NEW YORK – Right up to the end, David Bowie was exploring new universes. In this case, musical theater was his destination. Just 36 days before his death, in fact, a musical featuring Bowie songs old and new received its world premiere at off-Broadway’s New York Theater Workshop, birthplace of “Rent.”
In keeping with the image of Bowie in the popular imagination, “Lazarus” – his collaboration with Irish playwright Enda Walsh and Belgian-Dutch director Ivo van Hove – the musical itself has been perceived by audiences as strange, enigmatic, slightly impenetrable. “Great-sounding, great-looking and mind-numbing,” wrote critic Ben Brantley in his New York Times review.
The musical, which ends its run in the East Village with a benefit performance on Jan. 20, propels forward by four decades the story of Thomas Newton, the character Bowie himself played in the mid-1970’s alien-among-us movie “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” (Newton is played in this version by Michael C. Hall, in a cast that also includes Michael Esper, Charlie Pollock and Cristin Milioti.) While the critical reception has been mixed, Bowie fans have been streaming to East 4th Street for the sold-out engagement.
“Lazarus” wasn’t Bowie’s first flirtation with the legit stage: Back in September 1980, he stepped into the role of John Merrick as a replacement in the original Broadway production of “The Elephant Man,” and remained in it until Jan. 3, 1981. It was an experience he told interviewers that both petrified and thrilled him, but he never returned to Broadway.
Clearly, though, theater retained some fascination for him, as “Lazarus” reveals. The opening lines of the title song bear some reflecting on today: “Look up here/ I’m in heaven,” the song begins. “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/ I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen/Everybody knows me now.”