The 2015 musical Lazarus, with music and lyrics composed by David Bowie and book by Edna Walsh, would prove to be the late singer’s swan song. It debuted in New York just one month before Bowie’s death at the age of 69 on January 10, 2016.
The musical is inspired by the 1963 novel The Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis. It picks up where the film, starring Bowie as displaced extraterrestrial Thomas Jerome Newton, left off. Critical reception was mixed. The Times called it “pretentious rubbish;” Rolling Stone was more favorable deeming Lazarus “theater at its finest.”
But the show’s bombastic musical numbers, featuring Bowie’s back catalog and several new tracks (“Lazarus”, “No Plan”, “Killing a Little Time”, and “When I Met You”), as well as its otherworldly costumes have made it a fan favorite. Now international productions from London to Amsterdam and, as of last month, Prague are giving the material new life.
Theater Komedie’s Lazarus has seen sell-out crowds since it opened in October. It isn’t difficult to see why. The absurdist tradition in Czech theater and the world of David of Bowie seem meant for one another while the use of English-language subtitles (songs are performed in the original English) gives the adaptation broad appeal.
Lazarus translator Michal Zahálka saw one of the original West End performances directed by Ivo van Hove. He found himself captivated by what he knew straight away was a work of art.
“It was by far the most bizarre show I ever saw in the West End. It ran almost two hours straight without intermission, but the atmosphere was enthralling. A thousand people in the theater and no one made a single noise throughout, there was no applause during the show (even after the best-known hit songs).”
Zahálka translated the text as well as the subtitles for the songs. He faced several cultural and linguistic challenges including how to explain Twinkies to local audiences and making the Cockney rhyming slang of “All the Young Dudes” work in Czech.
“Bowie’s lyrics are essentially modern poetry, where every other line can carry multiple possible meanings. The lyrics go: Freddy’s got spots from ripping off the stars from his face. / Funky little boat race. Given how extravagant Bowie’s images are, I initially thought: ‘Well, why the hell, not a ‘boat race’?’”
He says that actor Michael Vykus, who sings the song in the show dug deeper to discover that the phrase is actually Cockney rhyming slang for “face.” Zahálka says he’s relieved the songs are performed in English.
“Even though I’ve translated song lyrics and musicals (including Jonathan Larson’s Tick, Tick… Boom!), doing a Czech Bowie is something I wouldn’t dare to attempt.” While he says translating Bowie was far more difficult than the dialogues, he calls the book itself an “odd piece of work.”
“It is written like a David Bowie song: whenever you start being fairly sure what’s happening, it deliberately changes direction. In addition to not being entirely comprehensible, there are swift changes between everyday language and the deeper, mystical layers, sometimes bordering on pathos. Finding just the right tone, or rather tones, in Czech was not easy.”
If finding the right words for the actors to say proved difficult, the performers face an even greater challenge when it comes to expressing them. Themes of alienation, loss, and addiction figure into a plot that veers wildly between dystopian sci-fi and Shakespearean tragedy.
Igor Orozovič performs the Newton character, drunk and dying in his apartment; he is offered salvation by a manic-pixie-dream-girl character (Erika Stárková) while his nurse Elly (Nina Horáková) suffers an identity crisis, channeling Poirot Bowie as she belts out “Changes”. Meanwhile, Newton’s alter-ego Valentine, dressed as Thin-White-Duke-era Bowie, goes on a murdering spree.
Anyone who doubts Czech performers can pull off convincing renditions of these beloved juke-box standards will be mistaken. A highlight of the show is Stárková’s pitch-perfect interpretation of “Life on Mars” which channels Bowie acolyte Björk.
Czech news server Lidovky.cz has suggested that the Czech production may even be an improvement on the original. But while Zahálka does believe the Czech cast of Lazarus could hold their own in the van Hove production, he says successfully resurrecting Bowie goes beyond mere acting.
“It is an extremely demanding production that involves loads of people: actors, musicians, designers, director, technicians, sound engineers, etc. It is probably the largest show I’ve ever been a part of.”
He also believes that Bowie’s universal appeal is key to the show’s ongoing worldwide success: “David Bowie’s appeal is universal, regardless of whether you’re Czech or not. The songs have the upper hand. “
Indeed the songs, performed by the cast and a six-piece backing band that appears on stage, translate as a trippy kind of revival, a testament to the power of Bowie’s legacy which transcends time, place, and even language.
Lazarus is currently playing at Komedie through January 31, 2020. At press time, additional dates were being added to accommodate a surge in audience interest. According to a spokesperson from the theater, it will continue to be a part of the Komedie repertoire as long as there is interest.
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