Next month it will be two years since Michael Jackson died, and for many fans it is still sinking in that the King of Pop will never tour again. But a stage show is coming to Abu Dhabi the same month that captures something of Jackson's spirit. Thriller Live, which is in the middle of its third West End run in London and has already toured to 22 countries, will make its way to Abu Dhabi for two nights on June 9 and 10.
It's a tribute, rather than a musical, with five singers of different ages, races and sexes and 10 dancers staging versions of the hits, from ABC to Man in the Mirror. Short video presentations between the songs give the headlines and highlights of the entertainer's career - his still-unbeaten number of awards and record sales - and the singers and dancers encourage the audience to get out of their seats and sing, dance and cheer along. The staging is basic, but there are some pyrotechnics and a glitter cannon and, of course, some moonwalking.
To cynics, this might all sound like a way to cash in on the grief of a dead star's fans, but that would not be fair: the show's mastermind, the Briton Adrian Grant, has been putting together Michael Jackson tributes since he was in his teens. At 19, he started a fanzine dedicated to the singer, who read it and invited him to Neverland. "Michael was really down-to-earth," Grant says now. "Laughing around, joking around; he was a big kid at heart. Inquisitive, very knowledgable, a genius in his studio, and a very humble person."
As well as interviewing Jackson and hanging out in his studio, Grant met his pet giraffe and chimpanzee, played arcade games, watched films and ate lunch with the star. "It was an unbelievable day," Grant says. "At the end Michael says 'come back any time' so I used to go back there once or twice a year. It highlights his generosity. He didn't need to do that, but he was just a kind person."
Inspired by Jackson's support, Grant started putting on an annual Michael Jackson tribute show, and the singer flew over to the UK watch the 10th edition. Grant says that Jackson got on stage afterwards to say the show was "incredible" and "beautiful". It was this production that evolved into Thriller Live, a theatrical touring show. "Michael watching [the tribute] gave me the inspiration that if you've got something you believe in you should follow it through, you can make things happen," Grant says. "Everything else that followed is thanks to him."
Thriller Live began in 2006, and Jackson told Grant that when he came over to London for his This Is It tour, that he would come and watch the show - in disguise to avoid being mobbed. That, of course, never happened. On June 25, 2009, during rehearsals for the tour, he died of an overdose. "I didn't believe it," Grant says of the news. "It took a couple of days to sink in and then my first thoughts were for his family: his children and his mother."
Grant considered cancelling the live show for the immediate future but "there was such an outpouring from the public that the Lyric Theatre [where Thriller Live was performed] turned into a bit of a shrine and there was a lot of demand for people to come and see the show and pay their respects to Michael. So we've continued in that vein and ever since it's become more of a celebration and tribute to his legacy".
The show went on the night after Jackson's death. Grant describes it as a "very charged performance," and says that there were tears among the performers that day. Since then, Thriller Live's popularity has rocketed: there are now three versions of the show going on in different parts of the world simultaneously, and 1.2 million people have been to see it.
"Thriller Live is what it always was," Grant says. "I started it because Michael had been getting a lot of negative press and I wanted to focus on the music. It wasn't a case of trying to commercially exploit anything. Since Michael's passing there have been a number of other copycat tribute shows popping up here and there, and I think they're the ones that have really jumped on the bandwagon."
There's only one performer who really impersonates Jackson in Thriller Live, doing the gravity-defying lean in Smooth Criminal, tweaking his trilby and moonwalking. As for the rest, they put their own spin in Jackson's songs, giving them a rock edge or a sultry R&B feel. Brittany Woodrow, an actress and singer from Pittsburgh, is the female lead who's currently performing in Scotland and who'll be jetting to Abu Dhabi for the shows. She takes the mic for I'll Be There, Can You Feel It and The Way You Make Me Feel.
She's excited about going to Abu Dhabi and urges people here to go out and watch it, whether they have all Jackson's records or not, but she warns that it might be an emotional experience for fans. "There's a lot of songs," she says, adding: "The whole show really demonstrates how Michael Jackson was so influential in music and in life in general."
On the other hand, she says, "it's uplifting and full of energy. Audiences should come ready to have fun and party."
Thriller Live shows on June 9 and 10, Flash Forum, Yas Island. For tickets visit www.thinkflash.ae.