After Mamma Mia! turned the Abba back catalogue into theatrical gold at the turn of the millennium, it is perhaps surprising that we took so long to arrive at a Thin White Duke-box musical. David Bowie frequently wrote in character and performed in costume, and the phrase “He’s in the bestselling show” occurs twice in the lyrics of “Life on Mars?”.
The bestselling show that now contains that 1971 song is Lazarus, a musical on which Bowie collaborated with the director Ivo van Hove and the dramatist Enda Walsh for an off-Broadway production that opened just a month before the announcement of the singer’s death in January. The London run at a pop-up venue beside King’s Cross Station coincides with what would have been the musician’s 70th birthday, so the show lies somewhere between performance, memorial service and posthumous autobiography.
Bowie had concealed his terminal cancer so effectively that journalists and critics felt dim not to have noticed what seemed in retrospect to be huge clues (“Look up here, I’m in heaven . . .”) in a title track that is full of references to death and the afterlife.
As Bowie seems to have known his prognosis for much of the period of working on the show – and the project began with a four-page outline from him – Lazarus has, rather like John Updike’s terminal verse sequence Endpoint, the grave fascination of a great artist knowingly preparing a creative shroud and shrine.
Intriguingly, Bowie chose as the protagonist of this performance-memorial not one of the alter egos he created (Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Duke), but Thomas Newton, the water-seeking extraterrestrial refugee he played in Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 movie adaptation of Walter Tevis’s novel The Man Who Fell to Earth.
This theatrical sequel imagines the alien, still stranded on our planet, living in reclusive exile in a large Manhattan apartment, plotting with a character called Girl, who probably lives only in his head, to build a rocket home. This situation offers various metaphors for celebrity and death, the conditions with which Bowie is most associated.
In addition to a few compositions that Bowie made for the show (including “When I Met You”, a love duet nailed with images of pain and death), Walsh has mined 15 songs from albums spanning more than four decades. These range from numbers that much of the population could karaoke without a word scroll – “Heroes”, “Changes” – to anorak tracks such as “It’s No Game”, from the 1980 album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), and “This Is Not America”, a collaboration with Pat Metheny Group for the 1985 movie The Falcon and the Snowman.
Jukebox musicals taunt dramatists and directors with two potential pitfalls: the plausibility with which the hits can be contrived into a storyline and, once they have, the risk of the evening becoming a string of three-minute pop videos. Tiptoeing around the edge of those holes, Walsh and van Hove intermittently fall in.
The protean lyrics of “Changes” are fixed, somewhat bathetically, as a lovers’ spat, and when Newton mentions his plan to get back to his home planet, Girl sings “Life on Mars?” to him as a sort of speculative Rough Guide to the red planet. Oddly, she flicks her tresses on the line about “the girl with the mousy hair”, even though her barnet looks rather magnificent.
“Life on Mars?” would stop any show it was in. The bigger problem is that this show hasn’t established much momentum before the song appears. But those familiar with van Hove’s work (including recent, shatteringly original versions of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge and Shakespeare’s history plays) will not be surprised that the director creates numerous stage-pictures that could be taken and placed in Tate Modern.
Through a combination of pre-filmed images and live-action capture, cartoons turn into human beings and vice versa. In one unforgettable sequence, Newton appears to take off in a rocket outlined in tape on the floor. Michael C Hall brings humanity to the inhuman Newton and sings powerfully without becoming trapped in a Bowie imitation, as does Sophia Anne Caruso as Girl – though she struggles to characterise someone who represents gender and mystery.
As an adaptation of Bowie’s Martian idea, this bestselling show is never a saddening bore, but only serious Bowie freaks would want to see it twice, never mind ten times or more. However, a production with several aurally and visually haunting moments is haunted throughout by the unearthly genius of its genesis.
“Lazarus” runs until 22 January at the King’s Cross Theatre, London N1
This article appears in the 10 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump apocalypse