Jackson too incoherent to take the stage, choreographer says

Michael Jackson rehearses in 2009 at Staples Center for his ill-fated This Is It shows.
(Kevin Mazur / Associated Press )

During preparations for his anticipated “This Is It” performances in London, Michael Jackson at times seemed “under the influence of something” during rehearsals and once couldn’t take the stage because he appeared incoherent, the pop singer’s choreographer testified Tuesday.

Travis Payne, who worked with Jackson on his Dangerous and HIStory world tours and was back aboard for the comeback concerts, said Jackson had trouble picking up some of the show’s choreography and requested a teleprompter to help him with lyrics — something the singer had never done before.

Payne said he was aware that Jackson had problems sleeping and chalked up the singer’s sometimes erratic behavior to sleep aids or sedatives from his dermatologist visits.


“You have to understand that one always says hindsight is 20/20,” he said. “In the moment I had no inkling of what, ultimately, what was revealed until Mr. Jackson’s passing.”

Payne also testified that Dr. Conrad Murray lacked a certain authenticity despite being tasked with providing Jackson with whatever he needed to rehearse for his upcoming comeback concert series.

“My understanding was that Dr. Murray was to provide whatever the artist needed as far as nourishment, the ability to rest well, so he could have productive rehearsals,” Payne said.

But something about Murray felt off, Payne said. “He didn’t feel like an official doctor,” he said.

Although Murray is serving jail time for involuntary manslaughter, his role in Jackson’s 2009 death has resurfaced in the wrongful death civil suit the music legend’s mother, Katherine, and three children brought against concert promoter AEG.

In the trial that began more than two weeks ago and is expected to last four months, the Jacksons accuse AEG of negligently hiring and controlling Murray, who administered the fatal dose of propofol to Jackson.

AEG attorneys were allowed to interrupt the plaintiff’s case to accommodate the traveling schedules of a couple of their witnesses, including Payne.

Some of Jackson’s rehearsals were rocky enough that the process frustrated many involved with the show, which AEG considered canceling in mid-June, Payne said. “It was, we’ve got to get this together or the plug may get pulled.”

Still, Payne said Jackson’s performances in the final days of his life were impressive, and it felt “like we were definitely on an upswing.”

“I never doubted Michael because he was the architect of this and he wanted to do it, so part of my responsibility was to help him get there,” Payne said, his voice racked with emotion.

The belief in Jackson’s legacy as a performer coupled with hesitation about his health has been a running theme of the trial. On Tuesday, an email from “This Is It” band director Michael Bearden to Ortega and Payne was shown to the jury.

“MJ is not in shape enough yet to sing this stuff live and dance at the same time,” Bearden wrote June 16, 2009, a little more than a week before Jackson’s death. “He can use the ballads to sing live and get his stamina back up, once he’s healthy enough and has more strength I have full confidence he can sing the majority of the show live.”

Dismissed as a witness after spending the entire day on the stand, Payne nodded to Katherine Jackson and her daughter Rebbie as he exited the courtroom. “God bless you,” he said.

Later, a group of Jackson fans clapped for the family’s attorneys as they walked down the hallway.


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Twitter: @corinaknoll