Spending a Final Friday Night With David Bowie’s Fans at Lazarus

Fans attend a showing of the David Bowie musical Lazarus on January 12, 2016 in New York City. Photo: Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

The play wasn’t starting for another half-hour, and already someone was crying.

The New York Theatre Workshop’s downtown audience isn’t prone to exuberant emotional displays — leave that to Broadway — but this was the last Friday night of the short run of Lazarus, a sideways jukebox sequel to the 1976 David Bowie vehicle The Man Who Fell to Earth, and the mercurial superstar hadn’t been dead a week. Bunches of deli flowers were jammed into the theater’s backlit sign; on the ground below was a makeshift shrine of bouquets, candles, photos, and a faux-bronze bust of the artist circa Nicolas Roeg’s cult film.

“He was someone who was just free, so free,” said Sheila Bandyopadhyay, an acting teacher who was choking back tears. She wore a black coat with a broad collar and quilted sleeves and liquefying blue eye shadow, and she’d just run into Jenny Slattery, her best friend from high school, whom she hadn’t seen in more than a decade. Sheila had found out about Bowie’s death via cryptic texts from friends. “Thinking about you,” someone had written. Her plus-one for tonight had then texted, “Can you get a bereavement day?” And she just knew. Four days later, here she was talking to Slattery, who happened to be seeing Lazarus on the same night. “It turns out we’re also sitting next to each other,” Sheila said. “So, I just— " she turned to Slattery, "I just miss you!” She took a breath.

Bowie might have appreciated the cosmic coincidence. Lazarus, the tale of a stranded alien who can’t die, bears the name of a dead man resurrected. Along with Bowie’s final album, Blackstar — released on Bowie’s 69th birthday, two days before his death from cancer — it feels inevitably like the artist’s last will or, if you like, his first message from beyond. Lazarus sold out within hours in October, leading quickly to an as-quickly-sold-out extension. After Bowie died, tickets were being scalped for four figures; a final benefit show on Wednesday costs up to $2,500 per head. There was talk of a Broadway transfer.

Friday’s cancellation line was a dozen souls deep. Right up front was King Tommy Au-Yeung, a massage therapist wearing a long ponytail, a black headband, a fuzzy black flower, a sequined black jacket, and a sepia Bowie T-shirt. He’d already seen Lazarus the night after its official opening, but now he said, “I want to experience what we still have [one more time]." A member of Bowie’s “secret” Facebook fan site, he’d found out about Bowie’s death on Monday at 1:45 a.m., three minutes after it was posted.

Tommy has “at least a dozen” Bowie shirts, one of them a women’s large (bought as an act of gender defiance). He’s been to Bowie concerts, TV tapings, Tibet House benefit shows. What hooked him, as a child, were the MTV videos. “China Girl,” a piece of Sinophilia that felt mildly offensive even in the '80s, struck Tommy as a revelation. “I was like, ‘Wow, there’s an Asian person on TV, and it’s not kung fu–related.’” Now he was pulling out another pop artifact, a CD booklet of Blackstar, and parsing the lyrics. “I’ve only just started to analyze it,” he said. “I’m sorry, there’s just so much to say about Bowie.”

A smattering of Bowie shirts aside, the diehards in the theater weren’t as easy to identify as Tommy. One seat neighbor, a sharply dressed 60-ish man, turned out to have caught every Bowie tour since 1976, and spent two weeks following the epic Serious Moonlight tour around Europe. There was also a mother-and-son team, Eileen and Andrew Petrilak. She lives upstate; he goes to NYU. Andrew, in a crenelated black shirt and sky-high black platform boots, had Bowie’s chiseled cheeks and blond swoosh of locks. “I think my generation really loves David Bowie’s style,” Andrew said.

Eileen had screened Labyrinth for him when he was 10, around the time of Bowie’s last public tour. She’d been to only one show: 1987’s Glass Spider tour at the Meadowlands. When they bought Lazarus tickets last month, she’d wondered if she might spot him again: “’I thought, Oh, he might come, and now I think he will be there, but in a different sense.’” After the show, they reported “bawling horrendously,” but at different moments — “Changes” for him, “Heroes” for her. It was the closest thing to a comeback tour.

After the curtain call, the crowd dispersed almost as quickly as any other Off Broadway audience. Hugh Jackman sneaked quietly out, having sneaked quietly in. Others discussed the show’s spacey oddities and Ivo van Hove’s brilliant staging and debated just how Bowie the whole thing was. “I think anything would feel like part of his canon because he was such a chameleon,” concluded a friend of the band.

One of the last lingerers was the 14-year-old star Sophia Anne Caruso, whose role in Lazarus suits both her voice and her sylphlike aura — angelic, fragile, slightly spooky. She didn’t really want to talk about the spirit haunting the show, or the sidewalk shrine that commemorates it. “I try not to look at it too much,” she said. “I had to stay strong.” Then she stole a sidelong glance and gasped. “Hey, somebody took the head!” The Bowie bust was gone. But her mother reassured her: A stage manager takes it in every night. It would be back tomorrow for the next performance, and for the six shows after that.