For a show about an alien in New York, there's an odd familiarity to David Bowie's stage musical Lazarus. "This could just as easily be Melbourne or Sydney," says director Michael Kantor, sketching out the backdrop. "It could be any big city in 2019."
He draws a grid, representing the windows of a modern residential tower. This is not the New York of Sesame Street, with its charming brownstones and local shopkeepers. Instead, lead character Newton – unable to die or return to his home planet – lives in an expensive, but small, apartment with an antiseptically bland interior. Like similar buildings in Docklands or Olympic Park, it appears to have fallen from the sky, unconnected to the landscape it now dominates.
A scene from a video featured in the David Bowie musical Lazarus. All footage was filmed locally by Melbourne director Natasha Pincus.Credit:Joe Armao
Though Lazarus includes well-known Bowie songs (Changes, Heroes, Life on Mars?), it's not a jukebox musical about his life. The script, by Irish playwright Enda Walsh, is inspired by the novel The Man Who Fell to Earth, with music and lyrics by Bowie (who also starred in the book's 1976 film adaptation).
The New York debut of Lazarus, in December 2015, was Bowie's last public appearance before his death from cancer the following month.
"He knew he was dying as he finished it," Kantor says. "It's hard not to read it that way: as a commentary on the redemption and transformation some people need to accept death."
Lazarus film director Natasha Pincus and show director Michael Kantor.Credit:Jim Lee
Typically, Newton's dreams are rendered in black and white and his reality in colour, with blue suggesting stasis and red hinting at change. But this is never clear-cut – and even Newton's belief he's an alien is open to interpretation.
"That doesn't let me off the hook," Kantor says. "I think it's arrogant when directors blame an audience for not 'getting' a show."
Lazarus is Kantor's first collaboration with The Production Company, the not-for-profit theatre group established by Jeanne Pratt in 1998. To keep tickets affordable, producers restrict rehearsals to a fortnight.
Kantor negotiated an extra week to accommodate the video projections from Melbourne director Natasha Pincus.
Michael C Hall (Newton) and Sophia Anne Caruso (Girl) in the New York production of David Bowie’s stage musical, Lazarus.
On a rainy weeknight, in a bar underneath a King Street strip club, Pincus is wrangling dozens of extras for her "red disco" shoot. It's a sweaty, heaving mass; boys in flannel and girls in tight jeans dancing to mid-'70s Bowie and early Madonna. Pincus directs the camera operator to weave through the crowd with a tiny hand-held camera.
"I want the audience to feel like they're another person at a really good party," she says.
Before she became a filmmaker, Pincus was a molecular microbiologist, then a lawyer. Her video for Gotye's Somebody That I Used to Know – a stop-motion masterpiece – has been viewed more than 1.2 billion times on YouTube.
"Lazarus, for me, is a real blend of science and art," she says. "It's very cerebral but it's also like a living contemporary art piece."
Though her videos propel the narrative, they're not dialogue-driven vignettes or traditional music clips.
"I've put a couple of 'easter eggs' in there for fans but I haven't referenced Bowie explicitly," she says. "I had a huge amount of creative control, so it'll be a completely new experience of the show."
Lazarus opens May 18 at Arts Centre Melbourne. Tickets: theproductioncompany.com.au/lazarus
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