Theatre

Despite a bizarre narrative that at times seems nonsensical, the first Australian production of David Bowie’s musical, Lazarus, is gloriously camp. And of course, there’s no denying the power of Bowie’s songs. By Alison Croggon.

The Production Company’s Lazarus

Chris Ryan as Thomas Newton, Mike McLeish as Michael and Emily Milledge as Girl in The Production Company’s Lazarus.
Credit: Jeff Busby

David Bowie’s 2015 musical, Lazarus, is one of the strangest cultural artefacts I’ve encountered. I hardly know how to begin to talk about it.

It’s a multicoloured, multilayered, sparkly ball of kitsch – though perhaps that’s compulsory for musicals, which might be the superlative artform for kitsch. At the same time, Lazarus is hallowed with the nimbus of Bowie’s death, which occurred weeks after Ivo van Hove’s production premiered in New York.

For the musical’s Australian premiere at Arts Centre Melbourne, The Production Company gives us a stylishly exorbitant production by Michael Kantor. Maybe the oddest thing about this is that it’s thick with a sense of mortality, reaching through its excess to create a work that’s more than the sum of its parts.

Lazarus is “inspired by” The Man Who Fell to Earth, a very fine American science fiction novel by Walter Tevis, who also wrote The Hustler and The Color of Money. The novel was made into a film by Nicolas Roeg, in which Bowie famously starred as the alien Thomas Newton, who never makes it home to his dying planet.

As science fiction writer James Sallis said, the book can be read as “an evocation of existential loneliness, a Christian fable, a parable of the artist. Above all, perhaps, as the wisest, truest representation of alcoholism ever written.” Perhaps it’s a measure of how Bowie identified with the terminally lost Thomas Newton that he bought and continually renewed the adaptation rights to Tevis’s book.

Certainly, the man who fell to Earth became a central part of Bowie’s public theatrical personae: his charisma was always luminously otherworldly. The Irish playwright Enda Walsh talks of being starstruck as Bowie handed him an outline of the project that became Lazarus.

“I was hit with the realisation that I was sitting opposite this cultural icon – this man who had created so much and influenced so many,” he writes. “This bloody genius. David Fucking Bowie … I scanned the first page and all I heard was interference – my own insecurities screaming at me.”

They talked, says Walsh, “about isolation and madness and drug abuse and alcoholism and the torment of immortality”. Bowie then gave him a list of songs, asking him to choose which ones might be used in the musical. From this melange of ideas, Walsh cobbled together the book for the musical.

The result gathers whatever meaning it makes from its associations and genealogies, rather than from anything it inherently does. Even when you read the book, almost nothing about it makes any sense. The songs emerge obliquely from a narrative that’s already oblique.

Walsh picks up all Bowie’s clichés of the alienated artist and dumps them into an oddly banal text. The narrative includes a serial killer, Valentine (played with dark flourish by iOTA); a woman who inexplicably transforms herself into Thomas Newton’s lover Mary-Lou (Phoebe Panaretos); and a literal manic pixie dream girl named Girl (Emily Milledge), who gets killed, even though she is already dead.

Fortunately, the music compensates for this: Henry Hey’s arrangements are gorgeous, their lyrical orchestrations translating these familiar songs into a new register. You walk out of the theatre realising, once again, that Bowie was an extraordinary songwriter.

Still, Lazarus is far from a conventional jukebox musical. In fact, I’m not sure that it’s a jukebox musical at all: it’s more like an Expressionist play that has unhappily collided with Broadway.

In Lazarus, Newton is at the end of his life, dying but unable to die. He’s imprisoned in a hotel room, consuming staggering quantities of gin, while dramas play out around him and inside his head. It’s difficult to work out precisely what happens, but the trajectory is – portentously, in the light of Bowie’s life story – always towards death.

The musical is named for its opening number, which Bowie released as a single when Lazarus premiered in late 2015. Watching the music video again, I remember how we all thought that Bowie was playing at death, that the singing corpse with a bandaged face and obol eyes was just another role. And then he died for real, two days after his 69th birthday, two days after the release of his final album, Blackstar.

You can’t watch Lazarus without this baggage: Bowie’s absence is one of the most poignant aspects of the show. Despite this, Michael Kantor’s direction heroically resists making it a tribute: it’s very much its own thing.

To help him, he has an outstanding production team – Anna Cordingley as designer, Jethro Woodward as musical director, Paul Jackson on lighting, Stephanie Lake as choreographer, Natasha Pincus and Nick Roux on video and projections respectively. Together they invest this show with a seriousness that makes it, in the most classic sense possible, profoundly camp.

“Camp,” said Susan Sontag, “rests on innocence … In naive, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naive.”

Lazarus is all these things. Its absurdity is passionately sincere, and somehow creates a weirdly beautiful work. Kantor’s direction has, after all, always been about excess: his theatre takes vulgar forms – pantomime, rock eisteddfods – and puts them into theatrical hyperdrive. In this case, the form is the music video.

In Pincus, Kantor has one of the best music video-makers in the business: she’s won major awards for her work with artists such as Gotye, Missy Higgins and Sarah Blasko. Her surreal images dominate this show, weaving around and through the live performance. And maybe this is what grounds our perceptions: the visual vocabulary and syntax are, after all, deeply familiar.

Cordingley’s design bisects the stage with a scrim that doubles as an abstract hotel window. Sometimes we can see through it; other times it’s an opaque screen on which is projected a bricolage of evolving imagery – a man in a suit with a bandaged face falling upwards through space, exploding buildings, galaxies, shattering glass, gigantic close-ups of human eyes.

The action plays before and behind these images. Sometimes the performers are part of the image we see on screen, either as reflections or a ghostly presence behind glass. In the show’s best moments – during Emily Milledge’s blazing performance of “Life on Mars”, for instance, or the full company’s rendition of “When I Met You” – all the different elements unite into something that is… I want to say, transcendent? It certainly wants to be transcendent; I’m not sure that it is. But its emotional expressiveness is undeniable.

As the curiously passive protagonist Thomas, Chris Ryan is a charismatic lead. He swigs constantly from a bottle, to the point where I was worried for his bladder. He seems to be cast against type, with varying results. Ryan lacks the sense of delicate otherworldliness that Bowie brought to the role: he seems too material, too earthbound. But he has a louche glamour that fits the role of the eccentric millionaire recluse, and he can certainly belt out a number.

Phoebe Panaretos plays Elly, Thomas’s assistant, with tremulous fervour. She sings one of the show’s highlights, “Changes”, as, hypnotised by the vortex of Thomas’s presence, she dons a blue wig and begins to transform into his lost love, Mary-Lou. There’s domestic backstory about her unhappy marriage to Zach (Mat Verevis) from which this role-playing appears to be an escape but, as with much of this show, her character doesn’t make sense, emotionally or dramatically or even poetically.

Meanwhile, iOTA brings a vital swagger to the mysteriously gratuitous part of Valentine, the serial killer, a personification of Bowie’s song “Valentine’s Day”. This role seems to be the hinge between the “real world” and the hallucinations that exist only in Thomas’s mind. Valentine acts as love’s executioner, literally murdering happiness during the course of the show.

As the deus ex machina (“Valentine knows it all / He’s got something to say”) he leads Thomas to his apotheosis. In true rockstar fashion, this apotheosis means killing the dead girl who represents hope, thus bringing both Thomas and Girl – who finally gains a name – to their final departure into peace. (I mean, really?)

I guess I can’t quite come at the incoherence of this piece. Does it matter? I’m really not sure. The charm of Lazarus exists in the body of the show: in how the music and production flesh out this unpromising material with a surreal, sensual feast of visuals and sound. And in the end, it’s all about the songs.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 25, 2019 as "Space oddity". Subscribe here.

Alison Croggon
is an award-winning novelist, poet, playwright and critic.