The early 70s had ushered in some great science-fiction cinema including The Omega Man, Westworld, Soylent Green, Planet of the Apes, Dark Star and Logan’s Run. Later we would get Demon Seed, Stepford Wives, Futureworld and the blockbuster Star Wars.
As a teenager I bought the paperback of Walter Tevis’s The Man Who Fell to Earth when it was the tie-in to its dazzling 1976 film adaptation directed by Nicolas Roeg that starred David Bowie. It turned out to have an original line compared with the well-worn “they came from outer space” clichés of science-fiction.
In the book the humanoid alien Thomas Jerome Newton arrives in a deserted American landscape in a quest to save his dying planet and family. Armed with his planet’s superior technology, he amasses a fortune with his patents and inventions. This includes a self-developing film that revolutionises photography and finances his own corporation, World Enterprises which crushes Kodak. His extraordinary rise however attracts suspicions from both government sources and rival conglomerates and soon his identity is revealed and his plans are thwarted, leaving him a wealthy recluse trapped on Earth.
A musical titled Lazarus was devised and written by David Bowie and the Irish playwright Enda Walsh and opened for a successful limited run at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2015. It was to be Bowie’s final completed project before his untimely passing this year and much eager anticipation awaited the American production when it started previewing in London last week at the King’s Cross Theatre South.
Although billed as a sequel to the film, the play does not indicate how many years have passed, and we do not see any identifiable technologies from the past four decades that might give us a clue, unless that giant screen at centre-stage is supposed to be plasma. Are we still in 1976 or in 2015?
Michael C Hall plays Mr Newton with world-weary resignation as he paces around his large apartment, frustrated at his doomed and isolated existence with only alcohol and television to pass the time. The plot however does not appear to have moved far. With Newton seemingly ageless and his only real human connection in the film, Mary Lou, long gone (presumed dead), his sadness is amplified by the prospect of returning home seeming no closer.
We are left with the large minimal stage that features a bed, refrigerator and a huge television screen which serves also to project some of the characters’ inner machinations. The threadbare plot could have done with a contemporary upgrade to the pre-digital age and compared Newton’s lifestyle inventions with the likes of, say, Steve Jobs and his game-changing computers, iPods and iPhones which have transformed our lives and created a global behemoth out of Apple.
In the book Newton’s inventions and patents fuel a successful business empire. In Lazarus the musical, no real attempt is made to explore the dark side of fame – the almost impossible hope a rich man has for a private life, while the hunger of 24-hour news and social media put a bounty on his head to help expose his secrets. Conglomerates, business rivals and foreign governments would have courted, spied or stolen anything to gain access to his brilliant but frazzled mind. The alien rumours would have been splashed on covers of the National Enquirer and become internet click-bait. Gossip gawkers would have tracked down Mary Lou to see if she was alive and offered her vast sums to recollect her relationship since she was the only human he really connected with on Earth – almost a substitute for his abandoned wife and child we briefly glimpse in the film.
The other main characters appear to be his unhappy maid, her husband, a childlike female who may or not be Newton’s imagination and Valentine, a malevolent character who springs from Bowie’s 2013 album The Next Day. Newton interacts with these characters but the dialogue is less than thrilling and between the musical interludes driving us forward the play feels sluggish. The musicians are exemplary although the Bowie songs included are sometimes perplexing, and the vocal stage versions of Life On Mars and All The Young Dudes pale in comparison to the original Bowie performances.
In New York, the musical introduced four new Bowie songs: Lazarus, No Plan, Killing a Little Time and When I Met You. For his fans, the unique strength of David Bowie’s existing repertoire lies in its deeply etched memories, and to hear other people singing his songs often jars the listener. Michael C Hall (who also appeared in the vastly superior musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch) performs with aplomb especially on the poignant Where Are We Now, but also on It’s No Game and the duets of Absolute Beginners and When I Met You. The title track – in which Lazarus looks down in death on the unknowing listener – becomes one of Bowie’s personal gifts to his audience. The refreshed electronic arrangement of The Man Who Sold The World is also a definite highlight, adding a more contemporary sound to this classic. (Interestingly this is one song that has lent itself to some sympathetic versions, notably Lulu’s and Nirvana’s different approaches).
Almost by surprise, the show assumes an unsettling power. Thanks to the musicianship of the eight-man band, the legacy of this musical event is a growing realisation that we would never again hear David Bowie singing these songs live and it is this truth which elicits the greatest personal emotion of the evening.
The biggest criticism however must go to the theatre’s extremely poor seating which means that a good half of the audience has to crane our necks due to the poor slope, which means you spend the whole play avoiding the heads of the people in front of you. They were moving also and a lot of the action involves the actors on the floor where they are not visible unless you stand up, which is impossible. Ticket prices, which are very expensive to see such a restricted view, are a scandal and not something experienced in the New York debut. All this has a huge impact on attempting to enjoy the play and so be warned.
Loving the alien, yes. The play, not so much.
The Lazarus (Original Cast) album, including the three new David Bowie compositions, made its debut in the UK top 10 album chart.
Trailer for this year’s 4K restoration to celebrate the 40th anniversary of The Man Who Fell to Earth – at The Guardian.