New Cirque du Soleil show will keep money flowing to Jackson estate

A girl dressed up in a Michael Jackson outfit takes part in promotional activities for a show named 'The Immortal World Tour', dedicated to the late US entertainer Michael Jackson by the Canadian Cirque du Soleil troupe on March 31, 2013.

This week, if you just happen to be in Vegas, you can grab a show. And it’ll be a typically spectacular show if you go to the Mandalay Bay Casino, which is previewing Cirque du Soleil’s new Michael Jackson retrospective-extravaganza starting May 23.

The show is called "One," and it’s actually the second acrobatic-dancers-flying-through-the-air-with-the-greatest-of-ease spectacle from Cirque based on the late King of Pop’s music. Cirque’s first Michael Jackson-themed show, called ‘Immortal,’ is raking in the dough -- and touring the world -- right now. This new show, by contrast, will open and stay in Vegas, just like everything else that happens there is supposed to.

Michael Jackson, who died in 2009 of a prescription-drug overdose, makes more in death than any living artist today makes, according to Forbes magazine. His family’s estate takes in approximately $145 million per year from iTunes song and album sales; merchandising; films; and these incredibly successful Cirque du Soleil shows (tickets start around $69 apiece and go up to the mid-hundreds).

Media analyst Jack Myers says Jackson was having trouble even getting on stage in his last years. But absent the troubled artist late in life, his music is perfect for this kind of show.

“He defines the pop era,” says Myers. “And unlike the Beatles or Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson not only had the music, but he had the dance, he had the moves.”

Those moves translate perfectly into Cirque’s characteristic choreography, with dancer-acrobats soaring over the audience to the contagious beats of ‘Stranger in Moscow,’ ‘Smooth Criminal’ and other Number 1 hits. The music is not live, but instead recorded versions of Jackson’s songs from master recordings, mostly from the era of ‘Thriller’ and ‘Bad,’ says Jeff Lovari, Cirque’s publicist in Las Vegas.

That was the 1980s, when the adult Michael Jackson -- as a solo artist -- was on top. But later his reputation was tainted by allegations of pedophilia, drug use, and lavish living at Neverland.

That doesn’t devalue Jackson and his brand now, says Myers -- quite the contrary.

“The controversy of his life keeps the tabloid media happy, the social media,” says Myers. “And I think you have an incredible combination for a career that will continue to grow.”

Meaning, Jackson’s popularity continues to grow, even as his aging fans grow old, says Jonathan Taplin, director of the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab.

“The market for nostalgia, especially of dead ‘70s celebrities, is pretty strong,” Taplin says. "Look at the number of Elvis impersonators or Beatles cover bands. It’s boomers reliving their early coming of age, first sexual experiences, taking drugs, whatever. It’s all some deep, deep nostalgia of a time that was for them incredibly magic and which they were never able to capture again.”

Taplin says Jackson’s musical legac, from the Jackson 5 years to his ‘80s heyday, sits in a sweet spot for pop music. The music was global, and it belonged to the first generation of rockers.

“The boomer audience has still stayed attached to the music they grew up on,” says Taplin. “That’s why The Eagles sell out arenas. And if you look around, there’s not much hair on the men.”

But Michael Jackson moves young people too.

Davina Labbe, also know as VJ Kittyrox, puts on ‘80s Video Dance Attack every Friday night in Portland, Ore., at one of downtown's biggest clubs. The show’s been drawing hundreds of 20-to-30-something club-goers for going on eight years.

VJ Kittyrox says she’ll put on a slower-paced Michael Jackson song like 'Rock with You,' about an hour after the doors open, just to get things going. Then, once the dance floor’s full, she’ll alternate songs like ‘Billy Jean,’ or ‘Thriller’ with songs by Prince, New Order, the Bangles, and other '80s pop stars, to pump up the energy to a frenzy.

“And like every Michael Jackson song,” she says, “everybody knows every word, every beat. I think everyone on the planet owned that album ["Thriller"]. It just brings up the energy to this level that no other artist or song can do.”

VJ Kittyrox says today’s music industry doesn’t deliver hits that everyone around the world knows and can sing along to. Which is why Michael Jackson will live -- and sell -- on.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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