‘Immortal’ pays tribute to Michael Jackson

Published Thu, Mar 27, 2014 08:00 PM
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A scene from the Cirque du Soleil "Immortal" tour. COURTESY OF OSA IMAGES

Submitted by Corbie Hill — Correspondent

A few weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, at the “United We Stand: What More Can I Give” concert at DC’s RFK Stadium, Kevin Antunes met Michael Jackson. It was a fleeting encounter at what would turn out to be the King of Pop’s last public concert, but the keyboardist and producer remembers it vividly. He was in his dressing room which, for some reason, had no door, when security cleared the hallway.

“They were saying a celebrity was coming through and they wanted all the people to clear the room, to clear the walkway,” Antunes said. He was told to move, but replied that he was technically still in his dressing room. So he stood in the doorway. “And here he comes, Michael Jackson, walking all by himself,” Antunes recalls, still amazed some 12 years later. “And he turns and looks at me and goes, ‘Hello. I’m Michael.’ 

Antunes, too, has a long history in pop music: he was immersed in it from a young age, as his dad plays saxophone with John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band. By 18 he and his keyboards hit the road with New Kids on the Block on their “Hangin’ Tough” world tour. He has played three Super Bowl halftimes, worked as musical director for Justin Timberlake and Rihanna, and recently been given privileged access to Michael Jackson’s master recordings – all of them.

It’s from this vault that the musical designer constructed Cirque du Soleil’s “Michael Jackson: The Immortal,” which comes to Raleigh’s PNC Arena April 1 and 2. The massive show, featuring acrobats, dancers and a dozen musicians, is built around Jackson’s voice. There’s an arena-style rock band, sure, but the vocals are Jackson’s originals, selected by Antunes.

“Not even his producers that did his records got to hear things the way I did,” he said. “I got to hear his music over his lifetime, while most of the producers were there for two albums, maybe.”

Antunes’ mission was to present Jackson’s voice as clearly as possible – the masters, he says, represent exactly how Jackson sounded in the studio, while vinyl records present more degraded audio – but also to present long-familiar hits in new and unexpected ways.

“It was an honor to be able to sit there and go through ‘ABC’ and find an alternate vocal take that Michael had done,” Antunes said. “There’s parts of the music where I’ll break the music down and I’ll let the people hear Michael just snapping his fingers, clapping his hands.”

It could be daunting, having his hands on the masters of “Thriller,” “Billie Jean” or “Beat It,” and Antunes admits it was challenging to dig through the archives, rearrange decades-old Jackson hits for a Cirque du Soleil production, and communicate honest emotion. Sometimes this required dueling guitars and cellos, but sometimes Antunes chose a light touch.

Near the end of “The Immortal,” there’s a gentle moment: Antunes isolated an 11-year-old Jackson’s vocals from the 1970 Jackson 5 hit “I’ll Be There,” and paired it with piano played by the singer’s onetime music director and keyboardist Greg Phillinganes – and that’s it.

“None of the other music, none of the other background – just acoustic piano,” Antunes said. It’s a fitting touch from a man who, 12 years ago, had an equally personal, fleeting encounter with the King of Pop.

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