During four months of intense Los Angeles rehearsals for Michael Jackson's planned triumphant 50-show comeback bid in London, his collaborators had no idea the pop icon was struggling with an alleged prescription-drug addiction that would ultimately prove fatal. In the issue of Entertainment Weekly that hits newsstands Friday (October 16), the cover story focuses on the preparations for the "This Is It" documentary chronicling those final rehearsals.
While Jackson's collaborators were worried about the 50-year-old singer's health during rehearsals — they feared that he wasn't eating enough, that he was too thin and that he might not be strong enough for the grueling preparations and months of shows — they said they didn't see any real cause for alarm.
"Michael would come in and say, 'I didn't sleep last night.' But then we'd be on set and you'd see he had his A game, so you didn't really question it," choreographer Travis Payne said. Tour director Kenny Ortega, who also directed the "High School Musical" movies, said that when it came to the singer's alleged abuse of prescription drugs, "Honestly, we were clueless."
In the wake of Jackson's June death from what the coroner deemed "acute propofol intoxication" — referring to the surgical anesthetic that Jackson reportedly used as a sleep aid to combat chronic insomnia — questions have been raised about how much his inner circle knew about his alleged battle with prescription medication.
Randy Phillips, president of AEG Live, the promoter of the London concerts, told the magazine that on the day Jackson died, he followed the ambulance to the emergency room and watched as paramedics struggled to revive the singer. "I'll never forget this: There were all these people running around, frantically trying to revive him. [Jackson's personal physician] Dr. Murray was in there, and he was completely a mess," Phillips said. "A nurse came out and said, 'Where is Mrs. Jackson?' Michael's parents weren't there yet — they'd gotten lost. They'd gone to St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica. The nurse said, 'He's on life support.' I said, 'What exactly does that mean?' She told us he was brain dead but still breathing."
Meanwhile, as the doctors struggled to bring Jackson back, his creative team at the Staples Center across town was waiting to hear official information on what was going on. On the day Jackson died, June 25, the team was scheduled to rehearse an elaborate magic illusion that would serve as the transition between the songs "Dirty Diana" and "Beat It." When word came that Jackson had died, Payne said it sent a chill through the room. "There was just this general feeling of numbness," he said. "People didn't know how to process it."
Ever since, friends, family and collaborators have struggled to make sense of the self-proclaimed King of Pop. "I was in awe of his talent, but at the same time I pitied him, because I felt his life was so unfulfilled," Phillips said. "He had been almost chased into this isolation."
Payne added, "I knew Michael led a very lonely life at times, just because of the nature of who he was. But I choose to focus on the fact that now Michael is not suffering. Now he doesn't have this daily struggle he had to be who he was. And the world is going to have his music and his art forever."