LOS ANGELES, Calif. — AEG Live considered “pulling the plug” on Michael Jackson’s comeback concerts 11 days before the pop icon died, the show’s choreographer testified Tuesday.
Travis Payne, who worked closely with Michael Jackson in his final days, earlier testified that in Jackson’s last rehearsals before his death he was “not at show standards but he was rehearsing, he was processing.”
Payne was called as a witness by AEG LIve to counter Jackson witnesses who testified in the ongoing wrongful death trial that Michael Jackson was emaciated, paranoid and so ill they feared for his life as rehearsals continued until shortly before his death on June 25, 2009.
The trial, in which Jackson’s mother and three children contend AEG LIve is liable in his death, is in its third week in a Los Angeles courtroom. The lawsuit accuses the concert promoter of negligent hiring of Dr. Conrad Murray, the physician who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in Jackson’s death.
The Jacksons contend AEG Live executives ignored warning signs, including Jackson’s weight loss, because they did not want to delay the premiere of the “This Is It” concerts set for July 2009.
‘Pulling the plug’ on comeback
“It was ‘We’ve got to get this together or the plug may be pulled,’ ” Payne testified under cross examination by a Jackson lawyer Tuesday.
Jackson was having trouble learning some of his dances in the final weeks, he said.
The jury saw an e-mail from show director Kenny Ortega saying Jackson had “been slow at grabbing hold of the work.”
He also asked that a teleprompter be placed near the stage to help him remember song lyrics, something Jackson had never used before during a concert, he said.
An e-mail written by “This Is It” band director Michael Bearden to Ortega 11 days before Jackson’s death was displayed in court.
“MJ is not in shape enough yet to sing this stuff live and dance at the same time,” Bearden wrote. “He can use the ballads to sing live and get his stamina back up, Once he’s healthy enough and have more strength I Have full confidence he can sing the majority of the show live. His voice sounds amazing right now, he needs to build it back up. I still need all big dance numbers to be in the system so we can concentrate on choreography.”
But Ortega sent Jackson sent home without performing at the next rehearsal three days later because he was ill.
“I don’t have a dog in this race, so I don’t want to be painted as a guy whose trying to mask anything,” Payne said when Jackson lawyer Brian Panish suggested he was downplaying concerns about Jackson’s health in the days before he died.
“Mr. Jackson just explained to me that he had trouble sleeping, that he was tired, and that satisfied me,” Payne testified.
He told Jackson, “You’re looking thin,” and Jackson responded, “Well, I’m getting down to my fighting weight,” according to Payne, who added, “I didn’t have a reason to doubt him.”
“Sometimes in rehearsal Michael would appear a little loopy, under the influence of something, but mostly when he would come to the rehearsals from the dermatologist,” Payne testified. That happened two to four times in the weeks before his death, he said.
“Michael was undergoing personal cosmetic procedures, so he could feel great and do a good job,” Payne said.
Medical records showed Jackson visited his Beverly Hills dermatologist nearly two dozen times in the two months before his death, receiving injections of the powerful painkiller Demerol.
“Sometimes he was tired and lethargic and had to be, not convinced, but supported throughout rehearsals,” Payne said.
Payne, though, said Jackson’s rehearsals the last two nights were “impressive” when he “was able to do chunks of the show.”
“He was not at show standards, but he was rehearsing, he was processing,” he said. “I didn’t expect him to be as if he was in front of a crowd. The last two days were pretty good.”
Was he ready to perform for an audience, Panish asked.
“I thought he was on his way to the goals he had set for himself,” Payne answered. “All I saw was improvement and getting closer to the goals.”
One of those goals was for Jackson to be able to sing all of his songs, while dancing, without the aid of pre-recorded tracks, Payne testified Monday. Jackson relied on recorded vocal tracks in previous tours, but he didn’t want to use them in London, he said.
Michael’s kids: Enlightened and loyal
Payne was often inside Jackson’s home rehearsing with him during his final weeks. He got an intimate view of what he called “the beauty” of Jackson’s relationship with his three children.
Payne saw “their loyalty to their father” and their father “enlightened them and taught them,” he testified. “I was very proud to see Michael as such a loving father.”
His description of the close relationship Paris, 15, and Prince, 16, had with their father four years ago could foreshadow the significance of the children’s testimony later in the trial.
Paris, who was 11 at the time, was “a very retentive young lady who was very, very smart, very astute,” Payne testified.
“She had full knowledge of the day-to-day operations, from the time of lunch and what it was going to be, she was hands on — far beyond her age,” he said. “She had a lot of responsibility, which I think she welcomed.
Payne said she was “the female of the house,” and also “a daddy’s girl.”
“She really loved her father,” he said. “At that time, she was coming to find out his global successes and presence, so she would wear her Michael Jackson t-shirt, headband and bag,” he said.
It was Paris who would bless the food when they were have lunch with their father at home, he said.
“She was always the most vocal of the three children and was very concerned about many of the details of the house, was the temperature correct, what do you want to eat,” Payne testified. “She just handled a lot for her young age.”
Jackson’s relationship with son Prince, then 12, was “awesome,” Payne said.
“It was great to see how they interacted,” he said. “Prince wants to be a director, so Michael would share conversations with him about that process and point out things during our rehearsals.”
Blanket, who was 7 his father died, liked to watch his father rehearsing his dances with Payne in the basement studio of their home, Payne said.
“He was quiet, but always right there with his dad,” he said.
Alan Duke | CNN