Michael Jackson dances in rehearsal, wearing the signature black and white ensemble. Backup dancers join in, facing him.

MJ, a Dream Gig for Dancers

Ask anyone born before the year 2000 and they probably have a distinct memory of Michael Jackson’s music. I can remember family road trips from Atlanta to Chicago where we plugged a boombox into our minivan’s cigarette lighter and played Jackson 5 cassette tapes, singing at the top of our lungs all the way through Kentucky. My mind drifts to summers spent watching the Bad Tour video. I even danced at a night club the night Jackson died, belting “Rock with You” on a dimly lit dance floor.

Michael Jackson dances in rehearsal, wearing the signature black and white ensemble. Backup dancers join in, facing him.

Roman Banks as ‘MJ’ and the cast of the MJ First National Tour. Photo by Matthew Murphy, MurphyMade

All these memories come flooding back during MJ the musical. With a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, major events in Jackson’s life are underscored by the songs that made him famous. In MJ, Jackson is at a pivotal moment in his life and career as pressure mounts around his next tour. He puts all his eggs in the basket of the “Dangerous” world tour and has an MTV film crew following him around to document the process. With the camera always on, Jackson takes them back to his humble beginnings in Gary, Indiana where he began singing with his older brothers.

Throughout the show, these early memories are interspersed with real-time dance rehearsals and increasing costs to fund this mega tour, which in real life did become one of the biggest-selling tours of all time. However, all proceeds were donated to various nonprofit organizations, including the star’s Heal the World Foundation.

The Jackson 5 perform onstage, singing and playing their instruments

Jaylen Lyndon Hunter as Little Marlon Ethan Joseph as Little Michael and the cast of the MJ First National Tour. Photo by Matthew Murphy, MurphyMade

The musical includes early songs with his brothers, such as “ABC,” “Stop,” and “Blame it on the Boogie,” as well as solo hits like “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Man in the Mirror,” “Billie Jean,” and “Thriller.” The show first burst onto Broadway in December 2021, and has been running ever since. The musical garnered four Tony Awards in 2022, including best choreography for Christopher Wheeldon, who is best known for his work with the Royal Ballet in England.

With a catalog spanning 40 years and a range of disco, R&B, and pop ballads, Jackson certainly earned his title as the King of Pop. Bringing this musical to the stage of course requires incredibly talented dancers, like Roman Banks, who plays MJ in the tour. Banks, who grew up in Metro Atlanta, joined the tour in 2022, two years after he first auditioned for the role. At the time Banks auditioned, he was in Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway and looking for his next move. He’d been pining for MJ, but when he was initially offered the gig, he’d just booked High School Musical: The Musical: The Movie.

Michael stands with his hands on his shoulder, where his mother has placed a hand standing behind him. They sing together.

Roman Banks as MJ and Anastasia Talley as Kathrine Jackson in the MJ First National Tour. Photo by Matthew Murphy, MurphyMade

“My mom would play the ‘Ultimate Jackson 5 Collection’ around the house; that was our thing,” Banks recalls. “What draws people to the music is the energy of it and the movement it has. It’s infectious and universal. You don’t have to know English to enjoy the music.”

After filming High School Musical in Los Angeles, Banks heard about the MJ tour and flew back to the East Coast for auditions. He isn’t a formally trained dancer, but hours in the mirror trying to learn the “Thriller” choreography came back to him at that moment. When he got the role, that’s when the real work began.

“I spent hours in studios in LA and New York getting [Jackson’s] movements into my body,” Banks says. “His silhouettes are famous. People know his movement, they know what it’s supposed to look like. It was a big challenge, and I wanted to rise to it. I wanted to pick up where Myles [Frost, who originated the role on Broadway,] left off, and reach higher.”

That love of Jackson’s dance style came as a little girl for JoJo Carmichael, who is the assistant dance captain and a swing on the MJ tour. Carmichael, who grew up in Dothan, Alabama, says that she grew up knowing who Jackson was, but didn’t grasp the magnitude of his influence on the dance world until after his death in 2009. At that time, she found his dance videos online and the obsession began. She asked her parents for the “This Is It” album for her 10th birthday and watched the documentary on repeat.

“I remember watching him dance and being like ‘oh my God!’ This guy could do everything,” she says.

Michael Jackson performs, wearing the signature black and white ensemble. Dancers are posed around him and there are flashing neon lights.

Roman Banks as ‘MJ’ and the cast of the MJ First National Tour. Photo by Matthew Murphy, MurphyMade

After graduating from Pace University in New York, Carmichael booked a gig with the Rockettes at Radio City Musical Hall before joining the MJ tour in January 2023. As assistant dance captain, her job is to make sure that Jackson’s silky-smooth moves look easy as air to the audience. During the rehearsal process for the show, she trained with Wheeldon as well as Rich and Tone Talauega, Jackson’s choreographers and walking dance bibles.

“I think being a swing, especially for this show, because there are so many details, has changed my perspective on performing for the better,” Carmichael says. “As far as me doing the moves, it just comes with rehearsal-rehearsal-rehearsal. Practice makes progress.”

As a classically-trained dancer with a background in ballet, tap and jazz, Carmichael says musical theatre has taught her how to let go of perfectionism. The show must go on from city to city, no matter what happens onstage.

“You can’t let a mistake that the crowd probably wouldn’t notice distract you from the show,” Carmichael says. “As a human being, being on tour has allowed me to grow into myself so much. I have a new sense of confidence and a new sense of self.”

Apr 10-28, 2024 • Buell Theatre