Blazingly original and disconcertingly weird, Lazarus is of a piece with its principal creator David Bowie’s own artistic output. This was his penultimate work and he made his final public appearance at its Off-Broadway premiere at New York Theatre Workshop in December 2015. He died, aged 69, just two days after releasing his final studio album that contained this show’s title track. In the process, Lazarus inevitably became – just as Thriller Live did in London after the death of Michael Jackson – an instant shrine to his memory.
This being Bowie, the show is more complex, layered and riveting than Thriller Live (a happy, sometimes tacky concert hagiography of Jackson). Instead, the work, in which a man contemplates shaking off his life on earth, is a kind of eerie premonition, a settling of Bowie’s own existential reckoning.
As Michael C Hall, inheriting the role of Thomas Jerome Newton that Bowie played in the 1976 sci-fi film The Man Who Fell to Earth, recently told me in an interview for The Stage, Bowie’s passing “completely re-contextualised the experience of doing it and watching it (at the end of its New York run), and it’s in that context that I think we are doing it here”.
The late, great Elaine Stritch once called herself “an existential crisis in tights,” and this show could be described as an existential crisis in lights. Partly a sequel to the earlier film, partly a jukebox musical (the score recycles Bowie standards like Changes, Life on Mars, Absolute Beginners and Heroes), and partly a super-hip piece of installation art, it’s a show that doesn’t always make narrative sense, but it looks sensational.
Director Ivo van Hove and designer Jan Versweyveld, who has also lit it gorgeously, set it in a rectangular white box, recalling their work for Simon Stephens’s Song from Far Away at the Young Vic last year. The story also, perhaps unwittingly, seems to evoke another cult musical about an extra-terrestrial seeking to return home: Frank-n-Furter in The Rocky Horror Show.
As scripted by playwright Enda Walsh, the story finds Hall’s protagonist haunted by the memory of a lost love called Mary Lou, and dealing with the competing attentions of his new PA and her jealous boyfriend, a business man and a waif-like child who intends to help him to get home, and a man of more sinister motivations called Valentine. They are played by a compelling supporting cast that includes Amy Lennox, Richard Hansell, Jamie Muscato, Sophie Anne Caruso and Michael Esper.
I can’t honestly say I always knew what was going on, but then it is meant to feel other-worldly – and the musical adds another mysterious chapter to a career that was full of infinite mystery.