‘Robert Burns The Musical’ is bringing it back home

‘Robert Burns The Musical’, which was once born in the home studio of Michael Jackson, is going back to where it all began. Following a successful national tour in Scotland, the cast is ready to perform in the United States. After a kick-off on Broadway in April 2016, the musical will travel to the west coast to perform in Downtown Los Angeles. The show’s venue is likely to be the Palace Theatre where Jackson filmed his legendary ‘Thriller’ video in 1983.

Robert Burns The Musical 2015 (Photo: Andy Mackenzie)
Robert Burns The Musical (photo: Andy Mackenzie, 2015)

American debut

Tish Tindall and Diane Aspinall, the driving forces behind ‘Robert Burns The Musical’, are taking their Scottish production across the pond. The show will make its American debut in New York City during Tartan Week, followed by a Los Angeles performance during Brit Week. Instead of seeing Jackson eat popcorn and teasing his girlfriend under the ‘Thriller’ marquee, the Palace Theatre will host Scotland’s most promising young theatre talents.

Michael Jackson and Ola Ray, Palace Theatre LA
Michael Jackson and Ola Ray in front of the Palace Theatre, Los Angeles (1983)

Linked to Jackson

Although the musical has vastly changed since its inception at Jackson’s home in Encino – including a revised modern-day storyline and a new music score written by Tindall – the production remains linked to the King of Pop in a conceptual way. Additionally, it has expanded into an apprenticeship training program as well as a multicultural educational outreach program called ‘History’.

The name is not without significance and was chosen because of Jackson’s 1995 song ‘HIStory’. “The song starts with a child speaking about singing – he won’t sing if he doesn’t mean it”, Tindall explains. “The opportunity to reach out to different cultures with our shows will hopefully encourage people all over the world to understand the message behind Robert Burns’ words of friendship. Moreover, the musical has provided our cast with the opportunity to create their own history. It’s the importance Michael Jackson highlighted so brilliantly in his song: ‘Every day create your history. Every path you take you’re leaving your legacy.’”

Michael Jackson's 1995 album HIStory
Michael Jackson’s HIStory album, 1995

Apprenticeship and Motown

Another way in which Jackson’s history resonates, is through the musical’s apprenticeship training program. The young cast is trained by Rock Academy, a performing arts academy and theatre school located in Lossiemouth, Scotland. Students studying at the academy are educated and trained, but are also given apprenticeship-style performance opportunities to prepare them for a professional career within the performing arts. It’s a training program that Jackson would have well recognized.

Signing to Motown Records in 1968, Jackson and his brothers – the famous Jackson 5 – were carefully trained to become a teeny-bop group delivering ‘bubblegum soul’. “Motown was determined that if they were going to promote kids, they’d promote the kind of kids who were good at more than just singing and dancing. They wanted people to like us because of who we were, not just because of our records. They wanted us to set an example by sticking to our schoolwork and being friendly to our fans, reporters, and everyone who came into contact with us”, Jackson wrote in his autobiography Moonwalk in 1988.

Motown “trained us religiously”, according to Jackson. The record company prepared the brothers for showbusiness in detail, including new hairstyles and wardrobes, and appropriate manners and vocabulary. In the recording studio, things weren’t much different. “Our team of writers shaped our music by being with us as we recorded it over and over, molding and sculpting a song until it was just perfect. We would cut a track over and over for weeks until we got it just as they wanted it. And I could see while they were doing it that it was getting better and better”, Jackson recalled in Moonwalk.

The Jackson 5 during their Motown years
The Jackson 5 during their Motown years

Something to remember

Rock Academy follows a similar strategy of continuous artistic improvement. The ultimate goal is to give the audience something to remember. “The role of the Rock Academy performer is not only to perform but to inform. To entertain, the performer has to make the audience laugh, cry, and remember – not just remember you as a performer, but to remember something you have reignited within them”, Tindall explains.

Twenty-year old Luke Cockram, who plays the adult Robert Burns in the musical production, lauds his training at Rock Academy. “I’ve been able to grow more confident in my performing ability, comprehending the situations within the performance and honing both my skills and my instincts to know how to give the best performance I can give. But most of all, it has helped me to become a more individual and independent person.” Cockram now feels ready to perform in the States: “I’m excited for many reasons. I’ve never been to America before and I am getting to do what I love most in what I can imagine is an incredibly rich theatre environment.”

Luke Cockram in 'Robert Burns The Musical'
Luke Cockram in ‘Robert Burns The Musical’ (photo: Andy Mckenzie, 2015)

Tribute to the King of Pop

Looking back, Jackson’s musical has become quite a story. “Every day I am thankful for the opportunity that gave Rock Academy its greatest challenge; to realize Michael Jackson’s dream by creating, producing and touring a musical about Robert Burns”, Tindall says. No wonder the musical pays subtle tribute to the King of Pop, including some of Jackson’s iconic dance moves, and by turning Burns into a Jackson fan who draws his poetic inspiration from Jackson’s zombie evergreen ‘Thriller’. Although these references are lighthearted, the cast means no disrespect. “We’re simply making tribute to the man who sparked the initial idea”, Cockram says.

There is a lot to be grateful for, Tindall agrees, but there is always something left to dream about: “We have a dream, a dream that will allow us to share the skills and talents of a Scottish cast who want to share Scottish history – what a documentary this would make! That’s what we need, as well as endorsement, funding and marketing. We need the perfect production company that can help us share our story with the world. I wonder what Michael would say?”

© Annemarie Latour

Information and tour dates: Robert Burns The Musical

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