Truer to the source material than is probably advisable, the new David Bowie musical Lazarus both rises and falls just like the movie The Man Who Fell to Earth, which it is a sort of sequel to. Which is to say, it is a series of moments that land for their technical prowess, but lacks the characters or pointed societal critique that make for truly memorable science fiction or musicals.
Still, it’s Bowie, man. The play was penned by Bowie and the writer Enda Walsh, who also wrote the stage version of Once, and features both new and old reworkings of David Bowie’s music. Michael C. Hall—who played Hedwig on Broadway as well as Dexter on TV—takes over the reworked Bowie role, but other cast members get their turn belting it out Thin White Duke tunes. Watching it, your mileage may vary based on what you think of rearranged Bowie classics and seeing Dexter do a passable Bowie impression.
In Nicholas Roeg's 1976 film, Bowie plays the titular man, an alien who pretends to be English—what a stretch—and goes by the name Thomas Newton. He comes to Earth seeking water, only to lose himself (and sight of his mission) in Earth's oceans of television and gin. He meets a girl; he patents a bunch of new technology; he's hunted by the government, like ET. He watches a lot TVs at the same time.
If the movie starred anyone else, I can't help but think it'd be an almost-forgotten swing at Tarkovsky-style slow, contemplative science fiction. But because it's Bowie, The Man Who Fell to Earth has a higher profile as a foundational part of his enduring myth: Bowie the space alien. Although he had already released the song and album Space Oddity, as well as “Life on Mars,” Roeg’s film turned the frail singer into multimedia. Long before I saw the film, I knew a single cell of the film from the cover Bowie's album 1977 Low.
Bowie's performance is praised for seeming realistically out-of-touch and weird, which was either an inspired deliberate choice, or possibly just a product of Bowie's inexperience as a movie actor combined with what he describes as a 10-gram-a-day-of-cocaine diet. At worst, it's another entry on a list of Bowie's sometimes bizarre artistic risks—and if you succeed 100 percent of the time, how sure can you be that you've risked anything?
There’s a balance that science fiction has to strike between the relatable and the alien, to turn one into the other
Thomas Newton, now played by a much more Earthbound looking Michael C. Hall, is living in New York in a luxury apartment, being haunted by his lost love from the film, Mary Lou, even though when we last left our heroes it seemed like they were on the outs. His television obsession lingers on the center of the stage in the form of a giant screen, with the musical's “pit” visible behind two glass walls that form the back of the stage.
Rather than critiquing mass media as the film does, however, with Newton dulling himself and losing his mission in a wash bottles of gin and a wall of TVs, Lazarus seems fixated on the demons that haunt within us—unfulfilled ambitions, mostly, which make sense given that Newton came here with one job to do, and didn't do it.
As mass media give way to the more personalized media, it would’ve seemed quaint if not dated for Lazarus to critique television. And so Newton and the other characters find themselves haunted by murders and murder victims, people with lost purposes and lost identities. It’s not clear if it’s supposed to be a metaphor for mental illness, or aging, or depression. It’s not clear why an alien is the best character to embody all of these human traits.
As media critique, maybe there’s something to this: while our lives continue slipping into past, in the internet amber there’s our past, happier lives, people we might have been closer to, lives that we could’ve been living always there, always smiling at us. Lazarus thankfully doesn’t have Thomas Newton checking his Facebook or anything like that, which would almost definitely be embarrassing. (It wouldn’t have to be though! Arguably E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” can function as a critique of social media, albeit one written in 1909.) What the audience gets instead with Lazarus though is a piece of science fiction that has little to say about science and tech, and little in the way of societal critique due to Newton being so closed off from society.
What does that leave us? Just like in Roeg’s film, the actions of the characters on stage are always confounding and opaque, to the point where I had to wonder if the point was to present the world as it must seem to an alien like Newton, although he’s carrying just as much baggage as anyone else. Alienation in front of a film is one thing, but to put it on stage, where actors with their blood and sweat are actually standing?
The play looks awesome to a fault. Ivo Van Howe, the director, is very popular at the moment and you can see why. All of the actors hit their marks both in their songs and in the dialogue, and the set is minimal but dynamic.
To what end? As the playwright told the New York Times, “The piece is broken and fractured; the information comes late. You don’t know what you’re watching for about 40 minutes or so.”
Even by the conclusion, it isn’t clear what the play is really aiming for. Whatever thematic momentum the musical builds ends derailed by yet another classic Bowie banger starting up. It seems weird to call that a problem, since, in my opinion, almost all plays would be better with some more Bowie, but the familiarity of the songs makes it hard to see them as textually related to the loose narrative at all. You're left thinking “Damn, Cristin Milioti is really slaying this version of 'Changes' right now,” rather than “The character Elly is certainly facing some strange ch-ch-ch-ch-changes.”
There’s a balance that science fiction has to strike between the relatable and the alien, to turn one into the other. Music, especially David Bowie’s, is freed from obligations like “coherence” or the idea of “earning” emotional payoffs; his album coming out on Jan. 8 could very well be fantastic. Lazarus, though, ends with Michael C. Hall sliding around in what looks like milk on the stage while singing “Heroes,” a song that always feels cathartic—but the effect doesn’t last, not even “just for one day.”