Lazarus, the new musical co-written by David Bowie, doesn’t open till Dec. 7, but – Bowie groupies that we are – we managed to snag last-minute tickets to one of the sold-out previews at New York Theatre Workshop. While it’s too early to review the play, co-written by Enda Walsh (Once) and directed by Ivo van Hove, we can’t resist sharing some of what we’ve learned about this trippy production starring Michael C. Hall as the Bowie character from The Man Who Fell to Earth. Read ahead if you don’t mind a few spoilers.
1. It’s not just “inspired by” The Man Who Fell to Earth. It’s pretty much a sequel.
The program notes that Lazarus was inspired by The Man Who Fell to Earth, the Walter Tevis novel that sparked the 1976 movie starring Bowie. It turns out, this is really the next chapter in the story of Thomas Jerome Newton, the alien from a draught-ridden planet who came to earth seeking water, became the fabulously wealthy founder of a giant corporation, and tried to build a rocket home, only to be imprisoned in a luxury apartment by government operatives.
2. You’ll be a little less confused if you’ve seen the movie, but it’s not really necessary.
The basic plot of The Man Who Fell to Earth is summarized at various points in Lazarus, which basically finds Newton where the movie left him: holed up in an apartment, under the influence of his two favorite sedatives, television and gin. Here, he spends much of his time ignoring his adoring assistant/maid Elly and pining after his lost love, Mary-Lou (and listening to the Bowie albums that are displayed next to his turntable). During his final encounter with Mary-Lou in The Man Who Fell to Earth, Newton tells her that he drinks because it makes him “see things – bodies.” Much of Lazarus revolves around these delusions of being visited by people.
3. You’ll hear some of your favorite Bowie numbers.
Many oldies and not-so-oldies are faithfully rendered by a seven-piece band, complete with horns, playing behind a glass wall (music director Henry Hey previously worked on George Michael and Rod Stewart tours). Michael C. Hall sings some tunes, fellow cast members (Cristin Milioti, Michael Esper) sing others. Among them are “It’s No Game,” “Absolute Beginners,” “Dirty Boys,” “All the Young Dudes,” “Sound and Vision,” “Always Crashing in the Same Car,” and “Valentine’s Day.” Other songs get new arrangements: “This Is Not America” is slowed down into an arpeggio-backed ballad, “Love Is Lost” gets jazzed up, “Changes” becomes a jaunty shuffle, and there’s a melancholy, almost acappella take on “Heroes.”
4. There are new songs, too.
Four of them, to be exact, including one with Space Odyssey-esque lyrics like “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” “Look up here, I’m in danger,” and (double entendre?) “I’m so high.” (This one will apparently be on Bowie’s upcoming album.) There’s a plodding number in which Newton croons, “I’m falling, man; I’m choking, man” (or is it “I’m falling man, I’m choking man?”) In another song, with a refrain of “when I met you,” Newton describes himself as “the walking dead… kicked in the head.” Van Hove has said the new songs “sound like classics,” and in the case of these three, he’s right. Less Aladdin Sane-esque is a floaty ballad, sung by teenage lead Sophia Anne Caruso, in which Second Avenue is mentioned.
5. Michael C. Hall doesn’t do an English accent. And his outfits are nowhere near as fabulous as the original Newton’s were.
But, when he sings, he does a pretty spot-on Bowie.
6. You might call this The Man Who Fell to the East Village.
Marley, one of Newton’s occasional visitors, says she first encountered him while she was walking down Second Avenue and saw him looking out of his window. Another scene takes place on “shitty Second Avenue,” as one character puts it. Elsewhere, a character implies that Newton’s apartment is near Houston Street.
7. Mars Bar gets a shoutout?
While Marley sings an unplugged version of “Life on Mars,” the word Mars is written on a screen, in the same childish scrawl that appeared on Mars Bar’s sign. As if to clear up any doubt, the screen displays a video of the corner of Second Avenue and Second Street. We see Blue Ribbon Fried Chicken. Is it possible Newton lives across the street, in the Jupiter 21 building that replaced Mars Bar? Makes sense for a dead-inside rich guy with a longing for space travel.
8. There’s a Lovely-Bones-on-acid subplot. (Double spoiler alert.)
It turns out Marley is actually in a sort of limbo, having just been killed and buried (but not “properly”) by a neighbor. Her job is to try to instill some hope in the morose Newton, so she can slip back into her body and truly die.
9. The Marley subplot leads to a delightful (if creepy) cameo.
The guy who killed Marley is played by… no, not Bowie, alas. But (you guessed it?) Alan Cumming.
10. A character named Valentine makes for a talking point.
He seems to have been inspired by Bowie’s song, “Valentine’s Day.” But is he also an homage to Valentine Michael Smith of Stranger in a Strange Land, another water-craving Martian who descends on Earth? Discuss!
“Lazarus” opens Dec. 7 and runs through Jan. 17 at New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E 4th St.; tickets ($129 online) are currently sold-out but follow NYTW on Twitter for notifications about last-minute seats. Beginning Dec. 28, a daily CheapTix lottery will be held at NYTW: two and a half hours prior to curtain, you can sign up for up to two $25 tickets; drawing is two hours prior to curtain.