Michael Jackson’s musical legacy never left, but a kind of comeback is coming.
With a series of court victories that bring the end to serious legal crises, with a Broadway show beginning and a Cirque du Soleil show returning after a long pandemic pause, the Jackson business is on the upswing 12 years after the pop superstar’s death.
Very recently, things looked grim. The 2019 HBO documentary Leaving Neverland raised child molestation allegations anew. The once-dead lawsuits brought by the two men featured in it had been revived by changes in the law. And a decision in the estate’s appeal of a $700 million tax bill was taking years to arrive.
“I was always optimistic,” John Branca, the entertainment attorney who worked with Jackson through many of his biggest triumphs and now serves as co-executor of his estate, told The Associated Press in an interview at his Beverly Hills home. “Michael inspired the planet and his music still does. There was never any doubt about that.”
The optimism was warranted. A succession of court decisions came. One accusers’ lawsuit was dismissed in October. The other was tossed out in April. In May, a ruling in the tax case slashed the bill dramatically. The estate suddenly stands nearly clear of a dozen years of disputes. That means Branca expects that in the next 18 months it can finally be taken out of probate court and turned into a trust for Jackson’s three children, who are all now adults.
And the focus of the estate can now shift back to presenting Jackson to the world.
The first priority is the revival of the Cirque du Soleil show Michael Jackson: One at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas. It is slated to reopen Aug. 19 after a coronavirus closure of nearly a year and a half, in time for a major celebration there planned for Jackson’s Aug. 29 birthday.
The Broadway show MJ: The Musical will follow quickly on its heels, the first of several planned projects.
Branca said the delay of well over a year, as happened for all of Broadway, was “frustrating” but he has renewed excitement about MJ: The Musical and shared new details.
“It’s not a chronological depiction of Michael’s life,” he said. “It’s more impressionistic, inspired by Michael’s life and his music. It takes place as Michael is preparing for a tour and MTV wants to get an interview. Michael’s very press shy, and slowly but surely as they develop a relationship begins to talk about different parts of his life that then get enacted in the show.”
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage wrote the show’s book. Tony Award-winner Christopher Wheeldon is directing and choreographing. Broadway newcomer Myles Frost will star as Jackson, after Ephraim Sykes dropped out to shoot a movie. Rehearsals resume in September, and previews begin in December.
Branca said he’s proud of the diversity the show will bring to the stage.
“The cast is obviously largely Black,” Branca said, “In an era where that’s sorely wanted on Broadway.”
Successes aside, Branca feels lingering bitterness about director Dan Reed’s Leaving Neverland and what he felt were American media outlets that “don’t have the time or the wherewithal to do the research to figure out what’s true and what’s not true.”
Hence, the estate’s last lingering lawsuit, now in private arbitration, is one that it brought itself, and one Branca very much wanted filed, against HBO over the documentary.
“I was very angry at HBO and Dan Reed and I still am because here’s the thing: You can say anything you want about somebody who’s dead. They’re not here to protect themselves,” Branca said.
The two men featured in the documentary are appealing the dismissals of their lawsuits. HBO has defended Leaving Neverland as a valid and important piece of documentary journalism.
Ironically, the victory handed to the estate in its tax case came in part because the judge believed the value of Jackson’s image and likeness had been severely diminished by such allegations at the time of his death, despite his acquittal at his 2005 trial for child molestation. It was one aspect of an all-around victory for the estate that’s bringing a far smaller bill that’s being calculated now.
Under the guidance of Branca and his more behind-the-scenes co-executor John McClain, the estate has brought in $2.5 billion in revenue in the past 11 years, and Jackson has remained the top earning deceased celebrity every year since his death at age 50 from a lethal dose of the anesthetic propofol.
But Branca says the way Jackson’s musical legacy echoes through modern artists may be his most impressive legacy.
“Kanye West, Drake, Beyoncé, Usher, Justin Timberlake, Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande — they all point back to Michael,” Branca said. “His influence is really enormous.”