I shared a room with David Bowie just once. Well, it was a really big room. He was on the stage of New York’s Booth Theater; I was with my boyfriend somewhere mid-balcony. I was riveted. It was late 1980, and the event was The Elephant Man, Bowie’s brilliant portrayal of John Merrick.
Broadway was a much different place at that time, worlds away from the frenetic, bright lights, high energy crossroads emanating from today’s Times Square. The setting was sparse; but the experience was sublime.
My trip involved train travel from New Haven, accessing the platforms through a tunnel that bypassed the now beautifully-restored Union Station. Tickets and hot dogs were sold by a single trailer leading to the underground, pre-platform tunnel. The trains – a sadly neglected mode of travel at that time – were dingy, with torn seats and cracked windows. Grand Central had yet to be restored, (I had no idea there were stars on the ceiling!). The central area was ringed with plywood enclosures, and the station itself was a haven for street folk seeking shelter from the elements.
The renovation of Times Square had not yet begun. The walk to the theater involved passing by storefronts emblazoned with “XXX” and stepping around people passed out in doorways. The true magic of Broadway could happen only once inside the theater. The journey itself was far from glamorous.
And so it was by the great fortune of having seen a half-column-inch ad in the New York Times, we found our way to what seemed a remarkable opportunity to see David Bowie live. The performance ran for just over three months, from late September 1980 into January 1981.
The Elephant Man was based on the story of Joseph Merrick (renamed John Merrick for the play) whose profound physical deformities brought him sideshow-type notoriety in the late 1800’s. Merrick suffered tumors and bony overgrowths causing him to have a massively distorted head and limbs.
It would seem Merrick’s deformities would play the central role in his characterization in the play, and, much like Beauty’s Beast, theatergoers would see an actor with masterful makeup and prostheses. Just the opposite was true.
Bowie took to the stage with only his skill as an actor to show us the anguish and the heart of the Elephant Man. His portrayal was masterful. Sans costume, we were left to grapple with not the disfigured flesh and bone, but rather the man inside. Bowie met this challenge and took the audience on a profound journey of humanity and the heart. As the show progressed, Bowie made us feel the weight Merrick carried on his shoulders as we mourned for the soul whose longings were so worthy of our compassion.
Over all these years and many trips to the theater since, I am so grateful to have witnessed David Bowie in the Elephant Man. Without glitz, glamour, special effects, or spectacle, Bowie delivered a master class in empathy and compassion, taking us deep inside the heart of man no doubt jailed by a grotesque exterior.
Sometimes I think my head is so big because it so full of dreams. Do you know what happens when dreams cannot get out? [John Merrick]
Whether it was Merrick or Major Tom, Bowie found the window to crawl inside the outsider to expose the compelling, human pieces to his audience. His Elephant Man was no sideshow freak; he was the man, often wearing nothing more than a johnnie coat, who broke our hearts in his yearning for love, happiness, and the simple peace of a good night’s sleep.
Video is difficult to find, but a short clip from the show can be found here.