It's a perfect match: the iconic music, choreography and costumes of Michael Jackson and the glittering, almost surreal fantasy world of Cirque du Soleil.
It's a match that Jackson himself once envisioned, says Tara Young, artistic director for "Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour," which stops at First Niagara Center for a single night Tuesday.
"Michael always had hopes to do something with Cirque du Soleil, he loved Cirque du Soleil," says Young. "But timing is everything, isn't it, and it didn't happen. But what I think is so cool is that Cirque du Soleil and his estate joined forces to honor his life and carry on his legacy."
"Michael's imagery is so incredible and so iconic that it sticks with you, and you remember the choreography, which is captivating," says the show's musical director, Kevin Antunes. "It is a perfect marriage with Cirque du Soleil. We use video and storytelling to take his songs, which have now become part of the American lexicon for music, and bring them to life" with new choreography, acrobatics, dancing and other high-flying Cirque additions.
The 2 1/2 -hour extravaganza is built around more than 30 songs Jackson made famous, ranging from "I Want You Back" and "ABC" from his early days with the Jackson 5 to "They Don't Care About Us," which Jackson planned to include in the tour he was working on at the time of his death on June 25, 2009. With 61 artists, says Young, including musicians, singers, dancers, acrobats, contortionists and aerial performers, as well as smoke, flashing lights and pyrotechnics, "there is a lot to look at, and remember, the whole time, you have Michael singing. It's the largest arena show in the world right now, and it's feast for all senses."
Some of the vocal and video clips of Jackson used in the show are rare, known only to those who worked with him in the studio. Antunes found these gems when he was entrusted with master recordings of Jackson's work. On one recording, he discovered a fascinating clip of young Michael doing an impromptu call-and-response between the lines of "ABC," with his older brothers singing back to him. Jackie Jackson, listening to Antunes' work, remembered it happening in the studio. "That gave me chills," Antunes says.
Antunes slightly modified other well-known songs, increasing drama by adding pauses or raising the level of Jackson's voice in the mix for greater impact.
"I was looking at this audio tapestry of music that he put together throughout his life and peeling back the layers so the fans can hear certain things," says Antunes. "Hearing Michael's voice when he was 11 or 12 singing 'I'll Be There,' just his voice with a piano, there are nuances in the way that he sang back then that you take for granted because you remember the song, but when you listen to the texture of his voice when it is brought out front, it captures your heart and you just get pulled into the show. That happens throughout the entire concert, and you'll hear Michael a little more prominently."
Fragments of songs and other sounds, including Jackson snapping his fingers or stamping his foot, are used as "soundscapes and transitions."
Throughout the show, although various dancers strike iconic Jackson poses, no single person imitates him. "I love that we don't have an impersonator," says Young. "You see signature moves and moments of Michael, but nobody can replace Michael and we're not trying to. He was one of a kind."
Deciding which Jackson songs to use was a challenge, says Young. "If you really wanted to celebrate and honor Michael Jackson, which is what we're doing, you could do a concert that lasts for 24 hours straight."
Instead, the creators have selected an eclectic mix of Jackson songs, including "Ben," "Smooth Criminal," "Dangerous," "Thriller," and a "mega mix" that segues from "Can You Feel It" to "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," to "Billie Jean" to "Black or White." Most of the choreography makes at least some visual reference to Jackson's own costumes, dance moves or video dramas.
In "Smooth Criminal," dancers re-create the famous leaning motion that Jackson and other dancers performed in the video and onstage. In "Beat It," dancers occupy outsized models of Jackson's sequined glove and his penny loafers.
But in other cases, the references are more subtle.
To accompany the song, "I Just Can't Stop Loving You," which Jackson recorded both in English and Spanish, the show's writer and director, Jamie King, drew on an image from Jackson's Neverland home. Two gymnasts dressed as swans soar on straps high above the stage.
"When Jamie King went to Neverland and saw these swans, we created this piece in which they look like swans but they are flying," says Antunes. "I combined the English with the Spanish, and it's so romantic the way the two languages intertwine, which is literally the same as the way the two performers' bodies intertwine above the ground, so it was a perfect marriage." The costumes also reference Jackson -- they are covered in Swarovski crystals, which he loved, and include laced corsets to resemble the laced wrist brace Jackson wore in his "Black or White" video.
Fans who attended Jackson concerts may recognize some familiar faces on stage, including Musical Director Greg Phillinganes, who worked with Jackson for decades. Phillinganes hired several other Jackson tour and studio veterans, including Jonathan "Sugarfoot" Moffett, who played drums for Jackson for 30 years, and Don Boyette, who played bass on the "Bad" tour. "I wanted to have as many players as possible with direct, personal history with Michael Jackson," Phillinganes said in a statement. "We are all doing this because of the love we have for Michael. His spirit will live in this show."
"When you see Greg Phillinganes playing keyboards, while on video Michael Jackson sings 'I'll Be There,' you really feel Michael's presence there," says Young. "It adds authenticity and integrity."
Antunes says he received an important message from representatives of the Jackson estate and Sony Music as well as Jackson's brother, Jackie, and mother, Katherine. "As we were working on this show, [they said] just always remember to keep Michael in your heart first -- not just in the scenes and not just in the mix, but in your thoughts and in your mind and in your prayers. Michael was one of the truest talents we ever had on this planet, and being able to go and rework his legendary music is something you have to tread very lightly with."
If Jackson were able to see the show, Young says, "I think he would be incredibly proud and incredibly thankful, because we are doing a great service by carrying on his message. Michael Jackson was full of so many messages, and he always wanted to make a difference. We wanted to create an evening full of inspiration. I always want people to feel changed after they see the show.
"Some people have said, 'The only thing missing is Michael Jackson,' and I say, 'Actually, his presence is all over this show, so I don't find him missing.' I don't think of it that way."