By Kathy Marks
When German-Dutch cabaret artist Sven Ratzke dreamt up his show, Starman, inspired by the life and music of David Bowie, he never imagined that the legendary pop star’s death would be announced while he was touring the show.
On hearing the news, “I was like ‘no, this can’t be’,” recalls Ratzke.
“He had just published Blackstar (his last album), and people thought he was still very healthy and active. You felt that he’s always there for everybody.”
Starman, which Ratzke brought to the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, is not a tribute show, though, he stresses.
A mix of original material and reinterpreted Bowie songs, interspersed with stories loosely based on his own and Bowie’s lives, it is a “theatrical rock show” spiced with fantasy and hallucination.
In his hands, the classic track Heroes, for instance, becomes a haunting ballad.
He and his band performed it on Dutch TV following Bowie’s death.
It always “moves a lot of people … It’s such a strong, universal song”, he says.
One of Europe’s biggest cabaret stars, the flamboyant Ratzke made his Australian debut at the 2014 Cabaret Festival with his critically acclaimed Diva’s, based on Shirley Bassey, Nina Simone and other great 1960s female singers.
Starman, which premiered in Berlin in October 2014, has received rave reviews. Ratzke, who had planned to invite Bowie to see it in New York, believes he “would have loved the show, because it’s so inventive and it uses puzzle pieces like his music and the history to create something new”.
Although “never a major fan”, Ratzke was fascinated by Bowie’s different personas, his “constant search for identity” and his journey from London to New York and Berlin. He likens his songs to “little three-minute movie clips or theatre plays”, comparing him to the German playwright Bertolt Brecht and the Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel.
And he says that the “inventor of modern pop music” inspired many artists, including him, to “take risks”.
During Starman, Ratzke relates a story about standing in Central Park and looking up at the stars. “And I say, ‘you know, we are made of stardust, so these stars could be all these people who inspired us, like John Lennon and Andy Warhol and Lou Reed – and now David Bowie’s among them’.”
“It’s a really moving moment, I can feel that in the room. Because Bowie was like a hero for people, I guess.”