Roman Banks Set to Star in ‘MJ: The Musical’ at the Nederlander Theatre

Roman Banks once aspired to be “a serious actor,” in the vein of Will Smith’s Robert Neville in the 2007 film “I Am Legend.”

But those aspirations changed when he got his hands on a bootleg copy of Hamilton and saw Black actor and singer Leslie Odom, Jr. play Aaron Burr. 

“When I saw myself represented on stage when that musical struck a chord in me that I didn’t know I had, I said, ‘I’ve got to give that back to somebody else,'” the actor and musician told The Chicago Defender.

Banks is poised to do just that when he stars in his most significant role yet — Michael Jackson in “MJ: The Musical” at Chicago’s James M. Nederlander Theatre, August 1 – September 2.

“MJ: The Musical” gives audiences a glimpse into Jackson’s life and the making of his 1992 Dangerous World Tour, where he performed 69 shows over 15 months. 

Banks will play Jackson in the first national tour of the Tony award-winning show.  

“I’m not here for myself. I’m here for those who will follow.”

Each night, Banks will execute Jackson’s most beloved songs, style and moves for audiences who know the King of Pop’s routines like the back of their hand.

That’s every moonwalk and adlib, every note and clothing accessory. 

But it’s an opportunity that Banks seems to relish. 

Becoming MJ

To prepare for this role, he watched Jackson’s music videos, recorded concerts and award show speeches. He also spoke with people who knew the megastar personally, like the Talauega brothers, who danced for Jackson.  

He even chatted with an uncle, one of the dancers in the music video for Jackson’s “Bad.”  

But for Banks, the opportunity to portray pop music’s greatest entertainer is more than just performing his songs or dance moves with precision. It’s the recognition of his responsibility as the show’s principal actor.

“How can I be a leader on and off the stage? That’s just as important to me as portraying Michael,” Banks said, “Because it’s not all about the glitz, glam and fashion. I want anyone who will work with me throughout my entire career to look at me and know that I was a man who was reachable, who was honorable, and who was respectable to anyone, regardless of their position.”

“If there’s anything this trip is teaching me inside, it is that it takes a village, from my hair to my makeup, to my wardrobe, to my transportation. I wouldn’t be here without this wonderful group of humans,” he said. They help keep me strong, so I just want to do my best to lead with grace and diligence.”

Making the Musical His Playground

But back to this whole Broadway thing and seeing “Hamilton” for the first time. 

When asked to elaborate on that feeling of identifying with that particular musical, Banks said it was like getting the opportunity to play on a playground that was previously off-limits. 

“It’s like growing up and seeing a playground that looks so fun, but nobody like you plays on that playground,” he said, “Maybe you still play on the playground, but maybe it’s not as nice, maybe it’s not as updated, maybe it’s not as cared for. And it’s like being the first one to swing on that swing set.”

“I can go across the monkey bars, too, and let’s not only play on the playground, let’s build our own,” he said. 

“That’s what Hamilton was for me. There was more possibility to my career than I had thought of previously.”

Not to belabor the metaphor, but Banks also said he wants to make that playground — Broadway theater and musicals — available to others. 

Banks added, “Let’s make the playground ten acres long. Because everyone deserves to see themselves in this light. As a black man, that’s our history in this country — let’s leave behind a better tomorrow.”

“I’m not here for myself. I’m here for those who will follow.”

‘MJ: The Musical,’ What Audiences Should Expect 

As for what audiences can expect when they see “MJ: The Musical,” Banks advised that they bring just one thing: an open heart.

“Come expecting to enjoy yourself and see where the show takes you,” he said. 

He describes it as going to see a show with no preconceived notions. It’s going into a play with the thought, “I hope this art moves me today.”

“And that’s when I have the most fun in the theaters when I don’t know anything,” said Banks, “I’m amazed.”

“I hope people can come with that same kind of openness of, ‘I don’t know what journey I’m about to go on, but I’m open to it. And I’m excited for it,'” he said. 

“And let us thrill you.” 

For More Information

What: Broadway in Chicago presents “MJ: The Musical,” by Director/Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and Playwright Lynn Nottage

When: August 1 – September 2, 2023. For showtimes and tickets, visit this link.

Where: James M. Nederlander Theatre (24 W Randolph, Chicago, IL 60601)

What Else: The show is 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission

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