Feature: Ten Years of THRILLER LIVE in the West End
In this year, the 10th anniversary of Thriller Live at the Lyric Theatre and about a decade since Michael Jackson's passing, the show has played to over two million people, is the 15th-longest-running musical in the West End and the theatre's longest-running show ever.
Michael Jackson's legacy resonates so much in the recent cultural memory that it's disconcerting to realise 2019 commemorates the 10th year since his death.
Thriller Live is a celebration of the man, his music, his stagecraft and showmanship. It's obvious from the pre-show buzz in the foyer and auditorium that this is an audience primed for the sheer joy such an occasion presents.
As soon as the curtain starts to rise and all throughout the show, there are whoops of spontaneous cheering and clapping from the crowd; some are already on their feet and dancing without prompting. There are old, young, black, white, gay and straight people here. Evidently, Jackson's music was and still is a great unifying force.
But this success was far from guaranteed when creator Adrian Grant first proposed a tribute show to Michael Jackson as a viable contender for London's famous theatre district. "When we first started out, many people questioned why the show was in the West End," he recalls.
"They said it wasn't a Phantom of the Opera or Les Miserables. They called it a jukebox concert. But 10 years later, we've introduced a whole new audience to the West End. So it does have a place. It's about diversity and creating opportunities."
This being a tribute to Michael Jackson, one anticipates that a moonwalk will make an appearance at some point. It's not long in coming, arriving briefly in the second song in the introductory medley and more fully in the second act of the show.
For the latter, Florivaldo Mossi - who plays Jackson in the single white sequin glove era of the albums Thriller and Bad (four people portray the different sides of Jackson) - holds the stage on his own to "Billie Jean", joined only by Damien Cooper for the guitar solo.
It's a virtuoso turn that has this punter almost believing that the King of Pop has been resurrected just for the night.
It recalls to a great degree Jackson's iconic performance of the same song featuring the moonwalk during 1983's Motown 25 television special. After all these years, a moonwalk in the Michael Jackson mould is still very exciting to behold.
The show starts at the very beginning of Jackson's career in 1964, with the proto-Motown stylings of "Who's Loving You", when he made his professional debut with his elder brothers Jackie, Tito, Jermaine and Marlon as the Jackson 5. The section then moves through the perennial upbeat funk of "ABC" and "I Want You Back".
It all serves to remind the audience that the Michael Jackson sound is the soundtrack of a generation who came of age listening to his music since he was a charismatic little boy (just like Jay-Jay Prince, the charming 10 year old who plays him in the show), fronting a family set-up and for the best part of five decades. This must be part of his appeal to millions of people around the world.
It's reflected in the show, as it becomes obvious that there are people here who have been to see the production more than this once. They need no persuading when the performers intermittently exhort the crowd to get up, sing along and dance.
The hits keep coming: "Blame It On The Boogie", "Human Nature", "Off The Wall", "Rock With You", "Don't Stop Til' You Get Enough", "P.Y.T.", "Beat It", "Smooth Criminal", "Man In The Mirror" all make an appearance.
While the show tends towards chronological linearity, it's also thematically arranged, which accounts for the anachronistic leaps that ensure the biggest and most-loved Jackson hits - such as "Billie Jean" and "Thriller" - are saved for the climax.
Also present are all the recognisable dance tropes that inform the music videos, an art form which Jackson revolutionised. There are the inevitable dancing zombies in "Thriller", of course, Al Capone-like gangsters and that 45-degree lean in "Smooth Criminal".
However, the show also features dance memes that aren't associated with Jackson like twerking, BlocBoy JB's Shoot dance and even breaking. While a lot of the music has aged well, the choice to add in dance moves that weren't around in Jackson's day helps to keep the music fresh and relevant for the younger element of the audience.
On the 10th anniversary celebration, the show culminated with speeches from producers Flying Music, director Gary Lloyd and a heartfelt one from creator Adrian Grant, who was privileged with very close access to Jackson over the years, eventually becoming a friend.
While Jackson undoubtedly had deep-seated personal issues that spilled over into his public persona, his place in music history is unparalleled. It easy to see how Thriller Live might continue thrilling audiences into another decade.
Photo credit: Betty Zapata