Review of Lazarus, the David Bowie musical at London's King's Cross Theatre
Any number of pop and rock stars have turned their talents to musicals, from Elton John with the world's most commercially successful entertainment (in any genre) of all time The Lion King and Billy Elliot, to such other current West End and Broadway exponents as Cyndi Lauper (Kinky Boots) and Sara Bareilles (Broadway's Waitress); while a whole slew more have had their back catalogues turned into jukebox biographical shows, from Carole King (Beautiful) and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons (Jersey Boys) to Gloria Estefan (Broadway's On Your Feet) that variously recycle their old hits.
The late, great David Bowie's penultimate artistic creation was collaborating on his first original musical Lazarus, that opened at Off-Broadway's New York Theatre Workshop in December 2015. He died less than a month later, aged 69, while the show was still running, two days after releasing his final 25th studio album Blackstar that featured the musical's title track.
Bowie, of course, was always a theatrical figure, adopting different characters and disguises; he had also, in 1980, appeared on Broadway himself, taking over the title role in The Elephant Man. He also acted in films, including the 1976 sci-fi feature The Man Who Fell to Earth.
The latter is now the basis for Lazarus, which continues the story of an alien abroad Thomas Jerome Newton, who is still trying to return to his home planet all these years later, but is living the life of a dazed recluse in New York as he awaits his own redemption. With Bowie's passing, of course, the show takes on an eerie prescience; was he preparing for his own death, and hoping for a rocket to take him to his next home?
Be that as it may, the New York theatre where it was playing became a bit of a shrine for his devoted followers, much as London's Lyric Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue became one for fans of Michael Jackson after that pop icon died. But the first thing to say about Lazarus is that this is no Thriller Live!, though it is frequently thrilling and it is live.
It's confusing and strange, too, but then so was Bowie. And I was also sometimes reminded of The Rocky Horror Show, that also revolves around an alien trying to get home. The musical is also a bit of timewarp, too: the score recycles Bowie standards like Changes, Life on Mars, Absolute Beginners and Heroes. But there's also a bunch of new songs.
You may not always be quite sure what is going on -- sometimes it feels hallucinatory, like a bit of a stoner trip, but it is never less than musically and visually stunning. It has great art-house credentials, including being directed by Ivo van Hove, possibly the most fashionable director in theatre at the moment (he's also about to direct Hedda Gabler at the National), scripted by Enda Walsh, and starring the compelling TV and Broadway stage actor Michael C Hall (best known for Six Feet Under and Dexter).
You know with each of these that you're not going to get the most obvious choices. But instead, you get a constantly evolving and gripping show that is quite unlike anything on in London.
What the Press Said...
"David Bowie and Enda Walsh’s sequel to The Man Who Fell to Earth is staged with visual sophistication by Ivo van Hove but it’s rarely emotionally engaging."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"It’s hard to engage head or heart when there’s so much enigma."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"The starman may have gone back to the sky. But we’ll be forever glad he came to meet us. And, with this musical, he was right to think he might indeed blow our minds."
Nick Wells for The Radio Times
"Lazarus reaches to be as beguilingly other-worldly as Bowie himself, but can't quite get there."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard