David Bowie, whose death at 69 has us reeling, was the most theatrical of rock stars. It wasn’t just his ability to carry off flamboyant costumes and dazzling makeup, it was how he knew that personality itself was a performance, a calculated series of gestures and poses that attained reality in the audience’s collective imagination. Time and again throughout a career in music, on film and (fleetingly) in theater, Bowie constantly reinvented himself, creating a gallery of personae to people the theater of his outlandish mind. We know them all: Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, ’80s rocker Bowie and the Man Who Fell to Earth.
The latter character returned in much-altered form—played by a different actor—in Lazarus, the experimental jukebox musical running Off Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop through January 20 (my review is here). Lazarus is a sort-of sequel to the trippy 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth and it contains all the major Bowie themes: the isolated outsider; outer space; America as monster; and the dream of transcending Earth's mundane cruelty. The run is already sold out, so now it’s probably even more impossible to get in. Jim Nicola, head of NYTW, released a statement: “Everyone at NYTW and Lazarus is deeply saddened by the loss of one of the great artists of our time. We are very fortunate to have had the opportunity to collaborate with Mr. Bowie on his theatrical piece, Lazarus, and we look forward to honoring his work onstage as Lazarus plays its final performances.”
Theater geeks who loved Bowie can only dream of the sorts of roles he might have done if he’d been drawn to the theater: Hamlet when he was in his 20s, Prospero today. Or perhaps he would have brought his chilly inscrutability to the plays of Pinter or Churchill. He appeared in a 1982 BBC TV version of Brecht's Baal. But Bowie's one foray into legit stage acting was a run in The Elephant Man on Broadway for three months in 1980–81 (see an interview and clips here). That was before our time. Now we can only wonder if David Bowie's music and unique theatricality will find other forms on the stage, in the future.