Fresh from belting out the lead of “My Girl” and “I Wish It Would Rain” every night playing David Ruffin in the Broadway hit, Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations, Ephraim Sykes steps into his first leading role as Michael Jackson in “MJ” The Musical.

Inspired by Jackson’s life and produced by Lia Vollack and The Michael Jackson Estate, the musical’s book is written by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage and directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon; it will premiere on August 13 at the Neil Simon Theatre. Previews begin July 6.

“Michael Jackson, to me, was synonymous with song and dance,” said Sykes, exclusively to ESSENCE. “Growing up, I always wanted to be like him. It was literally my wildest dream.”

Ephraim Sykes / Photo credit: Little Fang Photo

Sykes continues: “When it comes to Michael, he was the first person I remember ever seeing sing or dance without cue. And then seeing videos, “Leave Me Alone” and “Bad” shook me to my core because I had never seen anybody dance or sing to that level.”

Although Jackson’s legacy as the King of Pop has been under scrutiny, Sykes hopes the memories of the music juxtaposed with seeing the pressures and complexity of his life will illuminate Jackson’s full self on stage. “I really want to do my best to bring it back down to show how human he truly was,” said Sykes. “Putting those extraordinary circumstances, for better or for worse, so hopefully we can all have a little bit more empathy with him, his downfalls, his demons, his struggles as well as.”

And of course, said Sykes, there’s “this music that just rocks you to your core.”

Getting ready to play Jackson has meant the Tony nominated performer has been pulling double duty performing in Ain’t Too Proud while rehearsing for MJ. When asked how he’s managing a demanding physical schedule, he said, “To be honest, I always say just a bunch of prayers, and drink as much coconut water as I can find.”

With a quick laugh, Sykes thoughtfully adds, “I have to think at the beginning and the end of every day, ‘I get to do this, I get to play David Ruffin.’ That’s another huge dream and such a hero of mine in certain ways and hero of ours. And then I get to live my wildest dream playing Michael Jackson. When you’re given such a tremendous blessing in your life. Sometimes that can give you the energy or the strength to persevere.”

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