When the MJ: the Musical tour stops at the Fox Theatre on October 24 through 29, it will be a homecoming celebration for actor Roman Banks, who grew up in Stone Mountain and Lilburn. Banks portrays MJ, the middle Michael, in the musical about the King of Pop—a role he started preparing for as a child dancing to Michael Jackson’s music in the living room with his siblings. In MJ, which garnered four Tony Awards in 2022, Jackson is in debt and in trouble. Desperate for a comeback, he’s betting it all on the 1992 Dangerous World Tour and has a crew following him around to document the process. Over the course of the show, Jackson looks back on his early days performing with his brothers—expect to hear “ABC,” “I’ll Be There,” and “Dancing Machine”—while he’s on the verge of superstardom with hits such as “Billie Jean,” “Thriller,” and “Human Nature.”
For Banks, playing onstage at the Fox is a full-circle moment. He says the first professional production he ever saw was The Lion King at the Fox his freshman year at Parkview High School, and he vowed that he would perform on that stage one day. He’ll also celebrate his 25th birthday while the show is in town. We caught up with Banks between performances to talk about his introduction to musical theater, path to Broadway, and learning from Michael Jackson’s performances.
How did you get into musical theater?
I was an avid theater kid, because I was trying to soak up every experience. The first show I performed in was The Wizard of Oz at Parkview. I had seen The Wiz growing up, and I wanted to be the Scarecrow because Michael Jackson was the Scarecrow. When I wasn’t cast, I was appalled because I could dance. I was ensemble and Crow #2.
After high school, I went to pursue a degree in musical theater at Shenandoah Conservatory, which was not on my original list of schools, but when I was auditioning, I went to Young Arts and Shenandoah scouted me. They were the only audition that made me feel like an individual and not a number, which was big to me. My freshman year at Shenandoah, there was an open-call audition for Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway. Luckily, there was a senior at my school who was in callbacks for the show, and he was already driving up, so I asked if I could ride with him. We drove to New York, and the rest is history. I was the first person of color to go on as Evan. It was a dream come true.
Tell me about how the opportunity to perform in the Michael Jackson musical cam about?
MJ came about in a really unique way. In February 2020, I had an audition for middle Michael on Broadway when the show was still being developed. I went in and sang; they called me back for my final audition after dance call; and they said we want to offer you the role. I was thrilled because I was going to be in an original Broadway show cast. But, it was at the same time I got High School Musical: The Musical: The Series on Disney+, and because I hadn’t done TV and film before, I went to Disney+. I thought because I turned them down, I might have burned that bridge, but they came back around. I moved to Los Angeles at the beginning of August 2022, and they called me for MJ on August 18. Getting a call back from the theater world when I moved to L.A. to do TV and film is funny, but it’s God’s timing.
What is your favorite moment in the show?
I think it’s the beginning. The way they’ve orchestrated the show is brilliant between Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography and Lynn Nottage’s playwriting, which is why it’s standing the test of time for a jukebox musical. You come in expecting glitz and glam, but it honors who Michael Jackson was in everyday life. The show starts with him walking into the studio for a dance rehearsal. That moment always gets applause because the audience feels like they’re seeing him walk into a room. The show takes you into his process. He was well-known onstage, but off stage not as much. It’s been cool to pull back the curtain on his life. We want to give you something unique, something you wouldn’t expect.
What have you learned from portraying the King of Pop about delivering great performances?
So much. Any time I perform, I will put on a Michael Jackson performance because his energy will always be the most impressive thing for me. If you put on a concert recording of Michael’s, you won’t know the difference between the first and last numbers. He doesn’t drop ferocity of movement or intensity of vocals. It’s mind-blowing. I want people to feel that—like we’re coming out the gate giving it all we have until we take the final bow. I want to honor every part of who he was as a performer. It’s made me a better performer, a more aware performer, and a more detail-oriented artist. I feel a different level of intensity and determination.