BWW Interview: Gary Lloyd Talks 10 Years of THRILLER LIVE
It's incredible to think Thriller Live has been a staple of London theatre for an entire decade. It holds the record as the 13th-longest-running musical in West End history and has played around the world to over five million people. With Peter Andre slipping on the white sequinned glove once again for a short stint commencing 10 December, the show remains in demand.
Director and choreographer Gary Lloyd took time out to speak with BroadwayWorld about why he feels the show has enjoyed such success. Lloyd has also penned a book titled My Life with Michael, which chronicles the history of the show from its inception to the 10th-anniversary year.
Spilling backstage secrets and giving us inside information on what it takes to put on such a rigorously demanding show, the book is also a devoted fan's homage to one of the greatest and most influential artists of all time.
Tell us about your book My Life with Michael? What did you set out to do when writing it?
My initial intention was to document all the stories that had collected in my mind when working on the London production and around the world. When I started directing, I found myself forever saying "I'll put that in the book" with a view to writing about at least one production in my career. This book started writing itself the day Michael passed, and the stakes were raised for us as a show in the West End and as a touring company.
Fans of Michael Jackson counted on the sheer perfection and tight execution of his performances. As a huge fan yourself, working on a musical about the King of Pop must be a dream come true, but I imagine it also comes with a great deal of pressure to emulate his incredibly high standards?
I don't believe anyone will ever again deliver the precision that Michael strived for when replicating his work. As a man who sacrificed everything to be the superstar he was, the pressure on him was unfathomable and he took that very seriously - which shows in his performances.
As I say in the book, it takes five leads and a child to create the full effect of Michael in our show, and we can only aim to get as close as we can. One thing I will say is that the whole team are incredibly vigilant when it comes to detail and casting. We are constantly rehearsing, cleaning and changing the show. I think we do a pretty good job!
The musical began life back in 2006, but didn't transform into what we now know as Thriller Live until 2008. Did you ever question if the show would take off?
I first saw the original one-off production at the Dominion Theatre in August 2006. I remember saying then that the show needed a lot of finessing but I would love to get my hands on it. There was definitely something special about the love coming from the stage when each of the performers sang and danced each of these songs. I would never have thought of a Michael Jackson musical show before this, as I always held him on such a solo pedestal, but this initial show really showed the promise and appeal of strong performers recreating his work, showing there was commercial potential in it.
It must be quite a challenge to please audiences, as everyone has their favourite records and MJ eras. How do you manage these expectations?
In the beginning, we spent a long time changing the running order and song list due to our own personal dissatisfaction with certain areas of the show and listening to audience feedback. We also felt a huge amount of responsibility when Michael passed to ensure we were putting on the best show possible for the fans. The audience taste has also changed over the years, so it's been interesting gauging that and moving with it. I think that's what has kept the show so fresh.
My initial pitch to the producers, way before the days of Harry Potter, was to have a three-pronged ticket where one night you would get the Jackson Five and Jacksons material, another night, Off The Wall, Bad and Thriller, and the third and final part of the ticket, Dangerous and HIStory. I still think that would have been an awesome experience.
In the book, you mention "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough" as being your introduction to Jackson and describe the visceral feeling you experienced when first hearing it. Have any other artists made such a profound impact on you, and what was it about Michael Jackson that set him apart from everyone else?
The profound influence Michael had on me was based on the music, but also the choreography and the visual pioneering he so clearly impacted on the world - particularly in the Eighties and early to mid Nineties. His attention to detail in his film-making, as well the perfectionist ear in the studio, was never lost on me, and I owe my career to him for all that inspiration. I feel honoured that I was growing up as an inspiring performer as he was creating and rehearsing all that legendary material.
Your book opens with an account of that day in 2009 when the world learnt of Michael's untimely death. You describe how the theatre became somewhat of a sanctuary to the fans - you and your team included. Ten years on, is that still the case?
I think when Michael passed, we had a long period where fans came to share their love and to mourn their idol. I also think a lot of people who had bought tickets for This Is It came to Thriller Live to have that night out and to hear the music. I do believe over time, our reputation has been the reason for our longevity and the fact we work so hard to keep the show looking and sounding fresh had manifested in our audience's loyalty.
You've introduced several songs into the production that didn't appear before you came on board - like "Smooth Criminal" and "They Don't Really Care About Us". Are there any other songs you'd love to appear in the show but don't have room for?
I love "In The Closet","Give In To Me" and "Will You Be There". "Liberian Girl" is another favourite, as well as "Blood On The Dance Floor", "Scream" and "Is It Scary?".
MJ was a risk-taker. Do you find yourself thinking of new ideas to allow the show to evolve?
Always. I spent a long time, years in fact, looking at the show and wishing we could change this, rebuild that. There are still elements that I would change if I could. But what I've learned over time is that the content is what works: the choreography and the performances from each of the incredible individuals who work so hard every night to represent Michael's legacy. At the ten year anniversary, I stopped punishing myself and accepted we had done something good and deserved to be celebrating such an accolade.
Do you have a favourite song/dance number from the show?
The answer to this question depends on the company and varies from performer to performer. Florivaldo Mossi as MJ performs a wonderful uncanny "Billie Jean" and Kieran Alleyne an authentic and very charming "Thriller". "Beat It" can literally knock you out when the dancers are on fire, and "Earth Song" can reduce an audience to tears when delivered by the perfect front line of singers.
"They Don't Really Care About Us" is always delivered with so much passion and I love the way the show shifts gear at this point. I'm looking forward to Peter Andre performing "The Way You Make Me Feel", as we've restaged the number so it's almost identical to the 1988 Grammy Awards performance.
You mention in the book that "Beat It" ignited your ambition. After the success you've enjoyed with this show and all of the others you've worked on, what's still left on your to do list?
Gosh. I am very lucky that my next project is working with Eddie and Brian Holland of Holland-Dozier-Holland fame. They wrote a large majority of Motown's biggest hits, including The Supremes' "Where Did Our Love Go" and The Four Tops' "Reach Out (I'll Be There)". I am co-writing and will be directing the story of their life in the musical Reflections - the Holland- Dozier-Holland Story, premiering in Canada, spring 2020. There is also another book in the pipeline.
Finally, for anybody who hasn't seen Thriller Live, what can we expect?
Thriller Live is a two-hour celebration of Michael Jackson's biggest hits and all the iconography that comes with it. You will hear some of the best vocalists performing this material and see the best dancers the UK has to offer.
There is no script, which I think is appealing for families and for non-English-speaking tourists. It's a must for all Jackson fans, or those who love music and live theatre. When you've seen this show, once is never enough.
Photo Credit: Michael Wharley