From June 27, 1992 to November 11, 1993, Michael Jackson’s Dangerous World Tour travelled the globe with over 100 tons of equipment – enough to fill twenty trucks. Two Boeing 747 aircraft were required to airlift it between cities, and once there, it took three days to set it all up.
This is a reminder to us 25 years later, that when it came to his art, Michael Jackson did not believe in half measures. And this was a tour that wasn’t meant to happen! After the Bad World Tour, Michael had announced he didn’t want to tour again. (1) However, an opportunity to raise funds for his Heal the World Foundation, with sponsorship for the tour from Pepsi (reportedly for US$20 million) prompted him to change his mind.
From the opening number, with Michael shooting into the air from below the stage, flanked by bursts of fireworks, then gazing unmoving out over his audience before kicking into Jam, the show was high-octane, high-energy. For Michael Jackson, an artist who admired the showmanship of 19th century American entertainment impresario PT Barnum, it was a chance to put on his own ‘greatest show on Earth’.
It’s not like he hadn’t had plenty of practice at this sort of thing. His Bad tour, also sponsored by Pepsi, had seen Michael revel in the freedom of being the boss of his own show – contrary to when he toured with his brothers. When touring as a member of the Jacksons he could be outvoted when it came to decisions of songs, presentation and staging. In his 1988 autobiography Moonwalk he talks about his unhappiness with several aspects of the Victory Tour – from the ticketing process and pricing controversy through to personal and creative disagreements with his brothers.
Promoter Don King nevertheless knew a money machine when he saw one – and its name was Michael Jackson. “Anybody who sees this show will be a better person for years to come,” he told the media, “Michael Jackson has transcended all earthly bounds. Every race, color and creed is waiting for this tour.” The weight of responsibility for the tour’s success was squarely on Michael’s shoulders.
As he later revealed in Moonwalk, “When it came down to the actual tour, I was outvoted on a number of issues, but you don’t think when you’re onstage, you just deliver… The opening was dramatic and bright and captured the whole feeling of the show. When the lights came on and they saw us, the roof would come off the place.” Nevertheless, he was disappointed with the tour from the beginning. “I wanted to move the world like it had never been moved. I wanted to present something that would make people say, ‘Wow! That’s wonderful!’… I didn’t have the time or the opportunity to perfect it the way I wanted to.”(2)
When Michael later made it known he was not interested in extending the tour to a European leg, the family wasn’t happy. But after his experiences with the Victory tour, Michael realised he had to make his career decisions with more care than ever. At Motown everything had been done for the brothers. Other people made the decisions. “I’ve been mentally scarred by the experience” Michael said in Moonwalk. (3)
Michael’s first solo world tour, Bad, began in Japan in September 1987 and to some seemed to continue where the Victory tour had left off. Katherine Jackson wrote in her book My Family, the Jacksons (1990) that she thought she was watching the identical show, only with four backup singers replacing the brothers. She told Michael’s manager, Frank Dileo, that she thought the show was great; that Michael was always good, but “it would have been a better show with the brothers.” (4) Needless to say, Frank disagreed; it’s likely Michael would have too. At this point in his career he wanted control, and now he had it, both in the studio and on stage.
There were only two songs from the Bad album on the set list for the opening night of the tour, which eventually played in 15 countries and earned Guinness World Records for the largest grossing tour in history and the tour with the largest attended audience. Michael certainly showed what he could do unconstrained by familial ties, the preferences of others, or by financial constraints (he was already the most successful music star on the planet by this time).
The staging was impressive – with 700 lights, 100 speakers, 40 lasers, three mirrors and two 24 x 18 ft. screens. There were 70 costumes for the performers, including four that had fibre optic light attachments. Michael brought in Vincent Paterson for the choreography and staging, and more songs from the Bad album were added to the set list, including crowd-pleasers Smooth Criminal, Dirty Diana and Man in the Mirror. Staging Smooth Criminal for a live performance required a device that enabled Michael and the other dancers to perform the 45 degree lean. So, Michael drew up a sketch and his costumers, Tompkins and Bush, created the ‘anti-gravity’ shoes which were registered with the US Patient and Trademark Office.
Michael Jackson continued to polish his stage-craft throughout the Bad tour and took what he’d learned into a new decade – the 90s – when he decided to tour for the Dangerous album. This time he teamed up with choreographer Kenny Ortega, who he would continue to work with right through to This Is It. A California native, Ortega had been trained by one of Michael’s idols, Gene Kelly, with whom he had worked on the movie Xanadu; he later choreographed the original Dirty Dancing movie (1987) and various music videos. His tour credits before the Dangerous tour included Cher’s Heart of Stone tour 1989-90 and Gloria Estefan’s Into The Light world tour 1991-92. The Dangerous tour was to be the beginning of a long association and friendship between Michael and Ortega.
When asked in 2010 “How do you direct Michael Jackson? Can you say no to him?” Ortega replied “You don’t tell Michael no. You disagree. You don’t ever have to criticize Michael. What you always get with Michael is an open mind and that’s all he expects back from you. He would say to me, when he really believed in something that I wasn’t on the same page with him about, he’d say, ‘Please, please, just promise me that you’ll keep it alive in your mind for five minutes. I know you’ll come to agree with me.’ I would say, ‘Oh, you’re wrong there, mister.’ Michael loved that about our relationship. He called it creative jousting and he loved that. He rolled up his sleeves and we wrestled ideas and it didn’t matter. I know that Michael kept inviting me back time and time again because I didn’t just yes him, nor did I boss him. We had a wonderful repartee. I know that Michael trusted me that I would get the work done. He would say to me, ‘You build the house. I’ll rock it down.’” (5)
The Dangerous tour packed in many elements that Michael Jackson loved, including a dramatic entrance, stage illusions, and at the end of the show a spectacular exit, when he appeared to depart the stadium by jet-pack. Michael’s love of illusion and magic, as well as his ability to spellbind his audience just with his presence, was well and truly ‘on stage’ for the world to see. “He wanted to come out with the biggest show on earth,” guitarist Jennifer Batten said in a 2010 interview. “He wanted it to be like Christmas for people. His imagination was like a creative tornado. He would come up with his wildest dreams and then hire people to carry it out. It was really amazing to be a part of that.” (6)
How could he possibly top that? For the HIStory tour, he certainly tried. Instead of shooting into the air at the beginning of the show, Michael arrived in a space capsule which ‘crashed’ into the stage. He stepped out seemingly encased in metal, beneath which was (gasp) the famous gold pants… plus the rest of his space costume! It was quite an opening.
As for the staging – it was truly gigantic. At Letna Park in Praque in the Czech Republic, in front of a crowd in excess of 127,000, Michael performed on the biggest stage of the tour. Drummer Jonathan ‘Sugarfoot’ Moffett recalled “Our Opening Night Show of the “History” Tour ’96/97′!!!…. An Amazing Day ‘And’ Night, in my Life And Career!!!… “M.J. Magnificence”!!!… The ‘Biggest Stage’ Configuration of the Tour “HiStory”!!! From That date on, . . The stage was ‘Downgraded’ in production attributes compliments, . . To cut production and transport costs!… SO, my dear friends, . . . “THIS WAS IT”!!!!… “M.J. Gorgantuas”!!!… You ‘Had To Be There’, to understand the Magnitude!” (7)
Come the 21st century and the This Is It residency shows at London’s O2 arena, the bar was set at a much higher level for the staging thanks to the availability of advanced digital technology that included 3D footage leading into the live performance. Ortega recalled one of Michael’s big stage ideas after a press screening of unseen footage from the This Is It movie.
“One morning Michael called me and said: ‘Victoria Falls!’ and I said: ‘That’s in Africa’.
“And he said: ‘That’s why we have to have it!'”
Ortega explained: “Daily, Michael and I would be creative jousting and wrestling down ideas. I think Michael wanted the world on stage, and he wanted the wonders of the world represented on stage.
“We had choirs and children and dancers and singers and musicians and effects and movies and the world’s largest 3-D hi-definition screen. What Michael wanted was the Victoria Falls in 3-D pouring over the stage – with him in front of it, singing!” (8)
(We at least see an aerial view of the falls in the Earth Song 3D footage, in the This Is It movie.) The creative team came up with Light Man for Michael’s entrance at the start of the show. But topping the Dangerous tour’s ‘Rocket Man’ exit required additional creative thinking.
Thus MJ Air was born. On the This Is It DVD extras, Ortega explains how Michael was to be whisked out of the arena before the audience was even aware he had left. (9) He was going to walk up a ramp and appear to board a jet aircraft. The digital aircraft would then rumble away down the runway, turn and take off over the heads of the audience – in 3D. (If you’ve ever been to the open air Sun Pictures cinema in Broome, Western Australia, where planes departing the local airport sometimes take off over the top of the screen, you’ll appreciate the effect that Michael’s team was aiming for.) And while people were ducking in their seats, the star of the show and his children would be in the car and on their way out of London.
His object was to leave his audience gob-smacked. The ultimate showman might have left the arena, but in the minds of his fans, the show would go on.
It still does.
(1) Ebony, April 1989 accessed from http://www.michael-jackson-trader.com/tours/badtourreview.html
(2) Michael Jackson Moonwalk 1988 Arrow Books paperback edition 2010
(4) Katherine Jackson My Family, The Jacksons St Martin’s Press 1990 accessed on http://jetzi-mjvideo.com/books-jetzi-04/kj/kj16.html
(5) Interview: This Is It Director Kenny Ortega on his last work with MJ http://www.cinemablend.com/new/Interview-It-Director-Kenny-Ortega-His-Last-Work-With-MJ-15418.html
(6) Interview with Jennifer Batten 2010, as blogged on her website: http://www.batten.com/images/stories/michaeljackson/mj-saw.pdf
(7) Jonathan Sugarfoot Moffett commenting on a photo of the Prague HIStory stage – Facebook 9 September 2015 https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1136003033080552&set=a.102088859805313.4758.100000125974421&type=3&theater
(8) Jackson ‘wanted the world on stage’ BBC News 2009 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/8316557.stm
(9) Michael Jackson – This Is It (MJ Air) accessible on Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d7N-EhG7XbI
Photo montage ‘let’s Jam’ compiled and photo-shopped by Kerry Hennigan, 2017 MJ Air from Google Images online, accessed 22 August 2017.
Tour data (does not include MJ and Friends, 30th Anniversary, United We Stand concerts or other special event performances) –