Have you ever been fascinated by something in advance, even before you see or hear it? I have – and all these occasions date from the pre-streaming times, the early 90s. Once, in my teen years, I saw a short clip from Alice in the Cities by Wim Wenders and fell completely in love with this director. And when I watched this movie, along with Wings of Desire several years later, I immediately knew that all my childhood expectations were true. Something similar happened when I read about Jethro Tull, and somehow had this premonition that I would love them. And I cannot even say how excited I was when I finally held their first cassette in my hands!
For a long time, I had a dream of seeing Lazarus, a musical based on David Bowie songs, one of his parting gifts. I got to know about this show through my other love, the TV series (specifically, Life on Mars and Dexter). Curious to learn more about Michael C. Hall, who played a lead role in Dexter, I was even more amazed how authentically and naturally he sang Bowie songs during one of the tribute concerts. After that, I did some research, watched a couple of clips from the show posted by their official channel, read interviews and reviews, and even wrote a text about it. I knew I would not be able to see Lazarus live (it had a very short run in NYC); I sighed and made peace with this reality. And when the announcement about a three-day streaming of Lazarus (January 8-10, 2021) suddenly came out, I was overwhelmed by happiness and excitement – I have not felt this kind of emotion for a long time, certainly not in this pandemic year.
We are back with Thomas Newton; we left him 40 years ago in the 1970s, a mutilated, exhausted, and alcoholic alien, stuck on a planet he does not belong to. The iconic “The Man Who Fell To Earth” returns again for a last glimpse into his life, before we say good bye for ever. He has not aged and still looks young; tortured by his immortality, he spends days watching TV and drinking gin. Everything starts with street noises, New York sky, and then, a descent into the depths of Newton’s apartment. The stage is stretched between his bed and a glowing light of an open refrigerator, dominated by a “silver screen,” a window into Newton’s suffering mind, and backed with the dark window, with the band behind it. Visually the scenery is completely hypnotic – and we do not just witness the story told by an unreliable narrator, we adopt his vision for these two hours. I cannot say what draws us in so quickly – the Bowie songs, a stunning performance of actors, or a combination of lighting and projections – but the immersion is quite overwhelming.
Who is that blond girl that visits Newton? A ghost, a hallucination, or a guardian angel? Who is this dark figure that haunts other characters? Is it a serial killer, obsessed with Newton, Newton’s alter ego, or an angel of death? Who are these young women in black – the Furies, the demons, or the undead? Since we are in David Bowie universe we never know; however, some hints can be found in his mythology (like the women from the “Blackstar” video), while other characters come directly from the songs: murderous Valentine is born of a song describing a mind of mass shooter; and even one of his victims is named Ben, just like in “Valentine’s Day” (“Benny and Judy down”). Even though Mary Lou, a long-lost love of Thomas, is a character from the original film, she also comes out of an old song “Hello Mary Lou”. Eventually, all plots and characters come out of a collection of Bowie’s records stacked in the corner of Newton’s apartment.
One of the great pleasures for me personally was seeing that the guesses I made even before watching Lazarus, proved out to be true. The connection to Life on Mars – not just the song but also the BBC series – from the idea of a man stuck in a wrong place and time to ghosts that come out of a television screen. Just like the hero of Life on Mars is haunted by the vision of a test card girl (symbolizing devil/death in the series), Newton’s “guardian angel” also emerges from a television screen. This is a full circle – from the song to the series to the show and the song again. And not accidentally, it is the Girl who sings this number in Lazarus.
This show transcends the conventions and limits of a “jukebox musical” genre; rather, it is a music drama, with the superb acting, projections and lighting that sometimes resembles Robert Wilson’s productions. The glass walls revealing the band, the beige color of Newton’s clothing matching the color of the walls; the blue color of Mary Lou’s hair; the black cloudy wings that surround the figure of Valentine. In this storytelling technique, the plot unfolds not through the conventional methods but through these flashing moments, through the always-haunted expression on Newton’s face, through the desperation of Elly, through the shining innocence of a child, and, of course, through the songs.
The greatest gift of Lazarus, for me, is a sudden immersion in the universe of David Bowie’s music. Of course, I knew the greatest hits, and loved some of his songs (like “Heroes”) more than anything else. But now I know that I have been constrained by my own inertia because I never tried to delve deeper into his catalogue. The show opened this magic door for me, and for the last weeks I have been savoring the novelty of this emotion and blessing the fact that my journey is only starting. In Lazarus, the songs are the true creators of the story, the soul, the center of the plot. It is the music that does not let the play become too dark or depressing; they maintain this level of phantasmagoria, of a dreamy feeling of miracle. As Michael C. Hall said, “He <Newton> was very much in a state of anguish, angst, and confusion and decay… but when the songs came it was almost like a moment of grace with “Where Are We Now?” or a moment of release with “It’s No Game.”
Despite the unearthly aura that always surrounded both Bowie’s music and his stage personas, in this show his songs are very down-to-earth, filled with raw emotions. From the title number (“Lazarus”) that sets up the play’s tragic mood, to a magnificent reinterpretation of “Changes” that becomes an epitome of woman’s cry of desperation and pain; from a serene and powerful “Where Are We Now” to a hectic and yet so heartfelt “When I Met You.” But the most stunning revelation is “Heroes,” completely re-arranged for the show, with changes in pace, rhythm, and even key. From the upbeat and unlifting rock anthem it is transformed into a gentle song of mourning, of an eternal parting of the ways. But it is also a reconciliation – with this tune, all disturbing images and sinister figures fade out, and we are left with sorrow and a bit of hope for Thomas Newton. The lights go out, the rocket launches, and the last thing we see is Newton’s happy smile. Just like a protagonist of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, his spirit finally breaks free.
I cannot help but think about how this musical was conceived, rehearsed, and premiered; I am wondering how it looked in November 2015, when a dark shadow was not looming over us yet. But how, then, can we explain that everything happening in this show somehow relates to David’s exit from this world? Are we witnessing the rocket launch that sends this great soul upwards, into space?
Katya Neklyudova, 2021