song before exploding it into the traditional "Thriller" dance. He added a choir for extra oomph to Jackson's '96 "They Don't Care About Us," featuring oversized soldiers decorated with neon peace signs designed by Goco.
"That's the awesome moment of the show and it's truly epic. It's the Michael with a message and a meaning. It makes everyone get the chills," Antunes said. "For his family, his friends, his fans, there is a responsibility left up to me. This has been on the music side that we don't drop the ball."
Rehearsals started last summer in Montreal, and Jackson's brother Jackie visited them and "loved it," Branca said. In late summer, about 15 designated "super fans" were flown in to give feedback, and their input resulted in changing some of the music, Branca said.
"I wanted to create a show that Michael would have loved to create if he had created for Cirque," King said. " 'Will You Be There' is one of my favorites in the show.... There are giant hearts that illuminate and light up. His essence appears. It's almost like he comes back to say, 'I love you, I'll always be here.' "
At the show's Las Vegas opening in December, Jackson's daughter Paris broke down and sobbed during the number, Branca said.
A representation of Jackson's spirit also moves through the show in the form of a hip-hop dancer named Salah Benlemqawanssa. He's dressed all in white, and moves fluidly in and out of numbers.
"When Michael passed, I went into a bit of autopilot, personally. I was on my way to his home when I found out," said Payne, who'd worked on the "This Is It" choreography.
"The first thing out of my mouth was, 'This is not done, this is not finished.' "
'Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour'
Where: Staples Center, 1111 S. Figueroa St., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; new shows added Aug. 14-15
Price: $50 to $175
Info: (213) 742-7326; staplescenter.com