Mike McLeish interviews James Lees

The buzz surrounding an epic tribute to David Bowie had already reached the ears of our Artistic Director Mike McLeish before programming for this year’s festival had begun. There were whispers of free-flowing joyous tears in the audience; an experience that was at once cathartic, spellbinding and – oh so essentially – musically brilliant.

And then David Bowie died.

Mike found out more from Producer and Musical Director, James Lees.

Mike: It must've felt like a seismic shift after Bowie's death. Did you make any deliberate changes to the established show in the wake of such tragic news?

James: We were just three weeks away from our shows in February when we got the news, and it was so devastating. We are all HUGE Bowie fans so even had we not been in the midst of his performing his music it still would've been so shocking and sad.

To be in the position of about to present the show made it much more intense but I decided two things really quickly... A) The Show Must Go On, and B) We were now in an extraordinary position to not only celebrate the Ziggy phenomenon but Bowie himself, and what a total honour and privilege it is to do this.

We did make a couple of adjustments to the show to acknowledge this broader context, but I cannot say what these are – there are several non-Ziggy songs in the second half, which I call the 'Ziggy Universe' and this is where the changes were made (and the word 'changes' is NOT a hint). One of the rules of our show is that we don't reveal who is singing what and what songs we have selected – we like a little bit of mystery!

Mike: With a 10-piece band and 8 vocalists, the scale of the show is grand. How do you strive to maintain that crucial connection between so many people sharing the stage together show after show?

James: The connection between us all is very strong and maintains itself. This is a group of people coming together from many different areas of the Brisbane music scene that would not normally be sharing a stage together. There is a huge amount of excitement from everyone – it feels incredibly special when we are all in the room or on stage together. It's like we've formed one incredibly large band... now all I need is a very large bus!

Curtain call photo by Lachlan Douglas

Curtain call photo by Lachlan Douglas

Mike: You must have always felt a weight of responsibility performing this show, but particularly now that you surely have audience members attending as a form of therapy for their grief. Do you allow yourselves to be led in different emotional directions during the show by your audience's different reactions from night to night?

James: The weight of responsibility is something I took very seriously as the director and producer of this show. For our February shows, all eyes were upon us in Brisbane and we knew it was going to be an audience like no other, with incredibly high expectations. We needed to present ourselves with honour, respect, love and with a huge amount of connection and engagement – not just for the audience, but for the music, for Bowie himself, and also for our shared love and understanding. This feeling was electric, especially in our first show. I heard reports of entire rows of people crying during certain songs and speechless people leaving after the show – all in a good way though! It was very important to me to play the show of our life and I think we achieved that. We're bringing exactly the same level of intensity to Melbourne too.

Mike: The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars is undoubtedly one of Bowie's most iconic albums, and it is a rare treat for audiences to experience such an album performed in its entirety. But how the hell did you choose what to play for the second act, when you explore Bowie's vast and eclectic catalogue? Did you all vote for your favourites? Did you host Fight Club style parties where the victors got to choose their personal Bowie highlights to include on the set list? Does it change from show to show? (All of these questions still count as just one question, because I'm the artistic director and I say so.)

James: It is certainly one of Bowie's most iconic, amongst several that I think you could attach that word too. But Ziggy is just so complete, and also heralded his breakthrough onto the world stage. He had some success prior to this but with Ziggy, he ARRIVED. And a lot of people took notice of this sound he was making that had never been heard before. It's still all there, entwined in every song and every lyric, actual magic. Our second act is made up of songs from what I call the Ziggy Universe – songs from the 1969-1973 era. There are so many to choose from and a great many that Bowie himself regularly performed on the Ziggy world tours of 72-73. As director, I'm looking for songs that have a thread connecting them to the Ziggy world and there are a great many there to choose from... Space Oddity, Life On Mars? and John, I'm Only Dancing to name just a few. Happily, we did not have to resort to a Fight Club evening or any sort of Bowie election as I chose all the songs myself – coz I'm the director of the show and I say so... fortunately all of my choices were received very favourable by the group.

Mike: How do you think you'll feel when you know it's time to put this show to bed?

James: It will truly be the end of a mini-era for us – in fact for the second time, as quite a few of us were involved in the first iteration of the show back in 2003/2004 when we presented it, in a different form, for Brisbane Pride Festival and then for Brisbane Cabaret Festival. Our just announced second show in Melbourne, is currently our last hurrah and we'll be treating it as such. Perhaps there is every chance we will return to it at some point in the future, but who can say what that future will hold... which are big parts of what Ziggy, and in fact Bowie as an artist, are all about. 

Due to popular demand, a second performance of The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars has been added at 9.30pm on Wednesday 15 June. Book here.