May 20, 2019

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HBO Film Revives Lurid Claims, Imperiling Thriving Michael Jackson Estate

HBO Film Revives Lurid Claims, Imperiling Thriving Michael Jackson Estate
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A test of Mr. Jackson’s market appeal may be “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough,” the musical produced by the estate and Columbia Live Stage, a division of Sony Pictures. Planned for a 2020 Broadway premiere, it has a highbrow creative team: Lynn Nottage, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, is writing the book, and Christopher Wheeldon, a ballet luminary, is the choreographer.

Since “Leaving Neverland” made its debut at Sundance, the fate of the musical has caused talk in theater circles. A Chicago tryout run was canceled; producers blamed scheduling conflicts after an actors’ strike. A spokesman for the show said the production remained on schedule.

The larger question, said Stacy Wolf, a Princeton theater professor, is whether Ms. Nottage, who is known for her politically charged work, has the freedom to stray from a sanitized account of Mr. Jackson’s life story. The show, which will incorporate Mr. Jackson’s songs, was announced as being based on the period leading up to his “Dangerous” tour of 1992 and 1993 — a tour cut short when allegations of abuse surfaced.

“The question is, can she figure out, as a dramatist, how to tell the story she wants to tell, without compromising her politics, and dealing with this very difficult estate?” Ms. Wolf said.

Through the show’s spokesman, the producers and Ms. Nottage declined to comment.

In its petition for arbitration, the Jackson estate accused HBO of being in breach of a 1992 agreement it had made with the singer to broadcast a concert from Bucharest, Romania. The estate said the contract had contained a nondisparagement clause that HBO was violating with “Leaving Neverland.”

The filing — which begins, “Michael Jackson is innocent. Period.” — also targets the credibility of Mr. Robson and Mr. Safechuck. Both men, the filing says, are “pursuing claims against the Jackson estate for hundreds of millions of dollars,” through appeals of their suit. (In response, HBO has said it plans to broadcast “Leaving Neverland” as announced, “despite the desperate lengths taken to undermine the film.”)

In the #MeToo era, aggressive statements against accusers may not be effective, said Matthew Hiltzik, whose firm, Hiltzik Strategies, handles crisis management for celebrities and corporations.

“It’s understandable that an estate would want to fight back in any way possible because of the unique challenges of trying to refute claims against someone who has been dead for 10 years,” Mr. Hiltzik said. “But it may backfire based on the contents of the documentary and the current climate.”



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