In San Francisco Bowie watched a performance
of The Elephant Man 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 then rehearsals for the role began in early
July. The role was notoriously difficult as Merrick's
physical disabilities had to be expressed by the actor. Rehearsals
went well with Bowie's drawing on his training in mime to convey Merrick's physicality.
29 July - 3 August 1980
The Elephant Man opened at the Denver Centre of Performing
Arts for a weeklong run with Bowie in the role of John Merrick.
This was his first attempt at acting on stage in a conventional
The play was a sellout from the start,
in its first week grossing $186,466, making it the biggest box-office
attraction in the entire 38-year history of the Denver Centre of
Bowie's opening night in Denver was reported
in Variety (6 August):
"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 civilised, 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 … "
Richmond Crinkley, Elizabeth McCann, Nelle Nugent's
presentation of a drama in two acts by Bernard Pomerance
Staged by Jack Hofsiss
Setting: David Jenkins
Costumes: Julie Weis
Lighting: Beverly Emmons
Ken Ruta: Frederick Treves, Belgian Policeman
David Bowie: John Merrick
Richard Neilson: Carr Gomm, Conductor
Thomas Toner: Ross, Bishop, Walsham How, Snork
Dennis Lipscomb: Pinhead Manager, London Policeman, Will, Lord John
Jeannette Landis: Streetwalker, Pinhead, Miss Sandwich, Princess Alexandra
Concetta Tomei: Mrs Kendal, Pinhead
Thomas Apple: Orderly
David Heiss: Cellist
(The American National Theatre and Academy Production)
5 August 1980 - 31 August 1980
During the three weeks of the Chicago run, Bowie sees a Roy Orbison concert. Orbison later attends the play.
Signing autographs in Chicago
1 September 1980
Rehearsals for the Broadway run of The Elephant Man with a new cast.
3 September 1980
Good Morning America interview with Bowie broadcast on ABC live at 7.30am.
Q. An awful lot of performers talk about how difficult it is to deal with what the public sees them as, and do you think you're alike, do you have a problem with that because you've been so many different people?
Bowie: Not really because I don't circulate in places where there's much public…
Q. You're a private person?
Bowie: It's not that as much as that I prefer travelling than sticking in cities where you're sort of immersed in the rock 'n' roll circus. So I end up in Africa or Germany or Japan.. Mombassa, Berlin and Kyoto are my main ports of call.
Q. Opening night, do you get jitters, I mean, I'm wondering about the play, but even in your concerts, are you a little nervous before you go on?
Bowie: Yes. I don't like riding in on a concert in too relaxed a state.
Q. You like to have the adrenalin flowing then?
Bowie: Yes, very much so.
Q. How about Elephant Man, did you have many jitters opening night?
Bowie: Yes, I was petrified. I didn't know what was going to happen, but once I got on stage, the supporting cast were just truly wonderful.
6 September 1980
Interview by Robert Hilburn published in New York Times.
Bowie: There is discipline involved in both rock and straight theatre, but it's a different kind of discipline. The strange thing for me was to take one character and play him with an emotional chronology from beginning to end, knowing the emotional and psychological steps he was going to take in a two-hour period. In concert, I play with the characters and evoke different kinds of emotional drive anytime I wish.
I knew after the first night that I was credible. I felt, 'Yes, I was John Merrick tonight.' That made me happy and I thought, it's a continual process. It may be imperceptible to some people, but I do find something new every night.
13 September 1980
The Future Isn't What It Used To Be, an interview with Bowie conducted in Chicago in August by Angus MacKinnon, published in NME.
David, sitting in his Blackstone Theatre dressing room, explained: 'The thing is, you see, that - well, the reason why I haven't given any interviews in recent years is simply because I've become, I think, very private. Also to be honest, I really don't think I've got that much to say. But why don't we just start and see how it goes?'
AM: Did you know anything about the Elephant Man himself before you saw the play?
DB: Sure. A lot of those strange freak stories appealed to me in my teens and then stayed with me - everything from hairy women to people with fifteen lips. I read all that stuff avidly and, of course, I did my homework on Merrick.
AM: It must have been a rather unsettling experience for you. The last time you encountered audiences as closely as you do here must have been back in the Ziggy days.
DB: Yes, it makes one suddenly very aware of how one's body and one's facial expressions function. It's - you do feel you're being scrutinised to an unbearable extent. It's not that pleasurable, actually.
But I think that was the first thing I had to fight. After we'd finished rehearsals and opened in Denver I was furious with myself on the first night that the thing that was preoccupying me during the performance was how people were adjusting or relating to my body movements and that I hadn't been considering the character at all. It took a good week to shake that feeling off and become interested and involved onstage with Merrick.