The Sunday Times
Michael C Hall and I are comparing notes on all that’s been done in the name of David Bowie since his death in January this year. ‘Did you see the Lady Gaga tribute at the Grammys?', he asks, that familiar eyebrow raised. ‘The BBC Bowie Proms was far, far worse’, I cut in. ‘I swear you could hear him turning in his grave when Amanda Palmer brought her baby on stage'. Luckily Hall missed it all - he was back home in New York. Now he’s in England, having arrived for the Mercury Prize for which Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’ was a contender but not a winner. He performed the track Lazarus, the title of the Broadway musical in which he played the lead. It opens in London next month, which means this city is his home until early next year.
For the moment, Hall is Bowie’s representative on earth. The part of Thomas Newton was his before the audition. He was cast on the back of his roles in the awarding-winning series Six Feet Under and the groundbreaking Dexter rather than Hedwig & the Angry Inch, the Broadway musical about an androgynous glam rocker in which, again, he was the lead. At his Lazarus audition Hall began with ‘Where Are We Now?’, the song that coaxed David Bowie out of exile in 2013. He tells me: ‘Meeting him and singing his songs felt like more than a formality. David didn’t come to see Hedwig. He was aware of my acting, but that was the first time he heard me sing. I did puddle on the floor when he left, for a second’.
Musical theatre has been central to Hall's stage career. His resumé lists Cabaret and Chicago along with Hedwig. But this current venture is a departure; perhaps more akin to the avant garde theatre work of Robert Wilson and Philip Glass. ‘The music doesn’t operate the way in which it does in traditional musical theatre, as much as it isn’t always there to move the story forward. It can be atmospheric, but also provide a counterpoint. I know that David didn’t want to do a jukebox musical and this is the furthest thing from it’. Several songs from Bowie's last two albums feature, along with three previously unreleased tracks, and a surprising collection of re-arranged numbers from the early years.
Of all the Bowie personas Thomas Newton seems an unlikely one to return to. ‘I think he maintained a fascination with the character. That theme of isolation and that interest in that embroidered interior world we all create runs through all his work. So to maintain that he is not quite done with Newton makes sense’. The character was actually the creation of Walter Tevis author of the book that became the film ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’, in which Bowie made his acting debut. The story was inspired by the trauma in the writer’s childhood when he was moved from his family in San Francisco to a children’s home in Kentucky. Transposed to film and fiction it became the lonely travails of an alien landlocked on earth, in the parched landscape of New Mexico. Filming was slap, bang in the mid-1970s when Bowie was at his lowest point with drugs and depression, but equally, scaling the summit both creatively and stylistically. Reviews from the time mention his ‘imperial detachment’ in the role. But was it a great performance or merely a thin white drug-addled rock star going through the motions? ‘Well, I don’t know that those things are mutually exclusive’, says Hall. ‘I think his performance is fascinating. He is disarmingly beautiful and impossible not to watch. I like that he doesn’t take pains to act otherworldly. He doesn’t need to’.
Forty years on the Thomas Newton in Lazarus drinks gin, eats junk food and watches television. Little is revealed of the back story in the intervening years. The orange hair and alabaster skin are absent, even though he doesn’t appear to have aged. According to the script 'he’s a dying man who cannot die', retreating into his internal world and self-imposed exile.
Death is central to the key roles synonymous with Hall: the gay, conservative undertaker David Fisher in Six Feet Under; the celibate, cold but cool forensics expert and serial killer Dexter Morgan. With Newton the fundamental theme is grief - the loss of family, a longing for home. According to Hall the parts he plays tend to be ‘dichotomous’, something that is perhaps true of him as well as Bowie. The latter managed to be both ‘impenetrable and revealing’, he recalls. Hall himself brings a darkness and a humour to the roles. There was a muscularity to his Hedwig that also draws parallels with Bowie. No matter how thick the make-up, or how high the heels, Bowie somehow maintained a trace of blokey straightness.
Unlike him Hall was never in a band. Yet there is a touch of Jagger and David Johansen (a New York Doll) about his features. His vocal owes a debt to a 1970s rock voice, and his look today seated in his publicist’s office in Covent Garden - scuffed boots and scruffy black - is the wardrobe of a rock singer in his forties. He’s reserved rather than guarded; cerebral rather than detached. Perhaps one of those figures that springs to life when inhabiting a part. Or as he puts it, correcting me: ‘Becomes inhabited’. The word ‘repressed’ recurs throughout his conversation.
As Bowie appealed to the loner and queer outsider that some of us were in adolescence, I wonder if this was Hall’s experience (certainly not now as he’s on his third marriage): ‘I think I behaved in ways that were pretty conformist. My dad died when I was eleven. I understood implicity that I needed to take care of my mother. The best way was not to upset her, never cause her to unnecessarily worry about me. So, I kept a lot under lock and key. I’ve certainly found myself working on things that have encouraged me to explore whatever is repressed or shadowy in me and - I’m glad.'
Hall’s father died at 39 of prostate cancer. At 38, Hall himself was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system. He announced that he was fully in remission in 2010. Hall was aware of death early on, as his sister died in infancy before he was born. The trauma of losing his father was ‘a frozen moment’ that he regularly returned to and slowly, gradually pulled himself out of. Trauma and death resonate so much with the characters with which he has become identified that, on meeting him, Bowie asked: ‘What is it with you?’
The day the cast were scheduled to record the Lazarus album was the day that Bowie died. Two days later they were back on stage. 'The recording gave us a chance to get together and actively do something that felt productive that we knew was in sync with his wishes. It was very emotional and surreal. Doing the show was more challenging, realising just how much David’s enthusiasm for this piece had to do with its capacity to be a meditation on mortality and death’.
One of the featured songs is ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, from the eponymous album released in 1971, the year that Michael C Hall was born. So, when did the boy Michael come on board as a Bowie fan, growing up in North Carolina? Turns out, it was the moment that many of us jumped ship: 'Let’s Dance'. ‘That was the album. I saw this dashing blonde, tanned, moody crooner, and went back from there and appreciated all the shape shifting that had occurred. I steeped myself in the Bowie catalogue. I then revisited it a lot when Hedwig was happening. I was listening to Hunky Dory on a loop in my dressing room for a while. There were cut-outs of him all over my dressing-room mirror’.
‘I was listening to Blackstar on the way here’, I say, as we prepare to part. I had been thinking of the lyric from the song ‘Dollar Days’, in which he mentions England. After many years, Bowie made the trip here following the news of his diagnosis, revisiting some of the settings that had been the backdrop to his formative years. Now he’s gone. Blackstar was his swansong; Lazarus the posthumous goodbye, and the fulfillment of an ambition to see his work staged as a musical. His last public appearances was at the opening on Broadway. 'That’s so funny I was thinking of those very same lyrics on the way here too,’ says Michael C Hall. It’s a moment of recognition in which he is suddenly alert, wide-eyed, smiling, emerging from the reserved, thoughtful figure of the last forty minutes. ‘If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to’, he says, quoting. 'It’s nothing to me’.