Behind the Curtain: A Conversation with Apollo Levine of MJ the Musical

In the dazzling world of Broadway’s MJ the Musical, Apollo Levine takes center stage in the iconic role of Joe Jackson. We had the privilege of sitting down with Apollo to unravel the layers of his preparation, the authenticity he brings to the character, and the roller coaster experience of being part of the MJ the Musical family.

 

You did an outstanding job taking on multiple roles in Broadway’s MJ the Musical. What steps did you take to prepare for the iconic role of Joe Jackson?

Apollo Levine: Thank you so much. It’s honestly the most challenging role that I’ve ever had the honor of portraying on stage. Taking on the role of Joe in front of 1400 audience members every night can be challenging but rewarding in so many ways. A lot of rehearsal time goes into what gets put onto the stage. I was able to take the time to collaborate with the creative team on how to portray what this particular black man’s experience was and feels like. The most important part in preparing for this role was looking at the black men in my own life, especially of a certain generation. Joe is a layered and complex character, but also was a real person. To look at my dad, uncles, and other men around me was me trying to understand a black man’s story coming post slavery, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement all while trying to achieve their version of the American Dream and keep their families together safely.

What was your thought process to portray Joe Jackson as authentically as possible?

Apollo Levine: My thought process of portraying Joe Jackson is to show that he was not all bad. I believe people see Joe as just a mean person and I don’t ever think that a person is all one thing. Joe wants better for his family and though his way of going about it may not be the most agreeable in a lot of eyes, he was a black man trying to protect his family while trying to build a better life. I want people to walk away from the show having a different perspective of how we talk and communicate within the black family dynamic. How things have been and how we move forward.

How do you navigate a work/life balance in between shows?

Apollo Levine: I’m honestly still trying to figure this one out. I’m a little bit of a workaholic. The awesome part is going home to my fur baby Rockstarr who always allows me just to chill out. I’ve also been prioritizing getting down to NC to hang out with my daughter Karsyn when I can. Outside of that, I’m always trying to explore other creative outlets. After working in the industry for almost 20 years and just getting to a place where my career is starting to take off, you have to seize the opportunity. So, the whole work/life balance thing is something I’m going to be trying to figure out for a while.

From your experience, what does it take to be a Broadway star?

Apollo Levine: Whew, doing 8 shows a week is a beast. I think every community theater show, regional production, dance and acting class has helped me be able to show up on stage. Though, the most important thing to me is being a person that my cast mates and co-workers can trust and count on. When you get on the stage you abandon your ego and stay in a constant space of helping move the story forward. You support your people and make sure that they are taken care of. It’s great to hear the applause at the end of the night after you have done your job, but it’s even more fulfilling to me that my people know they have someone that will show up for them on and off the stage. My cast always has my back, and I couldn’t stand in the position I’m in without their support. I’m a star honestly because I have other stars around me that push me in ways that I couldn’t even imagine.

What are some of your favorite scenes during the show, and why?

Apollo Levine: Okay, so the device of duality that we use in telling this story is one of my favorite things. Being able to play two different characters that literally switch back and forth in a matter of a split-second light cue is wild to me. The way Lynn Nottage wrote the Rob/Joe Jackson track is genius. To hear the audience react to the moments gives me a feeling that I still can’t describe.

Also, our reimagined version of “Thriller” by far is my favorite part of the show. I don’t really dance in this show like I have in other shows, so in this particular moment I get the freedom to have all of the fun. I feel like I’m the puppet master, especially with this coat that feels like I’m on this dark themed runway in some avant-garde fashion show. Trust me when I say I’m truly living in the moment every show!!

How has your journey been working with Elijah Rhea Johnson and the rest of the cast?

Apollo Levine: It’s a little crazy to be Elijah’s right-hand man. Let me preface this by saying, I had lived in NYC before and walked away and swore I would never come back. But in 2019, I got on a plane from LA to do one of the workshops for MJ. What I didn’t know is that Elijah was on the same plane heading to do the same thing. When we started this process Elijah was Middle Michael and I was Quincy Jones. One night after rehearsal we were walking back to the place that the company had put us up. Neither one of us knew we were staying in the same place and quickly realized after we started talking that both of us were LA boys. Since then, he’s been my boy. I was sad when he originally didn’t come back to the show post-pandemic. After a year of doing the show, I got the opportunity to move into the Joe Jackson role. We knew that we were set to get a new MJ as our brother Myles Frost was going to be leaving the show after his phenomenal Tony award-winning run. When we found out that it was Elijah that would be taking over I kind of lost it a little. The two boys from LA, that got on a plane together, were now going to be leading the show together. To me it’s like dreams do come true, but God has a way of making your dreams 10x better than what you could ever think. As far as the rest of the cast, this is MY FAMILY. I get to be on stage with pure superheroes. I have never experienced a space like this in my life, where even on our off days we still want to hang out with each other. Not because we have to, but because we want to. Everybody in this cast is a force and I absolutely love every single one of them. I have learned so much around them and will never forget this experience.

This award-winning hit show is still going strong. Why do you think fans continue to rave about it and support it?

Apollo Levine: Honestly, we got lighting in a bottle. I have told people that ask me this question, every couple of years a musical comes along that changes the landscape of Broadway. Phantom of the Opera, Chicago, The Lion King, Wicked, The Book of Mormon, Hamilton…I believe we are the next in line. I don’t say that just because I’m in the show or out of cockiness or arrogance. I honestly don’t know how long we will be around, but I do know that with the music and what the creative team and cast have created is magic. Michael Jackson is a global icon. Not too many artists can say that, but especially hold the status that MJ does. There are villages in countries that don’t have resources for basic day-to-day necessities but know a Michael Jackson song.

I have been able to sit in the audience and watch the show. What you see is unreal. I don’t think a lot of people go to a lot of what we call “jukebox musicals” to really hear a story. We go for the music. The way Lynn Nottage puts pen to paper with her words, the genius direction and choreography that Chris Wheeldon’s vision of how the stage moves, all partnered with David Holcenberg and Jason Michael Webb’s musical arrangements…is pure magic. You feel like you are in the present with all the characters and jump right back into the memories when Michael chooses to share those parts of himself with the audience. And if nothing else it’s nostalgic for those who grew up with Michael and The Jackson 5 and an introduction for those who are too young to have ever experienced MJ while he was alive. I could go on and on, but it’s just a must see. And that’s why you hear people saying I’m coming back and bringing people, this is my 20th time seeing the show, or I flew all the way from the country they’re from to see this particular show.

Lastly, how has the overall experience being a part of the MJ the Musical family meant to you personally and professionally?

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Apollo Levine: I’m not going to lie; this experience has been a full-on roller coaster. I lost my mom the first week we finally came back after the pandemic to officially begin our road to Broadway. It has been a challenge to navigate that space because I never took any real time away to process that loss. Beyond that Broadway is just hard. There is so much beauty that happens creating a show like this and then getting to perform it night after night. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t get frustrating and exhausting at times. Especially when you walk away from the theater at night. That work/life balance that we try to achieve but can never seem to quite get a handle on. Or navigating in a world that still doesn’t know how to show up and acknowledge your blackness fully but wants you to show up fully for it can have you doubting your purpose. The energy and courage to just show up sometimes can be unworldly.

I am a preacher’s kid so the best way I can put it is, this is ministry for me in a way. I get to do what I love and make an impact on someone’s life that I may never know just by doing the thing that I was gifted to do. I don’t take that lightly or for granted. I am tremendously grateful for the experience for MJ and take every moment as a teachable moment whether good, bad, or indifferent. The one song I get to sing every night is “Keep the Faith.” That song rings loudly in my spirit, because it reminds me that this journey is not linear and at any time God can show up and surprise me in the most amazing way. Again, the MJ family is my family for life. They have been with me in some of the darkest and most difficult times and some of the most beautiful ones as well. When I walked away from NYC in 2016, I honestly meant that I would never be back to what I thought was a closed door to my dreams. But now I am reminded that sometimes what we take as a no, could really just be a not yet. God’s perfect timing brought MJ into my life at the moment I needed it and because of that my life has been forever changed.

APOLLO LEVINE
JOSEPH JACKSON / ROB

MJ The Musical

Apollo hails from Abbeville, LA by way of South Bend, IN. Theater: Sister Act, Dreamgirls, Ragtime, and originated the role of Chinese Superhero The Monkey King in Beijing, China. Television: “Let’s Stay Together,” “Criminal Minds.” Experiencing the iconic videos for “Scream” and “Remember the Time”, Apollo was captivated by the artistry of “The King of Pop.” Former lead singer of rock band SteppHeavy, Apollo is excited to be made his Broadway debut with MJ.

Connect online:

@onlyapollolevine

@mjthemusical

https://newyork.mjthemusical.com/

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