“It’s me. It’s Michael.” Those words—spoken by the King of Pop’s disembodied voice—proclaim the beginning of One, the Las Vegas spectacle that’s the latest piece of Michael Jackson’s lucrative legacy.
Indeed, there’s plenty of Michael. As One unfurls, the hard-rocking riffs of “Beat It” blare out across the show’s permanent home at the 1,804-seat theater at Mandalay Bay as ersatz paparazzi, sporting oversized cameras and red trench-coats, zip-line overhead en route to the stage (the characters return throughout the show, a reminder of Jackson’s under-the-microscope life).
What follows is a 90-minute extravaganza that pairs some of Jackson’s most popular songs with Cirque du Soleil’s signature touches—acrobats performing feats in midair that would seem impossible even on the ground while contorting their bodies like human Gumby toys.
“The most important thing for the estate of a deceased performer is keeping his or her name or persona in front of the public,” says entertainment attorney Donald David, whose résumé includes representing the postmortem interests of late rapper Tupac Shakur. “They are no longer here to give performances or interviews … thus, the secret is to keep the deceased star in the public’s mind.”
With its posters plastered all over Las Vegas, One seems to be doing exactly that. The show should also play a major role in generating income for the estate in the coming years. How much, exactly, is difficult to pinpoint—data provider Pollstar doesn’t track the grosses of Vegas shows. (“Casinos frequently comp significant parts of the house to high-rollers and that distorts sales stats,” says Gary Bongiovanni, the outfit’s president and editor-in-chief.)
Even so, FORBES estimates that One is capable of grossing between $150,000 and $250,000 for a sold-out show; that figure doubles on nights with two performances. And when the show made its official Vegas debut this summer, it gave Jackson the remarkable ability to tour in two places at the same time.
The other half of Jackson’s postmortem performance empire is the Michael Jackson Immortal world tour, also a joint venture between the estate and Cirque. The show has been crisscrossing the globe since late 2011 and recently topped the $300 million mark for gross tickets sales, winning the Creative Content honor at last year’s Billboard Touring Awards as well.
One and Immortal were conceived at the same time, the product of conversations between Jackson’s estate and Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté, who pushed to launch the traveling show first and follow with the Vegas show. He and Jackson estate co-executor John Branca tapped Jamie King, who got his start as a dancer on Jackson’s Dangerous tour, to write and direct both productions.
Unlike Immortal, however, One got its own permanent home in Vegas. That meant a chance for additional overhead daredevilry—acrobats moonwalking up the walls, for example—and opened the door for audiovisual extravagances including floor-to-ceiling video screens on either side of the stage and speakers in and around every single seat.
“There’s nothing better than being handed the keys to a brand-new Bentley, right?” says King. “This was a perfect opportunity for me to work with my design team and craft a show for a theater designed for this show.”
The “Stranger in Moscow” sequence toward the beginning of the show is among the best examples of this. A single acrobat climbs a silk rope and performs a lengthy series of twists and flips, his movements so effortless it seems he’s surrounded by water rather than air. Meanwhile, snowflakes improbably descend from the ceiling, seemingly evaporating before they hit the ground.
There are plenty of other jaw droppers: a “Thriller” sequence where performers in zombie costumes bounce back and forth between a trampoline on the ground and another 20 feet above it (or up to an even higher ledge); and later, to the tune of “Dirty Diana,” a dance routine where a lady in red gyrates up and down a 30-foot pole.
Though the storyline stringing the sequences together can be tenuous at times—the show follows four youngsters as they zip from scene to disparate scene, imbued with mystical powers from Jackson’s shoes, sunglasses, fedora and trademark white glove—the plot isn’t the point.
At its core, One is a flying, twisting, twirling rock concert. Each scene brings yet another feat of eye-popping physical prowess, another classic Jackson song, another set of oohs and ahhs from the crowd. Ultimately, that means more cash for his estate’s coffers. Says David: “I can virtually guarantee you that every guest [at One] is going to buy a Michael Jackson album at the very least.”
Having a permanent theater also enables the inclusion of the show’s most crucial performer: Michael Jackson. More accurately, a hologram-like illusion that looks and moves like the King of Pop appears and performs “Man In The Mirror” right there with the rest of the show’s dancers toward the end of the show.
“The cool thing is that kids who didn’t grow up with Michael are now discovering his genius and legacy … his spirit is with us,” says King. “And his music will live forever.”
It seems his hefty earnings will, too.
Source: Zack O'Malley Greenburg, Forbes Staff