Lazarus: A Review


I went to a performance of Lazarus on Saturday, and wrote about it for Slate. Read it here.

There are some spoilers in the review in terms of which songs are performed. If you’re going to see the show, you might wish to hold off reading it, as some of the fun is when the first bars of a song are played and you’re like, “Ah, that one.”

Some various thoughts that didn’t fit in the piece:

  1. There’s a lot of Outside in this play, to the point where you could argue the plot is a collision between two albums, Low and Outside. Let’s just say the Baby Grace cold case is solved here.
  2. I didn’t get into this too much, but the staging and set pieces are excellent, particularly for an off-Broadway show in a relatively small theater. The character Valentine’s big number (you can likely guess what it is) is a tour de force involving video, lighting and what looked like 100 balloons being popped.
  3. The band (saxophone, trombone, keyboards, guitar, bass, drums) did what was required: playing the songs competently and not obtrusively, and you never winced and said “man, they’re draining the blood out of this thing.” But there was, unsurprisingly, a remove and restraint in the performances: it must be hard when you’re called upon to replicate legendary Robert Fripp lead lines on a nightly basis and yet not upstage the actors.
  4. Michael Hall has a great blank charisma. His Newton was unlike Bowie’s but felt like a development of the character: there was a sense that this is what’s become of Newton after keeping to his room for decades and drinking and eating Twinkies all the time. Hall is stockier and beefier than Bowie, obviously, but there were times when he was channeling Bowie, with his face taking on some of Bowie’s qualities. It was eerie, like a willed possession.
  5. Some lines (Newton is asked “don’t you miss the business at all?”) felt like some meta-commentary by the play’s co-author.
  6. As I wrote, it’s tough to judge how the new songs will hold up. The opener, “Lazarus,” will be on the new album and I can see it working with a Bowie vocal and an ominous building arrangement. The other three seemed more built-to-order for the show: I’m pretty sure these are not on Blackstar, but we’ll find out soon enough.
  7. The audience was very confused by a moment when Hall yelled “yeah, that’s right: four new songs! Push ahead of this!” (note: this didn’t really happen).

POLL’S OVER. About 350 ballots, give or take, came in before the deadline. Thanks to everyone who took part, and the results should be next week.

Top: Sophia Anne Caruso and Michael C. Hall, Lazarus.

45 Responses to Lazarus: A Review

  1. Alon Shmuel says:

    LOL @ # 7

  2. Robert says:

    Funny about ‘Outside’… As I read the Slate piece I was thinking, “You know the thing he should have done…”

  3. ecsongbysong says:

    As has often been the case with songs I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to, you have underlined for me here everything worthwhile in a Bowie project that I think, ultimately, was pretty disappointing. Thank you for that. This and the Slate piece make for the most perceptive review this odd little piece is likely to receive.

    I will say this: you’re quite right that the staging is excellent, and it’s interesting to glimpse little bits of what a 2015 Bowie stage show might have been. The extraordinary sequence with the projections, Hall throwing records and cleaning out the fridge and lying inert, all at the same time, during “Falling Man” (the Times calls it “Killing A Little Time”) is amazing.

    Grateful to you as always for an incredible blog!

    • col1234 says:

      thanks. yes, Hall’s control is amazing. Guy doesn’t alter a note even while being thrown across stage or falling on his face

    • BenJ says:

      Because it doesn’t look like comments are enabled at your own blog, I just wanted to say I love the first entry and look forward to going back. Elvis Costello presents a rich topic for song-by-song analysis, and I’d thought about starting a blog on him myself but I don’t know if I’d have ever gotten around to it. Looking forward to “You Belong to Me”, “Green Shirt” et al.

  4. NiggyTardust says:

    Chris, do you know if this piece was filmed any kind of release or television broadcast?

  5. crayontocrayon says:

    What struck me (and I’ve only heard the audio) was that it is outside without outside. There’s a ton of outside era songs that would fit the theme of the play far more than some of the songs chosen. Indeed the only nod to the outside era was the arrangement of ‘the man who sold the world’ which was the arrangement from the mid 90s tours. Whether that’s lingering animosity with Gabrels or what- who knows? not me.

    and there has been at least one filming session, so DVD looks probable, but nothing confirmed yet

    • col1234 says:

      yes, absolutely. “No control” and “I’m Deranged” would’ve fit far better than many of the songs performed.

      • crayontocrayon says:

        got to keep ‘No Control’ free for Spongebob

      • ecsongbysong says:

        And in mood, “Thru These Architect’s Eyes” would not only have sounded great in Hall’s voice, but it would have fit Newton’s attitude — it could have been slotted in for a song lifted from “Scary Monsters” (avoiding spoilers here) perfectly. The thing is, just about any Bowie song could have been sung at just about any point in the show. It’s a jukebox musical set on shuffle.

  6. col1234 says:

    a note: this has been linked to by a message board on which someone complained that I reviewed a preview (“what you saw was not finished yet, dammit” quoth the person).

    Just so you know: this was a performance that the press was invited to, 2 days before opening night. The cast knew quite well that me, and Rolling Stone, and the Guardian, etc. were in the audience, so I wasn’t reviewing some random preview, dude.

  7. Vinnie says:

    Slate outdid themselves by getting you to review it. (Congrats!)

    I read the play is already sold out. If that’s untrue, I will plan a trip to the city strictly to see Lazarus, and then to go home.

    • Abby says:

      When I checked last night, all the dates but one were sold out.

    • Gozomoto says:

      It’s what I’m doing. I am ticketed for the 15th. I’m doing my best to hold off on the reviews so I can be a little surprised (and, apparently, underwhelmed!).

  8. BenJ says:

    Nice review. I find it interesting, as you elaborate at the beginning, that Bowie had always wanted to write stage rock operas and pioneer a new form of musical theater. Perhaps in one of those alternate universes Bowie has occupied the same niche that Andrew Lloyd Webber did. Sounds like Lazarus is giving us something other than that.

    • Roman says:

      Your comment reminds me of a Bowie comment (circa 2000’s) when he was asked what he would’ve done if he’d never hit on Ziggy and, thus, his music career had never happened, Bowie replied, “I have no doubt whatsoever that I would’ve ended up been a West End trooper, right up to this day, working the boards in all those musicals.” (that’s not verbatim – but it’s the gist of what I recall seeing/reading somewhere!)

      Really enjoyed the Slate review. Well done!

  9. Is this the set list for the tour that Mr. Bowie won’t do in 2016?

  10. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    I’ve been reading the reviews online, and while they’re all very positive, effusive even, a couple of recurring criticisms seem to be that the narrative thread is at times incoherent, and that some of the lines which the actors utter can be a bit cringe-worthy (one reviewer suggested audience members might roll their eyes and utter “oh please at some points”.
    Would you say these are fair criticisms Chris? Overall was the play a satisfying experience for you? Did it hang together or ring true (as much as a play about an extra-terrestrial can)?
    I’m hoping that Lazarus will find its’ way down under, but this seems unlikely. Like the Elephant Man before it the play seems something I’m destined to miss out on due to the tyranny of distance.

    • col1234 says:

      tough to say about coherence: if you don’t know the film, and Newton’s character arc in the film, you might be a bit at sea as to what’s happening with him. It might seem like just some random guy who claims he’s a space alien lying around drunk all the time.

      But yes, the storyline is fairly straight, and the worst bits of it, for me, were the occasional clunky attempts to create a narrative: a character will suddenly say “hey, I’m X and this is what I do: isn’t that something?”. not exactly eye-rolling but not great writing either.

      • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

        No danger of me not knowing the film – I must have seen it at least 30 times -haha!

  11. Maj says:

    Well I’m not getting too excited abt this whole project mostly bc. I’ll never be able to see it live but the TV perf next week will be a nice snippet (I hope) …and that will be it until it pops up on DVd or something (still, not quite the same is it).

    Happy for everyone who will be seeing it, hope you’ll all enjoy it. MCH is a great actor, and great to hear he is a really stellar live singer too, Bowie’s music doesn’t deserve anything less.

    And one again, thanks for the review, Chris!

  12. Patrick says:

    I’m finding it hard to imagine what this might be like incorporating Bowie’s songs from the reviews and descriptions so far, other than awkwardly at times, though I haven’t seen a set list or any clips of performances (are there any prior to any official DVD release? What is this TV performance mentioned?)
    Given though that at least two other giants of the 70s, Queen and Abba, had their back catalogue resurrected for often lucrative stage shows, I bet DB has turned down offers in the past , though they could certainly be made to fit a coherent narrative. From the hints here, this is likely the closest we will get to a Bowie Greatest Hits on Stage Tour. Not that his pension fund needed it.

    • col1234 says:

      TV performance is the Colbert late show, this Thurs (Dec 17). Don’t know if other countries get this show, but sure it’ll be on YouTube within minutes of airing.

      There’s a lot of things to say about Lazarus, but it’s not Bowie’s “Mamma Mia” by any stretch of the imagination. He could have sold out much, much easier than via this odd play.

  13. s.t. says:

    I didn’t notice it when I saw Michael C Hall play Hedwig, but his voice in the Lazarus recording sounds more like Mick Ronson than Bowie.

  14. sw says:

    Just came out of Lazarus. Agree with a lot of the above and the Slate review but can I just say: I really enjoyed it? Like, really enjoyed it. Maybe more than I should have? Bits worked better than others, bits were awful, but that’s not unlike just about anything Bowie has been involved with throughout his entire career. It was also beautiful, strange, entertaining, it’s a glass of theatrical gin for a Bowieholic–you may hiss at the burn in a few places, but it still warms your soul.

    (Part of me, however, would love to have seen it as the type of person who would never read Pushing Ahead of the Dame: what would it be like to experience this show without knowing the film, with only a passing memory of the music, no immersion in Bowie’s moods and themes, barely aware of his affection for conspiracies and collaborations and for fashion and mime, ignorant of his addled cynicism and even more addled romanticism? Would it be like going to some sort of High School Musical primer on Bowie, put on at a school with a surprisingly high production budget, directed by their very own Max Fischer?) One last thing: the first time I heard two new Bowie songs was when Michael C Hall sang them right in front of me. That’s not a sentence I ever thought I would say or write.

  15. poseidonian says:

    I think I had read this already but have now forgotten: what are the other three songs? Were any of them on “Blackstar”?

  16. rainamn says:

    interesting npr article on bowie’s collaboration with Lazarus’ musical director Henry Hey,

  17. Jasmine says:

    It will be fascinating to see what London audiences make of it. I left with a very peculiar feeling that this was almost, almost, auto-biographical. Milk and the red box, are surely clues to that?
    I think this another part of Object.
    Hard to imagine how I’d have processed it last year, probably totally differently. I think there have been changes since NY – no Alan Cumming or Marley backstory for example. (I realise it’s in preview at the moment so I’m looking forward to comparing the 25 Oct performance with 8 Nov).
    Loved it, by the way!

    • steven says:

      Do you know what the Marley backstory was? I saw it last night and was wondering what details were cut.

  18. steven says:

    Saw this in London last night.

    I really loved it, and it’s very evidently a different experience now than it would’ve been in December. It had the atmosphere of a wake.

    The show *seems* to have been streamlined a tad since it debuted, toning down the theatrics around Valentine’s Day and unless i totally zoned out, I didn’t see any sign of video Alan Cummings.

    • col1234 says:

      cutting the Cummings video was a wise move; by far the worst part of the show for me. it didn’t work (though it was interesting—it was basically the Baby Grace scenario of Outside reused again)

      altering Valentine’s seems odd—that by contrast was a highlight, a chilling, charismatic performance

      • somebiscuit says:

        it certainly seems like the Cummings video was unneccessary; I saw the London performance the other day and have no idea how or when it would’ve fit into the show

  19. Stowethelion says:

    I saw this on Nov 8th 2016 in London and reading your review from pre 2016 makes me wonder what you’d have made of it post Bowie death.

    Because I was really struck and loved it. I totally didn’t expect it to be so human, and have that feeling that you get from Bowie songs, that you don’t neccersairly always understand but something in the tone and characters relates to you.

    I also found it impossible not to see the links to DB’s latter years. Some of it seemed on purpose – the business man at the start saying get back in the game, the playing of WAWN marking the turning point.

    But as I said, knowing that DB knew his death was coming during the making, makes it very obvious that it is looking at how to deal with that. The ending is probably faaar more emotional knowing that, than perhaps it was when you were watching.

    But even despite that, themes of loneliness and insanity were what made me feel the most. He is so desperately alone.

    The whole tone and aesthic of the play is perfect, and Hall and Sophia did such a brilliant job. This is not America is for me a better version than Bowie’s. Though No Plan seems to slip past live compared to on record.

    Also have to note that Love Is Lost was for me a huge part of the Valentine characters development, it is so unhinged. Perfect use of the song.

    In NYC did Newton come out 20 mins Ish before the show starts and walk around slowly, and sleep? He did that in London and many didn’t even notice but it really immediately created the lost vibe. Also the London traffic/sirens slotted in like it was background noise perfectly.

    I feel it’s been understand how big a part of the Bowie story this is, it’s a huge part of his ending and final works. I didn’t really understand that until I saw it.

    Sorry for the long post, lots to comment on of course and I just want to melt into that world that was before me. Stepping out into the London streets after was like falling back to earth. (pun intended)

    • Stowethelion says:

      *9th, please forgive typos and be wary of spoilers.

    • col1234 says:

      in re opening: no, that’s a slight change. in NYC, you walked in the theater and Hall was already lying on the floor, motionless. it created an eerie vibe in the room, as everyone’s taking their seat while he’s lying there, corpse-like.

      • col1234 says:

        & yes, my take greatly changed after his death, as I’m sure it did for a lot of people. it’s important i think to note how “private” Laz was—not that many people saw it; there was only one broadcast performance of 1 song; the recordings of performances were crap-sounding audience bootlegs. so yes, I agree it was DB dealing with his death & saying goodbye to his daughter in a semi-public setting, in a way. i will get into this a lot more in the Laz song entries

      • Stowethelion says:

        Interesting. Very emotional when you see the links to his daughter. Beautiful world Bowie helped craft one last time. There were many tears in the audience. Look forward to your entries!

    • Matthew says:

      I’ve just come out of Lazarus and couldn’t agree more with your comments, definitely as big a piece as the blackstar album and made me see some of the later songs in a different light.
      I wasn’t going to go as it would be on my own but very glad I did, to anyone wavering if you get the chance then go, its so much more than a jukebox of old hits. Post DB’s death this has massive emotional power, the opening song slams into you like a truck and left me seriously wondering if I’d make it through the show.
      Afterwards I went to the Brixton mural to sit and find some peace before heading home, how can it still hurt this much?

  20. David says:

    Wouldn’t it be lovely if Todd Haynes finally makes his true Bowie film with an adaptation of Lazarus? Just a thought.

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