Thoughts on seeing David Bowie’s Lazarus
DISCLAIMER: I AM NOT A THEATER CRITIC.
David Bowie’s latest artistic foray, Lazarus, a musical inspired by The Man Who Fell To Earth, is playing off-off-broadway at the New York Theater Workshop. There was a release of tickets for this weekend so I grabbed one for the Sunday evening performance.
~~SPOILER ALERT. I’m not going to spoil the plot but I will spoil the music. You’ve been warned. Yes, it’s a limited run, but there are posters all over the subways for a limited run that’s already sold out so they’re clearly looking to make it an unlimited run.~~
As someone who has attended Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway productions in New York City, I was surprised that the theater was larger (and therefore more comfortable) than I anticipated. The stage was a beige box with two large picture windows at the back, behind which you could glimpse musicians setting up. (More on this later.)
I’ll start with the good things: The acting was phenomenal. Every single actor on that stage was absolutely fantastic, and Michael C. Hall in the lead was great. My word, he has charisma and talent in spades. Really, I have nothing but superlatives for the acting work of the entire cast.
There’s a full band, two guitars, bass, keyboards, drums and what sounded like a full horn section. There’s no one I’ve ever heard of, but they have chops and personality and the performance was impeccable. Nothing about the instrumental performance of the music was a distraction to someone who might have heard some of these songs hundreds of times. (At no point did you think “My god, they’re ruining the song.”)
The plot was interesting, but not so fantastical (at least at the outset) that you were unwilling to suspend your disbelief. But that started to fray towards the back third, as things became more— explained. I’ll buy that this is The Man Who Fell To Earth. I’ll buy that he’s an alien that could never get home. But then the premise became this melange of supernatural elements that I probably could have gotten behind in the service of the story, until they were accompanied by unnecessary explanation. Once I started to think about it, the willing disbelief began to crack and by the end of it I was sitting there cynically wondering how they were going to end it. Characters were introduced and never explained or named but then appeared and reappeared. There’s an interesting on-screen cameo appearance by a reasonable star of stage and TV, which takes a long time and provides a flimsy and unsatisfying plot point which doesn’t add anything and doesn’t make sense. There’s a Greek chorus of sorts, which is fabulous at first, but then break the rules of what a Greek chorus is supposed to do. The quality of the acting is what got me through 2/3 of the thing before I started to disconnect and dissect things more closely.
So the rules of musical theater, as I understand them, is that everything is supposed to be in service of the book. I believe that the new songs written for the production absolutely do that. (I also thought, “Wow, this absolutely sounds like a David Bowie song” each and every time. There are four new songs.) I’m prepared to say that “Lazarus” is a GREAT song.
But when you’re also using music that already exists, it gets harder, because there are ties to that music already.
Songs like “It’s No Game” and “Valentine’s Day” don’t have a huge existing cultural profile, and so they can become part of a new context with ease. Other more well known songs till made sense: “Sound and Vision,” “This Is Not America” and (obviously) “Life On Mars.” I’m an enormous fan of “Absolute Beginners” and was thrilled to see it reborn in this production; it’s a lush, evocative song that definitely worked in the context that it was given. If I had to guess, this was exactly the reason Bowie got involved in a theater production in the first place, to try to do something else with his work to get it in front of a new audience.
“Love Is Lost,” from the last Bowie record, was also a fantastic choice, but I didn’t think “Where Are We Now” had any context at all, and definitely not with the video playing behind it—especially since the storyline seems to take place in New York City, and we’ve just watched five minutes of Berlin footage for reasons that are never explained.
The big faux pas were with the war horses: you can’t take something with a huge cultural and emotional profile like “All The Young Dudes” and chuck it into the middle of a production without it being incredibly jarring and distracting. You can’t just say, “Hey, we’re going to use this song and it’s going to mean THIS,” and unequivocally have it be so. That’s just not how it works. “Heroes” was also an enormous train wreck at a key moment of the production, and had a major lyric change that also did not work. If you know the words to the song, you were sitting there nervously thinking, “My god, there’s no way they can sing that line in this context.” And then the line changes, and in some ways that was worse. It didn’t even truly fit the plot point, to be honest; it felt melodramatic and forced.
On the positive side, at least it wasn’t being used to sell me a car, if that makes any sense. It was art used within art. I might think they got it wrong but at least it didn’t have its edges smoothed over to suit the mainstream.
The audience was a mix of theater people and music people and aging Bowie fans. Some of these people brought significant others who weren’t familiar with the material. This led to entirely too much buzzing in the audience at the start of every song, as someone needed to tell someone else the name of the song or some other obviously hugely important fact. The woman doing the buzzing in my immediate area stopped after the third time when other people (not me) gave her the evil eye enough times. DO YOU PEOPLE NOT KNOW HOW TO BEHAVE AT A THEATER PRODUCTION.
Unlike other programs for musicals, there’s no listing of songs. I imagine this is absolutely deliberate. I think it’s unfortunate because if they expand it to a larger audience, those people are going to want to hear those songs at some point, but maybe that’s what an original cast album is for, I guess.
I’m glad I went, but for Off-Off-Broadway this was REALLY REALLY PRICEY; it’s a David Bowie price tag ($125), and as a result I was expecting more new or experimental Bowie than catalog Bowie. I don’t even understand why the pre-production press was so cagey; using catalog material well is a difficult thing to do and doing it well and not in some kind of forced manner is a challenge, so just tell people that. It was definitely more polished and more mainstream than I anticipated. I’m guessing this is David’s way of endowing this particular theater group, which is also a fine way to go about doing things. But I am not at all sure this is a must-see event, even for the Bowie faithful.
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