David Bowie’s death has the world mourning the loss of one of rock’s most chameleonic performers. But he was also a versatile stage and screen actor whose big-time theatre career began in Denver starring as John Merrick in a 1980 touring production of The Elephant Man at the Auditorium Theatre.
According to his biography on BowieGoldenYears.Com, Bowie watched a performance of The Elephant Man in San Francisco with with Phillip Anglim in the role he was soon to take over. Bowie had seen the play a couple of times and studied the script for a few months before his rehearsals began in early July.
The role of the ultimate “Broken Man” was notoriously difficult as Merrick’s physical disabilities had to be expressed by the actor. Rehearsals are said to have gone well, with Bowie’s drawing on his training in mime to convey Merrick’s physicality.
Bowie came to Denver two weeks early to rehearse in what is now The Jones Theatre. He debuted in the Auditorium Theatre on July 29, 1980, and performed there through Aug. 3. It was his first attempt at acting on stage in a conventional role. The play was a sellout before it even opened. It grossed $186,466 for the week, making it the biggest box-office attraction for a single week in DCPA history to that point.
Bowie’s opening night in Denver was praised by local and national critics. “Judging from his sensitive projection of this part, Bowie has the chance to achieve legit stardom,” Variety said on Aug. 6, 1980. (In theatre parlance, “legit” is interchangeable with “stage.”) Here is more from that review:
“The acting debut on the American stage of rock singer David Bowie was greeted by a standing ovation in Denver when the singer, noted for his flamboyant musical style, took on the role of physically misshapen John Merrick, the human monster with a liking for culture. Drawing on an early mime background and the resourceful staging of his rock shows, Bowie displays the ability to project a complex character.
“Playing a man too ugly to draw a freak audience, and too human to survive within a distorted body, Bowie shows a mastery of movement and of vocal projection. Bowie takes the stage with authority to create a stirring performance. Vocally, he is both quick and sensitive. In scene after scene he builds poignantly, crying for the chance to become civilized, though he knows he will always be a freak; pleading for a home; though he knows his presence disturbs; and questioning the rules of society; though his well being depends on their acceptance. Judging from his sensitive projection of this part, Bowie has the chance to achieve legit stardom … “
The Denver run was followed by three weeks in Chicago before transferring to a successful three-month run at The Booth Theatre on Broadway.
The real Elephant Man, John Merrick, was born in South London in 1862 and died in 1890 at age 27. He suffered appalling physical disabilities and deformities, due mainly to the medical condition neurofibromatosis. What made him unique was his wit and ability to charm, despite his terrible appearance. The play tells the story of how he was rescued by a compassionate doctor and became quite famous and well-liked in high society.
“David’s hugely innovative interpretation of the role used no make-up or prosthetics. Instead, drawing on his training as a mime artist, he contorted his body into unlikely shapes to give the effect of profound disability. At a dress rehearsal in the Booth Theatre, even the stage hands burst into spontaneous applause at his remarkable performance.”
At the time, Bowie told the Daily Mirror: “It is undoubtedly the biggest single challenge of my career. Going onto Broadway is the fulfillment of a great dream.”
The New York Post called Bowie’s performance “shockingly good”; The New York Daily News “piercing and haunted” and The New York Times “preternaturally wise.”