Being a superstar, David Bowie has often reminded us, can be as isolating an experience as being an extraterrestrial. Everyone wants a piece of you, but few – if any – understand your plight.
This week Bowie’s new show "Lazarus," co-written with Irish playwright Enda Walsh, opens at The New York Theater Workshop in Manhattan. Based on the groundbreaking 1976 Nicolas Roeg film "The Man Who Fell To Earth," the show stars "Dexter’s" Michael C. Hall reprising the visiting extraterrestrial role that Bowie once made famous.
But of course Bowie isn’t just a rock superstar, he’s been a significant cultural phenomenon since the appearance of "Hunky Dory" back in 1971. Releasing some of the most celebrated albums in the history of rock, often back to back, he didn’t just change rock music he changed the lives of many people who heard his music.
Now 68, Bowie was born in 1947 in Brixton, London. At 17 he was Davy Jones playing saxophone in his own band. Later he studied mime with Lindsey Kemp and decided to combine this interest with his music to create a completely new kind of rock theater.
Onstage, to total adulation, he played showbiz avatars like Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke whilst he hypnotized a generation with his strange rock artistry. He was a world apart from his platform-shoed, mullet-haired contemporaries and with time we can finally appreciate by just how much.
"Lazarus" reminds us that his music is as vital now as when it first appeared. As the show, which is surreal, disjointed, and even less character-based than the 1976 original on which it is based, progresses we learn that Thomas Jerome Newton (Hall) is still trapped on earth many years later, still unable to die and unable to escape.
On paper Newton’s alienation should be a good fit for Enda Walsh, who has made the study of alienation and its consequences on of the enduring themes of his career.
But its also fair to say that Walsh’s stable of Irish loners, outcasts and misfits have a rustic quality that means they probably never listened to a Bowie record in their lives.
Walsh’s plays often seem to exist in an era just before modernity, a sort of perpetual 1950’s or 60’s where the besetting claims of our own time rarely appear unless they’re to be mocked.
In Walsh’s plays people rarely go online or receive a text message, they live on the outskirts of town and a step or two from poverty, so his kind of alienation is ultimately a strange one for a project that marries theater, high technology and art rock and roll.
"Lazarus" has appeared in Bowie’s song lyrics in different manifestations for decades. With a writer’s eye for absurdity and human vanity, Bowie’s subjects have long included alienation, transformation and the longing for release or the oblivion of death.
Traveling in a moving limo though Hollywood in 1974 Bowie, obviously coked to the gills, still perceptively told an on-camera interviewer, “There’s an underlying unease here. You can feel it in every avenue. There’s a superficial calmness that underlays the fact that there’s a lot of high pressure here as it’s a very big entertainment area.”
Lazarus’ producers, who are looking at a completely sold-out run, probably aren’t feeling that underlying unease. But it might be being felt by Walsh and the company of actors onstage, who have to slog through the first forty minutes of this incomprehensible show without offering a moment's clarity or making any sense at all.
Narrative coherence has never been one of Bowie’s interests and it is hard to know how he and Walsh resolved their – this show makes clear – often directly opposing creative approaches.
Certainly the exchange between the talented but very different writers has not resulted in the same kind of payoff that the Tony winning musical "Once" did between Walsh and Irish folk star Glen Hansard. Instead of playing to his strengths "Lazarus" has in fact exposed some of Walsh’s weaknesses.
Women are presented as either highly sexualized or virginal waifs, the daily drudgery of working stiffs are mined for laughs, gay people are reference points to expose unthinking prejudice, only the men played by Hall (and the sensational Michael Esper) are allowed any independent motivation or real complexity onstage.
Perhaps they could not agree, or perhaps they didn’t think it mattered, but the result is a show that stops to perform an incendiary rock song every ten or so minutes without much context or connection. We don’t know why these characters sing; we don’t really learn what most of them want or why any of it matters.
Newton, like Bowie, is a celebrity, or rather he once was. That global level of fame never resolves itself, but lives on even after he becomes a recluse, still trailing his footsteps, long after he has lost any use for it.
It’s an awareness that seems very contemporary. Celebrity culture is everywhere we look these days, perhaps more aggressively than ever before thanks to social media and the relentless 24-hour news cycle.
Broadway ticket sales have themselves seen significant boosts whenever a movie star or a rock star is attached, which producers long ago noticed. Ironically that’s already the case with "Lazarus," which has sold out its entire run before it was seen or reviewed.
Along with the arrival of superstar casting on (and now off) Broadway has come the era of mandatory standing ovations (people presumably want to feel they got their money's worth having paid the exorbitant ticket cost).
Getting home now after a Broadway show you often have to pass a rope line of sunglasses-wearing celebrities as they dash from the stage door through the gauntlet of braying autograph seekers all the way to the waiting SUV.
This is all a world away from lovelorn, lonely characters that Walsh has often focused on. For Walsh obscurity and the steep price of social isolation (and rejection) are constant themes.
You can easily see where his approach differs from those of his remarkable co-writer. "Lazarus" represents a step toward an entirely new level of celebrity for Walsh, but Bowie has lived in the glare of this super-stardom since 1973.
The man who fell to earth (Bowie’s characters) makes a strange companion for the boy who was run out of town (Walsh’s characters). They can certainly see the point of each other without actually sharing much in the way of insight or transcendence.
That’s the frustration of "Lazarus." Each time it tapers toward coherence the script or the characters or the director or the demands of the next song pull the rug away and we’re led in another new, and often mystifying, direction
Audiences at a preview giggled at the closing image onstage, which involved Michael C. Hall on an imaginary rocket to freedom. That indulgent laughter seems to be precisely what the play is working against, which means "Lazarus" failed to silence our criticisms.
The set looks inexpensive, the singers have a Broadway range sometimes at odds with each song's rock and roll origins, sometimes giving proceedings a glee club tribute or "Stars In Their Eyes" feel at times. Hall does not possess Bowie’s unique other-worldliness, which undercuts rather than enhances Newton’s character. "Lazarus" clearly wants to take flight, but this thin material keeps it grounded.