An enigmatic, dying musician bows out with an enigmatic musical about dying. At least pretend to look surprised.
Lazarus is the brainchild of David Bowie and Enda Walsh, writer of the diabetes-inducing Once, and debuts in London after a run in New York last winter.
It’s inspired by Walter Tevis’s The Man Who Fell To Earth — the source material for the film of the same name starring Bowie. We meet the earth-bound extraterrestrial Newton (Dexter’s Michael C Hall) attempting to dissolve his sorrows in neat alcohol. Not only has he lost the wife and children he left behind on his home planet but also his human lover Mary-Lou.
In his beige pyjamas and beige apartment, the gin genie Newton is living out an immortal beige existence with only his assistant Elly (Kinky Boots’ Amy Lennox) for company. Soon, she is going out of her way to dress and look like Mary-Lou and an angelic muse (Sophia Anne Caruso) visits our resident alien promising him a way out of his personal hell. Elsewhere, a killer on the loose called Valentine (Michael Esper) draws ever closer to Newton.
Neither Walsh’s script nor Bowie’s music makes clear whether this is all a booze-fuelled hallucination, a result of Newton’s alien biology, a near-death experience or something else entirely. It is this absence of clarity which is the most frustrating element of Lazarus. Prepare to be baffled, and not in a good way.
As the Gilbert to Bowie’s Sullivan, Walsh’s book is desperately dire, especially when compared to the acclaimed dynamism of Once. The story quickly disappears down a dark hole with too many scenes displaying too little in the way of sense or explanation: balloons are popped, a kabuki dancer appears, there are dives through spilled milk, and people we’ve barely been introduced to are suddenly stabbed to death. Strangely for a leading man, Hall is asked to spend around half the musical on stage but on the sidelines, a move which robs Lazarus of much of its emotional power. The dialogue and plot feel woefully underwritten and, like the static that intermittently plays on a large screen, there is more noise than signal in Walsh’s book.
The Bowie-penned numbers go a little way to lifting Lazarus up to something approaching entertainment. Featuring 17 live tracks in total, stone cold classics like The Man Who Sold The World, Life On Mars and Absolute Beginners are movingly sung alongside lesser-known tracks and three written especially for this musical. Curiously absent, though, are songs which would have made perfect sense here like Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide, Starman and Heaven’s In Here.
The music will be the touchstone of this show and, on that front, fails quite spectacularly. In 2013, his close friend and producer Tony Visconti said that “Bowie has found out what he wants to do: he wants to make records. Nothing else.” It is a shame then that Ziggy changed his mind, as his contribution to Lazarus is underwhelming. Few of the songs make a blind bit of difference to complementing, understanding or pushing forward what passes for a narrative. The new arrangements don’t do much to help the actors — Lennox in particular is asked to reach some punishing keys – and the musical’s parting shot, a bland version of Heroes, sends us too gently into that good night.
Hall also struggles with making his mark here. An accomplished musical theatre actor who has appeared in productions of Cabaret and Chicago, he has the Thin White Duke’s vibrato down pat and generally follows the original vocal stylings a tad too slavishly. He has admitted that, when singing Bowie’s works, “I want to capture something of his essence but manage to bring my own as well.” Er, one out of two isn’t bad?
Celebrated director Ivo von Hove does well with the mess Walsh has landed him in. Thankfully, this is the same guy who made a four-and-a-half hour Dutch-language production of Shakespeare a thrilling and visceral experience, so he knows how to engage an audience who have veered from their comfort zone. His use of a video screen is one of the most engaging elements of Lazarus and adds genuine depth to scenes where narrative clues are scarce.
Lazarus has a lopsided approach to its female characters which could be perceived as sexist or even misogynistic. All the men are given names but most of the women aren’t: the three-strong chorus are simply titled Teenage Girl 1, Teenage Girl 2 and Teenage Girl 3 and Newton’s muse is labelled as “Girl” in the programme. Walsh used a similar naming technique in Once but there the only unnamed characters were “Guy” and “Girl” and there was none of the gender disparity seen here.
Furthermore, the two main female roles of Elly and Girl are played by slim young blondes who are often asked to wear revealing clothing — one song sees Lennox dance around in a bra, open blouse, jeans and not much else while Caruso slinks around in a white shift or short dress. In contrast, Hall keeps his pyjamas firmly on at all times and the other male actors are in dark suits. Both Girl and Elly in general lack agency: their main job in Lazarus seems to be to throw themselves at Newton for reasons and with a fervour that are never quite justified by the dialogue. Bechdel wept.
And then there’s Valentine played by Michael Esper. As with most of the characters, this dark and handsome figure is barely afforded one dimension; in Valentine’s case, he is an emotionally manipulative murderer who enjoys his verbal torturing as much as his brutal killing. In a darkened room, Esper could physically pass for Iwan Rheon so was Walsh’s concept of Valentine “inspired” by a certain Game of Thrones villain? We couldn’t possibly comment.
In one of his scenes, Valentine says that “there are so many things that make the world an ugly place to be in.” One of those “things” is missed opportunities, something which — given Walsh and von Hove’s undeniable talent, the bounty that is Bowie’s back catalogue, the backing and input of one of the 20th century’s most revolutionary artists and the fact that this musical is one of the Thin White Duke’s last artistic works — Lazarus definitely is.
Valentine continues with another poignant and apt sentence: “there has to be something more beautiful than what we have been given.” Frankly, that would not be hard to conceive when applied this car crash of a jukebox musical. Maybe there is some hidden truth and meaning within the more abstract moments of Lazarus; maybe, beneath the incoherence, there is an elusive meditation on death and loss and love; or maybe, just maybe, Lazarus is musical theatre’s greatest missed opportunity of this generation.
Lazarus continues at King’s Cross Theatre until 22 January 2017. More information can be found on the official website.