A PRODUCTION dedicated to David Bowie’s most iconic album at Brisbane’s MELT festival will take a markedly sombre but no less celebratory tone following the untimely death of the music and cultural icon.
Despite being a work over a decade in the making, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust by Brisbane music scene heavyweight James Lees has the dubious honour of now being one of the first David Bowie tribute shows.
“[The whole crew were] totally blindsided and just overwhelmed with the shock of it,” Lees told the Star Observer.
“And then to see the avalanche begin on social media, in the newspapers, on television and the feeling of being engulfed by that.
“Then suddenly looking at the Blackstar album and hearing every word differently and every note differently – and it all suddenly makes perfect sense – it is one big and beautiful goodbye letter to the world.”
The timing of the sad news could not have come at a worse time for Lees whose show is only a matter of weeks away. However, having the opportunity to now honour Bowie has given him and the cast a way to do Ziggy proud.
“Through all this, I started to realise the ramifications for our show, for my band and singers and also for our audience,” Lees said.
“Our Ziggy Stardust show has now turned into a tribute to Bowie himself and an opportunity for people to come together to grieve, celebrate and say goodbye to him.
“As producer and director of the show, I am taking the responsibility of this with the utmost care, respect and deep thought. The tone is certainly going to be different – how can it not be? But it is all about celebrating this great artist and also what he and his work has meant to so many of us, and that runs very, very deep for a lot of people.
“I am one of these people and so are we all in the show – so it’s really going to be about celebrating our shared experience, love and total respect for what he has meant to us all as musicians, artists and people.”
Performing the album in its entirety, including a few extra Bowie classics, will be eight renowned singers accompanied by Lees’ band and Brisbane alternative music royalty Silver Sircus.
Lees believes no one has quite pulled off a great queer interpretation.
“Back in 2003 when we presented the first Ziggy for Pride Festival I wasn’t really aware of whether Bowie had been represented specifically in a queer arts context and 13 years later in 2016, I think this is still a rare thing,” he told the Star Observer.
“Another unique thing about the show comes down to the people in it – these are major Bowie fans we have here. When we did the show a decade ago we were already still in love with a 30-year-old masterpiece. In 2016, the work has matured beautifully.”
Lees also said the show is “less a tribute and more of a re-imagining” of Bowie’s music.
Comprising the vocal talents of Brett Harris, Lucinda Shaw, Daniel Hack, Sandro Colarelli, Tim Steward, Emma Dean, Alison St Ledger and Sahara Beck, the story of Ziggy’s visit to Earth and his observations of humanity continue to strike a chord with modern audiences.
“I think [the album’s longevity and popularity] comes down to two very simple things,” Lees said.
“Incredibly good songwriting and the complex and universal themes… the world is a lot different than it was in 1972 but us Earthlings are still pretty much built and wired the same way.
“The songs on Ziggy are all broadly about being human – from an alien perspective – and how to resolve that, how to make it work, what does it mean?”
Lees said Bowie’s creation has long been held up as a genderless and sexually ambiguous queer icon.
“Bowie became a well-known queer trailblazer when he burst onto UK TV screens on Top Of The Pops in 1972, fully decked out in Ziggy gear and put his arm around Mick Ronson,” he said.
“A nation collectively gasped and clutched their pearls but the kids noticed and a whole generation will tell you what an important moment that was. Through Ziggy, he played boldly with gender and sexual identity in his public appearances, statements and songs.
“Placing Ziggy into the context of a [Brisbane MELT] festival gives us all an opportunity to celebrate and reflect on this great legacy and also remember that queer sensibilities and gender/sexuality fluidity were not invented in the mid-90s. More broadly it’s also a celebration of some great music loved by queer and straight audiences alike.”
Such is the popularity and craving for Ziggy from the LGBTI community, Lees’ show has had to announce a second show during MELT to cope with demand.
“Our band and singers have an enormous shared passion for Bowie, as well as for working with each other – we are a family and our love for each other, our respect for each other’s original work and our total excitement at getting to play this music is going to explode from the stage to the audience,” Lees said.
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