When an experienced creative team that has never worked on a traditional musical before, and don’t have formal training or traditional breeding in the craft, get together to create a musical—or what will be considered a musical for lack of a more idiosyncratic definition—it’s anybody’s guess if what they’ll come up with will be any good, assuming common tells of disaster are absent. There are too many factors to assess, personal, professional and who-knows. Certainly, if it works, it won’t be on traditional terms, or terms that can be emulated by those who aspire to write musicals in turn, because you can’t emulate the alchemy of chance: the right people in the same room working on material with its own endemic quirkiness. Not in a pejorative way, I call these “freak of nature” musicals, but you might also call them “Act of God” musicals, if you want to be more mystical about it, because lightning does strike.
I have never, though, known it to strike these kinds of artisans twice nor to strike a similar approach twice. It may happen some day, but in the arena of musical theatre, it seems so far that you also can’t replicate the alchemy of chance.
In the case of Lazarus, librettist Enda Walsh—the common link between two quirky shows—is, as he did with Once (which also debuted at the New York Theatre Workshop), basing his work on an idiosyncratic film, 1976’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, directed by Nicholas Roeg (based in turn on the 1963 novel by Walter Tevis). The original story is about Newton, a humanoid alien from another planet which is suffering a terrible drought, who comes to earth to ship water back to his planet; he develops a number of patents for making this happen, becomes a tech mogul and is at length detained by the US government, the delay long enough to insure failure, and a devastated Newton becomes a depressed alcoholic. (The end!) Walsh isn’t quite adapting the story so much as re-imagining it (think reboot). It’s not quite a sequel, but it starts with wealthy Newton (Michael C. Hall) in his high rise apartment as a besotted recluse. With a combination of surreality and flashback and what seems like reality thrown into psychological ambiguity, the libretto reframes the original story within a continuation as Newton’s ultimate dissolution fulfills itself.
The score is by (as I polish this text, the shockingly late) David Bowie, who played Newton in the film. As with Once, some of the songs (in this case most of them) pre-existed, and some are new. The big difference here is that the pre-existing songs were not part of the original property (as with Once), and they’re being used to express inner life and character psyche (in Once, all the songs were acknowledged as songs; however they may have enhanced the action or provided atmosphere and a kind of commentary, they existed outside the narrative; if you removed them, you’d still have a coherent play). No, these are songs from the Bowie catalog, the lyrics are of course not story-specific but impressionistic, and with the script being a kind of impressionistic tone poem, one of three things happens to the viewer—
—s/he totally gets on board and grooves out;
—s/he sort of makes a pact with it;
—s/he checks out and sits there, bored as can be.
Lazarus has engendered all three responses.
The direction is by Belgian avant garde director Ivo Van Hove, and curiously enough, it’s one of his most restrained stagings. Usually he adds the level of surreality to a traditional text. It’s almost as if, here, he thought, This is plenty weird enough without me putting a hat on top of a hat. And so, while he doesn’t shy from the techniques of suggestion (i.e. we never actually leave the confines of Newton’s apartment, but van Hove uses light and space to bring other locales “in,” so to speak), he also doesn’t make things any more abstruse than they already are.
The cast is just fine; three random standouts: Michael C. Hall seems to have lost all the stiffness he used to have as a musical theatre performer (as one of the replacement emcees in the 1st iteration of the Roundabout Cabaret revival), or maybe he just loosens up as a rocker. As the assistant obsessed with him to the point of poisoning her own romantic relationship Cristin Miloti catapults herself into that depressive-freakout-druggie place beyond reason, a trajectory that can only be achieved with a kind of insane fearlessness, which she clearly has. And as the (ghost?) (avatar?) (interplanetary interactive psychic projection?) of the dependent children on Newton’s home planet, tweenage, power-voiced Sophia Anne Caruso creates a compelling and—innocently? intentionally? at any rate unsettlingly—sensual presence (even as no lines of propriety are crossed).
I’m trying to think of a wrap-up to all this and I don’t have one. But I guess that’s because there really isn’t one, or just one. Lazarus is this odd, quicksilver novelty; a lab experiment yielding a number of false positives. You’re not sure what the hell the data’s telling you; all you know for sure is, it doesn’t quite fulfill its own purpose.
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