Dancing to 'Billie Jean' led him to 'MJ.' Now he's a Tony contender.

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Dancing to 'Billie Jean' led him to 'MJ.' Now he's a Tony contender.
Myles Frost in the musical “MJ” at the Neil Simon Theater in Manhattan, Jan. 25, 2022. Just five years after he performed as Michael Jackson at a high school talent show, Myles Frost is making his debut in a Broadway musical about the King of Pop. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Michael Paulson

NEW YORK, NY.- Myles Frost was a college junior in Maryland, studying audio engineering, when he got the call that would change his life. Five years earlier, he had performed “Billie Jean” at a high school talent show, and his mom had filmed the performance on her iPad. Now an embryonic Broadway musical about Michael Jackson had lost its star, and Frost’s new acting coach, who had stumbled across the video on YouTube, wanted to know: Could the 21-year-old still sing and dance like the King of Pop?

The truth was, Frost hadn’t revisited the material since he was 16. His only stage experience was in a trio of high school musicals. But he’d wanted to be a star since he was a little boy, and he’s not a believer in self-doubt. “Why say I can’t?” he thought. “Maybe I can.”

Frost pleaded for a day to prepare, and then he taped a video to send to the show’s producers. It was good enough that they asked him to come to New York so they could see him in person. They liked what they saw.

Now Frost, at 22, is on Broadway, drawing ovations nightly in the title role of “MJ,” a biomusical exploring Jackson’s creative process by imagining the final days of rehearsals for the “Dangerous” concert tour. The effect is uncanny: Although Frost insists he is not doing an impersonation, audiences describe feeling as if they are at a Michael Jackson concert.

“You feel the excitement of discovery — one of the reasons we go to the theater — as you watch the electrifying Broadway debut by Myles Frost as Jackson,” wrote Don Aucoin, a Boston Globe critic.

Adrienne Warren, who won a Tony last year for playing Tina Turner, said on Instagram, “I have never seen anything like that on a Broadway stage ... and I know the COST of THAT performance.”

That performance made Frost a Tony nominee this month in the best leading actor in a musical category. He’ll face off against a pair of megawatt stars, Hugh Jackman (“The Music Man”) and Billy Crystal (“Mr. Saturday Night”), as well as Rob McClure (“Mrs. Doubtfire”) and Jaquel Spivey (“A Strange Loop”). “It’s beyond insane,” Frost said, still marveling a few days after learning of his nomination.

The history of Broadway is replete with stories of stars who seem to appear out of nowhere. Still, Frost’s arrival is remarkable, given that Broadway wasn’t on his radar screen; he had never been in a professional stage production. He had only seen one Broadway show (“Cinderella,” when Keke Palmer and NeNe Leakes cycled into the cast). And he was not aware that a Michael Jackson musical was in development.

In a stroke of luck, fate or divine providence — choose your adventure — during the pandemic he signed up for online acting classes with Lelund Durond Thompson, who happens to be the life partner of Jason Michael Webb, the musical director for “MJ.” Thompson found the “Billie Jean” video and urged Webb to take a look. “It was meant to be,” Thompson said.

It was spring 2021, and the production was in a bind: Ephraim Sykes, an experienced actor who had led the cast through much of the grueling development process, had departed for a film opportunity.

“After Ephraim left us, we were in a bit of a spiral, to be perfectly honest, because it was quite late, and casting a Michael Jackson is not a particularly easy gig,” said Christopher Wheeldon, the musical’s director and choreographer. “We were all a bit panicked, and we saw a few people, and no one was working out.”

Then came Frost, invited to audition as the production widened its search. “He very sweetly walked up to the table and said, ‘My name is Myles Frost, and I’m auditioning for the role of Michael Jackson,’ which was so endearing because it seemed like something he wasn’t used to doing,” Wheeldon said. “And his resume was very, very short. When you see that on the page, you don’t want to discount someone, but this was going to be a project, for sure.”

Frost slipped on a fedora — yes, he brought a fedora — to dance “Billie Jean,” and when the production accidentally started playing the wrong song (“Beat It”), Wheeldon watched as Frost waited, frozen, in the back of the studio.

“He stayed absolutely still — didn’t move a muscle — and I thought, ‘This is going to be interesting. This kid’s in the zone,’” Wheeldon said. “Then we found the right music, and he started to dance. It was very baggy — it wasn’t crisp — but you could see that he had an innate groove and a natural understanding of the Michael vocabulary. And then when he sang ‘Stranger in Moscow,’ there was so much pain and power and grit in his voice that we all instantly sat forward.”

Frost remembers that day, too, mostly because it was shaping up badly. The day before, he had cut short a practice session with Thompson, citing an allergic reaction to dust in the studio; he took a Benadryl, a Zyrtec and a shower and fell asleep. When he arrived for the audition, he let instinct take over.

“I closed my eyes, got into myself a little bit more, and when the music started, I did the thing,” he said. “My body felt like it had done it before. That feeling — this is deeper than music, this is deeper than acting itself, this is deeper than the show. This is a type of energy and a type of magic that comes over you.”

Wheeldon viewed Frost as a godsend but also a gamble. “There was so much raw gift — more gift than I’ve maybe ever seen in one human being in a first audition,” Wheeldon said. But also, “along with that came all of our fears: What if he doesn’t put in the work? What if he can’t put in the work?”

The production offered Frost the role. He accepted.

“It’s one of those things where it just kind of feels like the stars align a little bit,” Frost said, “and you get that call, and it’s in the palm of your hands to either take and embrace or to drop, and I decided to take it and embrace it.”

“MJ,” of course, is not just any jukebox musical. It’s about one of the biggest pop artists in American history, but one whose legacy has been tarnished by allegations that he sexually abused children. The show, with a book by Lynn Nottage, a two-time Pulitzer-winning playwright, is set in 1992, before the allegations became public, and does not address that issue, which has prompted criticism from leading theater reviewers. But thus far, the show’s box office is healthy; in recent weeks, “MJ” has been among the top-grossing productions on Broadway. It picked up 10 Tony nominations, including one for best musical, and its producers, who include the Michael Jackson Estate, are planning to add a North American tour next year.

Frost, during a pair of conversations about the show, was patient with questions about the allegations but also chose his words carefully — taking a deep breath before answering, pausing often between thoughts — and made it clear that he would not be baited or badgered into expressing a position on whether Jackson was an abuser.

“I believe everybody is entitled to their truth and to what they believe,” he said. “I don’t judge.”

He said he believes the best thing he can do is focus on delivering the performance envisioned by the show’s creators. And what is that vision? “This show is about drive, this show is about understanding, this show is about faith,” he said, “and it’s about clinging onto the light at the end of the tunnel despite the darkness that’s surrounding you.”

“My responsibility, and my job, is to focus on the creative process of Michael,” he added. “People come here every day with different opinions and different feelings about Michael. It’s not my job to persuade or convince them of anything, but what I do want them to do is have a better understanding of the things that he had to go through — whether it’s financial or emotional — to put this tour together, because nobody can deny, and this is the bottom line, the impact that he has had on culture and on music.”

In conversation, Frost is warm and gracious (he loves the words “humbled” and “blessed”) but also soft-spoken and measured, with a relentless positivity and an all-things-are-possible way of talking about his career. (“I want to be bigger than Michael Jackson,” he said. “Why not? Why would I limit myself?”)

Named for the jazz great Miles Davis, Frost grew up moving back and forth between Maryland and Washington, D.C., raised by his mother, a systems engineer, and his grandmother, a schoolteacher. “I’ve been backed my entire life by very, very strong Black women,” he said. “That definitely has a lot to do with how I carry myself and how I respect others.”

Early on, he developed two great passions: golf, which he picked up at 3 years old, and piano, which he started at 6. Michael Jackson was always part of the soundscape; at 5, Frost was so winning while dancing to the singer’s songs on a party boat that the revelers threw money at him.

“There’s a feeling you get when you listen to his music that makes you want to dance, makes you want to move,” Frost said. “It gets me fired up.”

He sang and played the piano and drums at church, and by middle school, he had formed an R&B cover band — Fresh Flights — that performed at shopping centers (among their first songs: “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5).

His artistic arc shifted during adolescence. After a childhood spent at predominantly Black schools, he found himself at Thomas S. Wootton High School, where the students were predominantly white and Asian American. And he was not doing well; he felt like he didn’t fit in, and his grades were slipping.

One afternoon, he ducked into a chorus room to find solace at a piano. A teacher heard him play and asked if he could sing. She needed students to audition for the school musical. “I’m like, ‘Musical?’” he said. “‘I don’t know anything about musicals.’” She told him to go home and watch “Hairspray” — the 2007 version, in which the characters sing.

The next thing he knew, he was playing Seaweed in the school’s production. “I fell in love with the stage,” he said. “I fell in love with the audience. I fell in love with the energy. And I was like, ‘This is where I want to be.’”

As a junior, he played Warner in a school production of “Legally Blonde,” and as a senior, he was Lord Pinkleton in “Cinderella.” Plus, while wrapping up high school, he competed on “The Voice.” “I didn’t get a chair turn,” he said, “but it was still a learning experience”; he also landed two small film roles.

Then came college. He started at Belmont University, a Christian institution in Nashville, Tennessee, where he took a break from performance to study music technology. After two years, he transferred to Bowie State University, a historically Black college in Maryland; he left that school for “MJ.”

“When somebody says you have the opportunity to play Michael Jackson, that’s not something you just shrug off,” Frost said.

Once he got the job, the real work began. The production flew him to Los Angeles to spend several weeks studying with Rich and Tone Talauega, two brothers who had danced with Jackson. He started vocal lessons. And he got vaccinated against the coronavirus — a requirement for working on Broadway.

He scrutinized interviews with Jackson, noting how he held his hands, which way he crossed his legs, what he did with his eyes when someone said something that made him uncomfortable. And he watched hours and hours of tour video; even now, before every performance, he screens the “Bad” tour in his dressing room. (Why “Bad”? “Because it’s the best tour, to me,” he said. “Wembley ’88! I try my best to match his energy.”)

Among the hardest things to learn: breath control. Also: the side glide, a dance step associated with Jackson. “You can make it look very, very cool,” Frost said. “But it was definitely a challenge.”

His run in the show has been, like this Broadway season, bumpy. In mid-December, just a few weeks after previews began, he got sick with the coronavirus. He was out of the show for 10 days. Then in February, he fractured a toe on his right foot and was out of the show for a few weeks more; it turned out Frost has a long second toe that was causing stress while he was moonwalking. (The show wound up restructuring his shoes to ease the pressure.) This month, he contracted the coronavirus a second time and missed another round of performances.

But now he’s happily back at the Neil Simon Theater, in a prime dressing room that he had painted gray (“it matches my aesthetic”), with a black carpet and a red couch. He keeps it remarkably spare — no art other than a drawing sent by a young fan — just racks of clothing and a TV. And eight times a week there, he slowly applies his makeup and layers his costume as he embraces the transition from Myles to Michael. “I’m seeing the fruits of my labor — people saying, ‘I felt like I was watching Michael Jackson,’” he said. “That’s all I can ask for as an artist — that people leave with something warm and magical.”

Then, each night, he takes off the makeup and the costume before heading home, determined to leave Michael at the theater and exit as Myles.

“I’ll put it this way,” he said. “I didn’t expect to be here. I didn’t plan this. So I am open and excited for whatever God has planned for me. Wherever he drops me, I’m excited to go there, because that led me here, and I think it would be in my best interests to keep that flow going.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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