"To say that you are Nothing makes you free.
A Fool can shape a Kingdom’s destiny."
- Auntie Stardust, to Philanax
A David Bowie Movie Musical
by Jeffrey Whitty.
Jukebox musicals are dangerous. But when done mindfully they can be transcendent, allowing the audience a fresh take on the familiar while introducing unknown corners of a beloved artist’s catalog.
The riches contained in David Bowie's catalog might well inspire several jukebox musicals without a single song overlapping among them.
Here I propose a musical Bowie enchantment whose working title is Changes, which takes place in a science-fiction world where past, present and future co-exist in effortless balance.
It’s a world where we can draw from the over-the-top costumery of the French Restoration (for the hoi polloi) mixed with glam rock (for the outsiders, our heroes in the tale).
Many jukebox musicals fall into the trap of being too "on the nose." When The Beach Boys jukebox show ran on Broadway, at one point a character said, "Oh, here comes Barbara Ann" and twelve hundred eyeballs rolled back at once.
I suggest that we glide over this pitfall by curating the music carefully. We can offer a mix of Bowie's hits and his lesser-known songs from all stages of his career; and for storytelling purposes, I suggest that we avoid the more story-based songs, for they may feel departures from a muscular musical story structure. "Space Oddity" is beloved, but its story is told within the song. Major Tom might well be our Barbara Ann. Also, as our world is a concoction "Young Americans" would be out.
Fortunately, we have riches galore left to draw from. In this first stab I've included "Changes", "Let's Dance", "Heroes", "Boys Keep Swinging", "Criminal World", "Fashion", "Golden Years", "Let's Spend the Night Together", "Rebel Rebel", plus several more lesser-known character songs.
And as I noted earlier: this is but the first Bowie jukebox film. We have room for many more!
… is not specified as Earth, but it might be Earth a hundred years from now, or perhaps today had a butterfly flapped her wings differently a thousand years back.
Our setting is a city called Arcadia and its vicinity. Arcadia is walled, with strict borders designed to protect the upper classes.
The heart of our story lies just outside Arcadia's walls, in a seedy overbuilt shantytown inspired by the Chinese Walled City of Kowloon.
The real-life Walled City was built on a contained real estate parcel. When it ran out of room to spread, it grew vertically to dizzying heights like a towering cake threatening to fall. The Kowloon's Walled City was razed decades ago. But in its prime it was a kingdom unto itself, where poor well-meaning people worked to get by - mixing with dangerous organized crime and assorted unsavory others in its winding, maze-like corridors.
Our Walled City in Changes is a similar world, where the freaks and rejects and outsiders struggle for survival. Its lower floors offer entertainments for tourists and the hoi polloi, among them naughty pursuits forbidden in Arcadia. Its upper stories are dark, often dangerous and full of mystery. Its street level offers gaudy cabarets, houses of prostitution, as well as humble, artisanal clothing stores and art galleries and such. The privileged don't consider that their fashions emerge from inspiration in the Walled City they despise.
Beyond the Walled City is a magnificent Dump where the upper classes deposit truckloads of waste every day. After every deposit, the Dump is overrun with lowly “pickers" who sift through the new arrivals, looking for treasures that they can refurbish, reinvent and resell.
Workers passing from the Walled City into Arcadia are strictly monitored and forbidden to linger when their workday is done. They must pass again through the gates to the Walled City.
In imagining this world of Bohemians and criminals, I draw from New York City in the dangerous, expressive Studio 54 Seventies: where apartments were cheap and walking alone at night was a gamble; a world where social classes mixed and as a result, everybody had a hell of a lot more fun.
Our story begins in a world divided between Inside and Outside, and concerns the manner in which those worlds come to coexist harmoniously ...
... all because of a Fool. Philanax is the hero of our story.
Young Philanax lives in a small hamlet far from Arcadia, where grubby traveling carnivals pass through on occasion. At age ten, Philanax becomes mesmerized by the Carnival (“COME AND BUY MY TOYS”), the gritty world of clowns and freaks and acrobats and dancing dancing girls.
He sneaks in, only to be caught by a clown who teasingly forces him to perform before the assembled crowd. Philanax delivers a show of acrobatics that impresses everyone.
He decides to run away with them. His poverty-stricken parents trade him to the Carnival for some coin beyond his view.
Traveling life is difficult but not without rewards. His bosses are two older SISTERS with passionate Mediterranean demeanors.
Years pass and he grows into a young man. He dreams of wearing the slinky costumes of the painted showgirls and taking the stage; the Sisters don't want to undercut the revenues of ROSALYN, the cheerful hermaphrodite in the Freak show. Rosalyn and the other Freaks advise him to live the cocksure, safer life of a boy ("BOYS COME SWINGING").
He's twenty when the Sisters dare to raise their tents outside of Arcadia’s gates, knowing that the law-and-order King – who keeps the riff-raff contained in the Walled City – might not approve. They hope to boost their profits by attracting the well-to-do.
BASILIUS is King, a widow with a lovelorn daughter, JEANIE, who he keeps like a bird in a cage.
We get a sense of Basilius’s enclosed universe as he struts through the city enjoying his "FAME". His court is populated by preening yes-men. And always nearby is his ancient, joyless anointed Fool, handed down from the previous ruler. The tired Fool phones it in after all these years and makes dismal company.
In court, the King learns of dangers brewing in the Walled City outside: a group of underground revolutionaries grows in size and influence, threatening the rigid structure within the city's walls.
Sensing a threat from the Carnival outside, Basilius orders his police to destroy it and lock up its players to teach them – and any other uppity outsiders - a lesson.
And so the tents are burned; everything is destroyed. The players disperse, running in all directions. Saddest are the freaks, especially those with handicaps who are first to be caught.
A terrified Philanax runs into the Walled City, police hot on his heels. Strangers leer at him menacingly ("CRIMINAL WORLD"). He hides under a pile of garbage. Night descends. On emerging he takes in the Walled City by night: a Carnival unto itself, all broken neon and peeling, once-bright paint - and seductive strangers beckoning from shadowy doorways.
A creepy male sex trafficker comes upon Philanax, offers a joint and attempts to lure him into the winding corridors at the top of the Walled City (“LET'S SPEND THE NIGHT TOGETHER.’) At song's end, a gang emerges, pulling Philanax into the shadows.
He is rescued by a gang of nonbinary toughs, who fight the man off. They pick Philanax up (“GOLDEN YEARS”). They invite him along to a seedy-but-enticing cabaret called The Webb.
The club’s emcee is AUNTIE STARDUST, who performs “ZIGGY STARDUST” as a rocking paean to a lost love. Philanax is dazzled. The crowd is rowdy.
Auntie is a Dorian Corey-style mother figure to the assorted misfits, hookers, addicts and freaks there, some who work at the club and others who are its patrons.