Miming the magic: Michael Jackson and Marcel Marceau (Part 1)

Gravity did not exist for Michael Jackson, the moonwalking King of Pop. Nor did it seem to affect Marcel Marceau, the legendary French pantomime artist. Both performed their art with an elegance and fluidity that only few have ever achieved. As masters of their trade, Jackson and Marceau were bound to meet.

Michael Jackson and Marcel Marceau
Marcel Marceau (left) and Michael Jackson (right) in New York City, 1995

Soul of a mime

It may seem like an odd pair: Jackson, the Motown-prodigy-turned-superstar, and Marceau, the Holocaust-survivor-turned-mime. This description, however, reveals a little of what brought Jackson and Marceau together. “Michael has the soul of a mime,” Marceau told the New York Times in 1995. “The soul of a mime is a complex one, part child and part artist, part clown and part tragic figure.”

Having the soul of a mime, according to Marceau’s definition, came at a cost. Both Jackson and Marceau experienced such cost at an early age, even though their lives couldn’t have been more different. Jackson’s story, to begin with, is well-known. From his early childhood days in the Jackson 5 to his iconic years as a popstar: there is not a single aspect that has not been extensively covered by the media, whether as truth or as myth.

Jewish refugee

Marceau’s life story, however, is much less known. His Jewish family left Strasbourg when France declared war on Nazi Germany. Marcel and his brother Alain, both teens, fled to the Dordogne where they joined the French Resistance. They changed their surname from Mangel to Marceau, helped forge identity cards, and smuggled groups of children across the border into neutral Switzerland. Marceau and his brother were never caught, but their father Charles was deported to Auschwitz where he died in 1944.

After the war, Marceau chose to professionally apply himself to art. Painting was his first choice, but he eventually focused on mime, training in Paris under Étienne Decroux. The abstract type of corporeal mime that Decroux taught, however, left Marceau longing for a more personal expression of humour and pathos, just like Chaplin – whose work Marceau greatly admired – had achieved with the Little Tramp.

Bip the clown

Thus Marceau’s famous character of Bip was born. A white face, a red flower protruding from his battered high hat, a Breton top, white bell-bottom tights, and soft shoes were all Marceau needed to create a unique presence on stage. Bip’s childlike character was curious, naive, clownesque, and impossible to dislike.

Soon Bip began to capture audiences around the world. Bip was seen catching butterflies, taming lions, flirting at parties, and walking against the wind – a pantomime movement often compared to Jackson’s later moonwalk. Dancers from all disciplines came to study at Marceau’s school of mime in Paris, as mime was a discipline of art still rarely taught at the time.

Bip, created by Marcel Marceau
Bip the clown, the pantomime character created by Marcel Marceau

Sneaking in to watch Marceau

Jackson first witnessed Marceau’s performances in the US around the time of his Off the Wall album. “I used to sneak in and sit in the audience and watch how he would defy the laws of gravity, like he was stepping on air. I would take some of those things and include it into rhythm and dance when I moved.” Jackson told Jet Magazine in October 2007.

Marceau would later point out that one of the video’s in which Jackson’s use of pantomime showed was the ‘black panther’ dance sequence in Jackson’s ‘Black or White’. Other elements of mime found in Jackson’s work include his live performance of ‘Billie Jean’ and – although denied by Jackson himself – in his famous moonwalk.

Marceau was unaware of Jackson’s quiet presence at his US shows: “I had no idea he was in the audience. He knows my work from the beginning of my career, and places me among those who have inspired him most, like Fred Astaire and others,” Marceau told HIStory Magazine in 1996.


Meeting at Neverland

The two eventually met in person in London in the summer of 1988, during the European leg of Jackson’s Bad World Tour. Four years later, when Marceau was on tour in the US, Jackson invited him to his Neverland Ranch. Here they discussed the art of pantomime, their mutual passion for Charlie Chaplin, and the importance of video recording their stage performances. “He told me it was an important thing to do ‘for history’”, Marceau recalled in HIStory Magazine.

Meeting the ultimate master of mime meant something to Jackson, and he slowly developed an idea for collaboration. Two years later, Jackson called Marceau to tell him that he had written a song called ‘Childhood’. He asked whether Marceau would be interested in performing it with him in a theatrical setting. As Jackson had fallen in love with the slow rhythm, poetic nature, and silent expression of mime, Marceau’s Bip was his first choice. “That slow motion character of yours… it would be wonderful!” he told Marceau.

Michael Jackson and Marcel Marceau in London 1988
Marcel Marceau and Michael Jackson meeting in London, 1988

One night only

The performance Jackson had in mind was Michael Jackson: One Night Only, an HBO television special that was to be broadcast on December 10, 1995. The venue for this show was to be the historic Beacon Theatre on Broadway, an intimate setting which was quite un-Jacksonesque. The Beacon would allow the audience to watch him perform in close up and as such it was also the perfect setting for Marceau’s delicate pantomime movements.

Marceau was given a creative carte blanche for his performance. Yet miming to a song as delicately autobiographical as Jackson’s ‘Childhood’ was not easy. Marceau later admitted that he constantly asked for Jackson’s approval while working on his interpretation of the song. “Mime is elliptical; one cannot mime the gestures in a song, there has to be a sort of lyrical weightlessness, and ‘Childhood’ is a song of great lyric flight,” Marceau told HIStory Magazine.

Besides having a lyric quality, ‘Childhood’ also included themes of innocence, tragedy, and yearning for times past – elements which appealed to Marceau’s creativity. “For me, this song has something about it that reminds me of some of the greatest, most whimsical verse of French poets of the last century, like Rimbaud or Baudelaire, each of whom wrote with great passion about their childhood lost, their unhappy childhood, the childhood they would never be able to relive… Words, verse, that come straight from the heart.”

I can see for a long time the melancholy wash of the setting sun. I might well be the child abandoned on the jetty on its way to the high seas, the little farm boy following the lane, its forehead touching the sky.
– Rimbaud; excerpt from his poem ‘Childhood’-

Genius is no more than childhood recaptured at will, childhood equipped now with man’s physical means to express itself, and with the analytical mind that enables it to bring order into the sum of experience, involuntarily amassed. – Baudelaire –

The Beacon Theatre in New York City
The Beacon Theatre in New York City, built in 1929 (Photo: theatre-ny.com)

© Annemarie Latour

Here you can read the second part of this blog post:
Miming the magic: Michael Jackson and Marcel Marceau (Part 2).

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