The Current's Rock and Roll Book Club: David Bowie's 'Lazarus' script


London production of 'Lazarus'
Sophia Anne Caruso and Michael C. Hall in the London production of 'Lazarus.' (Johan Persson)

As 2016 draws to a close, David Bowie's Blackstar is already showing up in high positions on many lists of the year's best albums. The album was warmly reviewed upon its release, but it took on devastating new dimensions when fans realized that Bowie knew he was dying when he was making the music. Blackstar wasn't the only project Bowie was working on his final years, though: remember that stage musical you heard about?

Lazarus opened in New York on Dec. 7, 2015. Bowie joined the cast for a bow at curtain call: that proved to be his final public appearance. The musical ran through Jan. 20, 2016, then moved to London with much of the same cast. The London production opened on Nov. 8, 2016, and runs through Jan. 22, 2017.

What is Lazarus? Even for Bowie fans, that takes a little explaining.

It's a stage musical written by David Bowie and Irish playwright Enda Walsh. The book (that is, everything but the music) is by Walsh, and Bowie contributed new songs as well as some of his classics: "Heroes," "Changes," "The Man Who Sold the World," "Life on Mars?," and more.

It picks up the story of Thomas Newton, a character played by Bowie in the cult-classic 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth. That movie, directed by British auteur Nicolas Roeg, was based on a 1963 novel by American author Walter Tevis.

In the film, Newton is a humanoid alien from another planet. His vast technological knowledge allows him to become a wealthy industry mogul, but he longs to return to his home planet — despite a passionate and poignant love affair with a (literally) down-to-earth woman named Mary-Lou (Candy Clark).

Thomas Newton became one of Bowie's iconic characters: an alien among us, a man of great power (and great beauty) who's idolized on Earth but forever longing to return to the stars.

In Lazarus, we find the ageless Newton (played on stage by Dexter’s Michael C. Hall) still trapped on Earth all these decades later. He's assisted by Elly, whose attraction to the mysterious Newton arouses the ire of her husband Zach. Meanwhile, Newton is threatened by a shady character named Valentine — but given hope by a young girl who appears to him and promises to bring the forlorn alien "back to the stars."

Throughout the two-hour, one-act show, the characters sing Bowie songs in a way that speaks to their situations and emotional states. The effect is something akin to that of the movie Across the Universe, which repurposed and rearranged Beatles songs to tell a story inspired by the characters and events of those songs. A good example of this is the song "Changes," which becomes a plaintive lament sung by Elly as her marriage collapses.

Though Bowie himself didn't appear in the musical, he recorded some of the songs he wrote for Lazarus as his final studio recordings; those recordings appear on a recently-released cast recording. The script and lyrics for Lazarus have also now been published in book form, so if you get the book you can follow along to understand what the musical is about.

Lazarus received mixed reviews when it opened: in The New Yorker, Hilton Als dismissed the show as Bowie's failed attempt at a jukebox musical. "Like a number of other rock musicians whose hits have stopped coming, Bowie perhaps thought that he could remake himself as a playwright — or something."

By all accounts, Lazarus is a challenging piece — but then, so was a lot of Bowie's art, including The Man Who Fell to Earth. The story is elliptical and multilayered, with characters whose backgrounds and motivations aren't always very well explained. If you go to Lazarus expecting a pleasant night at the theater, you're apt to be disappointed.

Like Blackstar, though, Lazarus takes on a new significance when you consider that Bowie knew it would constitute one of his final testaments. The title song also appears on Blackstar, and its urgent but majestic grappling with mortality is key to both the album and the musical.

Consider Thomas Newton as one of Bowie's best-known alter egos, and the theme of Lazarus becomes powerful: as he reached the end of his days, Bowie sought to give the star-crossed wanderer the resolution he never achieved. Could Thomas Newton, at last, get home? The fact that several of Bowie's most beloved songs are wrapped into Lazarus underlines the fact that this is a story about loving the alien, about the tension between strangeness and connection that pulls at so much of Bowie's oeuvre.

The Lazarus script is a compact paperback, an affordable stocking-stuffer for the Bowie fan who didn't get a chance to see the musical on stage. Finally, those of us now living in New York or London can find out what happened to Thomas Newton, the character who haunted David Bowie until the end of his days.

The play's final stage direction, before Lazarus ends in a blackout: "Newton finds rest."

The Current's Bowie Legacy Giveaway

Use this form to enter The Current's Bowie Legacy giveaway between 8 a.m. CDT on Wednesday, Nov. 30 and 11:59 p.m. CDT on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016.

ONE (1) winner will receive one (1) CD copy of Bowie Legacy. Three (3) back up names will be drawn.

Prize retail value: $12

We will contact the winner on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016. Winner must accept by 10 a.m. CT on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016.

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