Critic's Notebook: David Bowie, Theatrical Starman

David Bowie Ziggy Stardust 3 - H 2016
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David Bowie Ziggy Stardust 3 - H 2016

The late artist's unique stage legacy includes a Broadway turn in 'The Elephant Man,' rock concerts famed for their blazing theatricality and the recent sui generis musical, 'Lazarus.'

From his groundbreaking "Ziggy Stardust" concerts of the early '70s to Lazarus, the divisive off-Broadway alt-musical that premiered in the final weeks of his life, David Bowie was a chameleonic creature of the theater.

His stage alter ego in Lazarus is Thomas Jerome Newton, the same flame-haired humanoid extraterrestrial played onscreen by Bowie in 1976 in Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth. Portrayed in this quasi-sequel by Michael C. Hall, Newton is still stranded on the planet decades later, a marooned immortal starman yearning for release.

The character's tortured struggle now seems suddenly prophetic and more poignant in light of Bowie's death, and the news that he had been fighting cancer for 18 months.

In perhaps the most extravagant theatrical gesture of a career that at its peak was a dazzling succession of them, Bowie released a video just last week for the title track from the show. The song is also featured on his final album, Blackstar, a work as audacious and rich in mesmerizing ambiguity as any that he ever produced.

In the video, Bowie appears as a patient straining to levitate from the hospital bed that confines him, with buttons sewn over his bandaged eyes. At the same time, a more vigorous version of him dances in the room, in a jerky strut that's both convulsive and defiant, before sitting at a desk to pen what seem to be farewell words that won't come fast enough.

I won't be the only lifelong fan to have teared up this morning, watching those images as Bowie sings the opening words, now loaded with fresh significance:

"Look up here, I'm in heaven
I've got scars that can't be seen
I've got drama, can't be stolen
Everybody knows me now."

Bowie was a master of reinvention and of persona as performance. His flirtation with the theater began with his emergence in 1972, three years after the indelible anthem "Space Oddity" first put him on the map while also defining the artist he was to become.

For his "Ziggy Stardust" concerts, he chose the avant-garde mime and dance maverick Lindsay Kemp as a collaborator, resulting in a legendary series of shows that were landmarks in their radical incorporation of theater and multimedia elements. But a full-fledged plunge into musical theater, though frequently mooted, only happened late last year with Lazarus.

There was, however, a three-month run on Broadway in The Elephant Man, when Bowie stepped into the part of Joseph Merrick, the grotesquely deformed outcast embraced by Victorian London society, in the 1979 revival of Bernard Pomerance's play. Bowie called the role, which is performed without prosthetics or disfiguring makeup and thus is purely a feat of theatrical illusion, "undoubtedly the biggest single challenge of my career."

Belgian theater director Ivo van Hove and his longtime partner and design collaborator Jan Versweyveld traveled to New York together to see Bowie in that play soon after they met.

Many years later, after van Hove had already made distinctive use of Bowie songs in his bracing stage distillation of Tony Kushner's Angels in America, he was approached by producer Robert Fox, who had been in discussions with Bowie about revisiting his character from the Roeg film in a theatrical context.

The resulting production, co-written by Bowie with Irish playwright Enda Walsh, became the fastest-selling show in the 36-year history of off-Broadway's New York Theatre Workshop, the East Village incubation tank that spawned Rent and Once. The extended run plays at NYTW through Jan. 20, and its sold-out final performances will now acquire the additional haunting dimension of a memorial.

Bowie was never going to do a conventional jukebox musical, a genre that has cheapened the work of some of his contemporaries. But Lazarus, in a sense, is an abstract career retrospective, with songs lifted from across Bowie's discography, from the glam-rock '70s nuggets through the ambient Berlin period to the recent albums that ended his 10-year studio hiatus and reinvigorated his critical reputation, The Next Day and Blackstar.

Reviews were mixed for Lazarus. Most critics admired the show's dynamic multimedia presentation, committed performances and the hypnotic sounds of both the recent material and newly arranged vintage hits like "Changes," "Life on Mars?" and "Heroes." (A recording is in the works.) But many expressed frustration with the piece's stubbornly oblique storytelling.

However, even the naysayers might now reconsider what they dismissed as solipsistic, instead reading the multilayered show in a more personal vein, as a soulful and characteristically iconoclastic farewell.

Michael C. Hall in 'Lazarus'