An Australian tour of Thriller Live begins in Perth tonight. Adrian Grant talks about meeting Michael Jackson and how the show came about.
In 1988, at age 19, Adrian Grant began publishing a Michael Jackson fanzine called Off the Wall from his bedroom in the UK town of Reading.
Little did he know that it would lead to him becoming a long-time associate of Jackson’s, writing three books about the King of Pop, and co-producing a stage show celebrating his music.
Thriller Live has been running in London’s West End for six years now. It has toured to 28 countries and been seen by over three million people. An Australian production opens in Perth tonight then tours to Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney.
“It’s really down to the popularity of Michael’s music,” says Grant of the show’s success. “Those songs will live on forever. We’re just happy to be a small part of his legacy and keep that magic going.”
It all began for Grant when he first saw Jackson moonwalk. “I went out and got the Thriller album and I fell in love with it,” he says.
“Prince had a fan magazine in the UK called Controversy. I used to get it every quarter. I’d just left college, where I was doing business studies, and I wanted to get into the media and I thought, ‘well if Prince is selling 3000 magazines, why hasn’t Michael Jackson got a magazine?’”
After getting permission from Sony, Grant got a grant, bought himself a computer and began publishing a magazine he named Off the Wall after Jackson’s fifth studio album.
“The first one, I printed 200 copies and I sold them by mail order and they all sold out. It was just black and white and there were lots of mistakes,” says Grant.
But he learned quickly. Within a couple of years, he was selling 25,000 copies per issue around the world. He also started sending copies to Jackson’s company in Los Angeles and in 1990 received an invitation to meet Jackson while he was recording his Dangerous album in Los Angeles.
“I went to the studio. I remember that day very clearly. He was wearing a black fedora and a black shirt and I could hear him singing as he came around the corner into the studio,” says Grant.
“I had this painting commissioned by this artist called Vincent McKoy, which was a montage of Michael over the last 20 years, and he was very grateful.”
Not only did Jackson invite Grant to spend the whole day at the studio, he then asked him to have lunch at his house in Neverland at the weekend.
“Again I remember it like yesterday,” says Grant. “I remember driving through the big gates and the security guy escorting me down to the main house. As I was walking down I was just blown away by the scene. There was classical music coming out of the flowerbeds. I could see two little chimpanzees rolling around in the grass – their names were Max and Alex.
“Beyond that there was a giraffe and lamas and a funfair. I said to the guy, ‘this isn’t reality’ and he said, ‘this is reality for Michael Jackson. This is what he wakes up to everyday.’ It kind of made me realise what Michael’s world was. He had the opportunity to have pretty much whatever he wanted.
“At the time much of the media had (mocked) Michael Jackson for the zoo, for the lamas, for the chimpanzees, but I thought, ‘these are the things that he loves.’ They weren’t there just for his personal amusement. They were there for other people to enjoy as well, such as underprivileged and disabled kids who used to go on visits to the ranch. And that was Michael Jackson down to a tee. He was always giving to other people. And he gave me a lot of his time because he knew what I was doing was not just for myself but for his fan base and he appreciated the love and support they were giving him.”
As for the controversial headlines, that wasn’t the man that Grant knew or saw. “He was very open, he was very chatty, he laughed a lot. He was a big kid at heart,” says Grant.
“A couple of his musicians who were working on the album were there (at Neverland) and they were discussing the songs they were working on. He wanted me to feel very comfortable there. We went and played in the arcade room and we watched a movie in his movie theatre. He was just really down to earth. I found him to be like that the whole time I knew him.”
Jackson continued to give Grant access over the years. “I think I must have gone to Neverland at least twice a year every year and I toured with him on his HIStory tour. I saw him recording in the studio a couple more times in New York when he was recording the HIStory album,” says Grant.
“At the time I didn’t think much of it. I was just doing my job and Michael was very open and very giving. But it was good to watch him work. He was a complete genius in the studio. I don’t think people realise what a great musician he was because he often employed the best people and had a very talented team with him. He was such a perfectionist and that’s something I’ve tried to carry through to the show.”
Thriller Live has its roots in a Michael Jackson tribute concert that Grant began staging annually in London in 1991 for readers of the fanzine.
“I think about 1000 people came to the first one. The first show was on a par with the first magazine!” admits Grant with a laugh. “But the audience had a great time. They used dress up like Michael and we invited people to sing his songs and dance in a competition. Again, it got bigger and better every year and the acts got more professional and by the end of it they were giving proper concert performances. Michael used to send over prizes – signed fedoras and the prize for one competition was to go to his home – and he sent over a video crew to film it.
“For the 10th concert in 2001 we went to a bigger venue: the Hammersmith Apollo, which held 3000 fans, and Michael actually attended in person for that one. We built a little tent on the side of the stage so he could watch the whole show without being disturbed. He came on stage afterwards and he said he loved it and that it was incredible and beautiful. That kind of gave me the inspiration to do something bigger not just for Michael Jackson’s fans but for the public at large.
“In 2005, I really started to put it into development. We did a one-off show in August 2006 to see how the public would respond and they loved it. After that I teamed up with Flying Music who were producers with 25 years experience and we put together the first UK tour in 2007 and then in January 2009 we moved into the West End where it’s still running.”
The show features two hours of non-stop hits by Jackson and the Jackson 5 performed by five lead singers (including MiG Ayesa and Prinnie Stevens in Australia), 16 dancers and a nine-piece band.
“It’s definitely all about the music,” says Grant. “When I first conceived the show I wanted to bring people back to Michael Jackson’s music, which had been a bit forgotten at the time. There was a lot of media controversy surrounding Michael Jackson and people were just talking about the headlines and not about the artist so I wanted to create a show, which just focused on Michael’s music and artistry on stage. There’s a brief narrative that runs through the show which outlines his achievements and his accolades but it’s there just as timeline to his career.”
Right from the outset, Grant decided to have a number of singers performing Jackson’s songs rather than just one. “First, I didn’t want it to be perceived as a look-alike tribute shot. Secondly, I didn’t think there was anybody who could play Michael Jackson so I wanted to have different performers representing different (aspects) of his personality on stage. It also makes it more interesting for the audience rather than just listening to one voice.”
Grant was at home in London when he heard about Jackson’s death, and could hardly believe it.
“Obviously my first thoughts were with his family, with his young children and his mother (Katherine). I flew out to Los Angeles. I went to the memorial and paid my respects and then I went to Katherine’s home and I met with Paris, Michael’s daughter. I gave her one of my books and she gave me the biggest hug.”
“The night after he passed I didn’t personally want the show to go on,” says Grant. “I wanted to cancel it out of respect to Michael but along with the other producers we made a decision that there was a demand for the show. The cast were in tears and very emotional and they all gave an electric performance. There was thunderous applause from the audience.
“In the end it was the right decision to go on because the venue itself became like a shrine for Michael’s fans.”
Five years since Jackson’s death, Thriller Live continues to moonwalk around the world.
“Really it’s not like a job doing this,” says Grant. “It’s a love for me and a passion.”
Thriller Live plays at the Crown Theatre, Perth until December 21; Festival Theatre, Adelaide, December 30 –January 11; QPAC, Brisbane, January 14 – 25; Arts Centre Melbourne, January 28 – February 8; Lyric Theatre, Sydney, February 26 – March 15
A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on November 30