The first time that Cristin Milioti sang for David Bowie, she had no idea he was even listening.
“I don’t see very well and I wasn’t wearing my glasses, and I saw that there was someone in the room, but I couldn’t make out his face,” Milioti, who stars in Lazarus, a new play created and scored by Bowie, says. And she thinks it was the best possible way to break the ice with the icon. “All the times after that,” she notes, “I never was nervous.”
She’s had plenty of chances to be. Since Lazarus opened in December, the experimental show’s played to sold-out crowds at Manhattan’s New York Theatre Workshop and has been the subject of international attention, thanks not only to the Bowie connection—in addition to conceiving the show, he lent a number of new and classic songs—but also the power of the show itself, directed by Ivo van Hove and starring Milioti and Michael C. Hall. The reception can’t be too surprising for Milioti, considering how quickly she herself climbed aboard the project.
“I jumped in blind because of the people involved,” she explains. “I got a call back in May or June; I had worked with Ivo before and with [writer] Enda Walsh before, and they called asking would you like to be a part of this and I talked with them for a little bit and then just leaped in.”
It was quite a jump. In Lazarus, which runs through January 20, Milioti plays Elly, a woman working as an assistant to Hall’s Thomas Newton—the character Bowie himself played in the 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth—who finds herself mysteriously turning into Newton’s long-lost love as her own marriage unravels. While the show doesn’t adhere too strongly to a narrative arc, Elly’s collapse is plainly spelled out.
“I like that she’s all ragged edges,” Milioti notes. “She says, ‘I’ve only ever been raggedy with my life,’ and I enjoyed playing people who are flawed and struggling. I don’t want to play the likeable girl next door. There’s no fun there.”
Her interest in the character’s edges has seemingly paid off. “She dared to show us the dark voyage Elly is making in Lazarus, a journey into the darker sides of this very mundane character,” van Hove, her director, notes. “[At] center is her interpretation, musically and theatrically, of the iconic song ‘Changes.’ I will remember for the rest of my life that Mr. Bowie’s comment after seeing her performance of his song: ” I am very happy I wrote this song.” The ultimate compliment for Cristin’s performance.”
Indeed, it’s the chance to sing reworked versions of so many classics that holds part of the role’s appeal for the actress, who won a Tony Award and was nominated for a Grammy Award thanks to her role in Once. “I love the arrangements of the songs, it makes them new all over again and supplies more to the play,” she says. “I’m always so excited to sing ‘Changes,’ and to have it rearranged in that way to make it my own is the most exciting thing in the world.”
That doesn’t mean it’s the easiest. Over the course of Lazarus’ two hours, Milioti and her cohorts find themselves running, leaping and, yes, singing to the point that one could consider appearing in the show exercise. (“It is a great workout,” she notes.) But Milioti’s quick to note that she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We are all exhausted and worked ourselves to the bone for the show, but I don’t want to be anywhere else every night,” she says. “It’s an incredible group of people and it’s incredible, exciting material. There is nothing like it, and that’s extremely exciting to be a part of. So, of course I will hate to leave that behind, but that’s what’s beautiful about these short moments in time: you leave still loving something very fiercely. I will absolutely be so sad when this is done.”