David Bowie left this planet to return to the stars two days after his birthday this year, and the music industry lost a legend. But do legends every truly die, especially when they leave behind such a massive body of work and millions of fans who keep their memory alive? Amanda Pelman is making sure Bowie’s legend lives on here in Australia with her tribute show David Bowie – Nothing Has Changed, which comes to Perth in November to the West Australian Symphony Orchestra along with artists like Steve Kilbey, Tim Rogers, Deborah Conway and more. Pelman, a living music industry legend in her own right, talks about how it all came to life after Bowie’s death.
She describes the time between Bowie’s final release and his subsequent passing. “I wasn’t aware of the rumour mill about cancer, so it was a real shock. I think right around Christmas was when we got hold of the new album. My husband [Brian Cadd] is a recording artist so we listen to everything really intently. We were playing it in the car and I remember thinking ‘This is just weird.’ It is very dark and I couldn’t get it. And of course, quite sadly 2 days after his birthday, it made sense.”
The idea to pay tribute to Bowie didn’t come until a few weeks later. “It was probably around the end of January or the first week of February that Mark Sutcliffe, whom I had worked with on Priscilla Queen of the Desert [Pelman was one of the producers on the original stage show], and who had just started his job as the commercial producer for Sydney Symphony, rang and said, ‘What do you think about a Bowie show?’ And to be honest, at first I was a bit skeptic because I thought it was a bit, ‘Oh a tribute show…he just died, is it the right thing to do?’
“But then I said, ‘Look, if we get the right kind of artists and it’s reverential, and it’s not all bells and whistles and exploding fireworks and pictures of him all over the stage, then I think it’s right and I’m happy to proceed.’ And that’s what the show you’ll see looks like,” Pelman says.
She was and is very adamant that it not be a schlocky tribute show, where the artists try to imitate Bowie’s persona, music style and look(s). “I think what each of the artists that I chose brings to it is the total antithesis of being a Bowie rip-off. None of them are trying to perform like Bowie did. They’re doing it in their own way.”
So she began putting it all together by choosing a set of songs that would reflect the whole of Bowie’s career — an incredibly daunting task, presumably. “I whittled the first run of hits down to 40 songs, then chose our musical director and the wonderful Ben Northey as our conductor. We got the songs down to 29, and that’s what you’ll see.”
After the song choices were made, Pelman took on the challenge of choosing which artists would perform in the show. She called on her experience as casting director in musical theatre and says, “I went on instinct. I went back to the core principle of thinking about someone that would sing in the correct range for each of the songs, because every album is so different; you go from the happy, light, fluffy “China Girl,” “Fame,” “Young Americans” to something as serious as “Blackstar.”
“It’s absolutely like the casting process. Somebody like Steve Kilbey from The Church, he’s not just a great rock and roller but he’s also got that stage anger about him, so the songs that I gave him to sing, like “Station to Station,” are really the very gritty, hard-edged rock and roll songs. I used to manage and have known Deborah Conway for many years, and her voice is incredible. She’s just got such a remarkable range, and what she brings to it is really going to surprise a lot of people. iOTA I chose very much for his acting skill. He’s an extraordinary actor. We don’t do costumes, hairdos or makeup or any of that sort of stuff, but he kinda does — but that’s him, it’s not Bowie,” Pelman says.
Sydney Opera House was the testing ground for Nothing Has Changed, with 4 performances over 3 days and nights, and by all accounts it was a huge success. “We probably could have done a bunch more shows if we’d had availability, but it was just fantastic. I was waiting for the audience to say, ‘Oh, but you left out this!’ or ‘you left out that,’ but I’m very grateful we didn’t get any complaints. So thankfully, the 29 that we’ve got pretty much run the gamut of the work.
“Audiences in the Opera House are usually demure, reserved and respectful, so we weren’t quite sure what was going to happen; I don’t want to ruin it and tell you what the end of the show is, but every night they were on their feet jumping and singing,” Pelman says proudly, but then adds, “The ending is a goodbye to him, and you’ve gotta leave people on their feet. So the end is a celebration.”
David Bowie – Nothing Has Changed with WASO celebrates David Bowie over two nights at the Riverside Theatre at the Perth Convention and Exhibition Centre on Nov 10 & 11. For tickets and more information, visit the WASO website here.