Zig Brother: When David Bowie Tried to Turn George Orwell’s 1984 Into a Musical
The track list for David Bowie’s 1974 album Diamond Dogs offers a couple obvious clues about one source of inspiration: song titles include both “1984” and “Big Brother.” But Bowie didn’t just want to use themes from George Orwell’s 1984 on the record. As Open Culture reports, he initially hoped to turn the 1949 dystopian classic into a full-fledged musical of its own.
What form that musical was ultimately meant to take isn’t totally clear. According to Christopher Sandford’s biography Bowie: Loving the Alien, the adaptation would've been “a West End musical, with an accompanying album and film.” But in a Rolling Stone interview with William S. Burroughs from February 1974—just months before the release of Diamond Dogs—Bowie himself mentioned he was “doing Orwell’s 1984 on television.” It’s possible the project went through several iterations when the “Space Oddity” singer was still brainstorming it. But thanks to Orwell’s widow, Sonia (believed to be the basis for 1984's Julia), the musical never progressed past the incubation stage.
“My office approached Mrs. Orwell, because I said, ‘Office, I want to do 1984 as a musical, go get me the rights,’” Bowie explained in 1993, according to David Buckley’s Strange Fascination: David Bowie, the Definitive Story. “And they duly trooped off to see Mrs. Orwell, who in so many words said, ‘You’ve got to be out of your gourd, do you think I’m turning this over to that as a musical?’ So, they came back and said, ‘Sorry, David, you can’t write it.’” Since Bowie had already started “putting bits of it down” in the studio, the surprise rejection forced him to pivot quickly. His ill-fated musical became a concept album with Orwellian overtones.
Though Sonia Orwell passed away in 1980, Bowie never resurrected his original plans for her husband’s harrowing tale. But in January 2020, producers at Australia’s New Theatre did stage a 1984 musical that Sonia surely would have disapproved of. The production was described as a “light-hearted comedy” featuring “tap-dancing in torture chambers, rats with razzle-dazzle, [and] Big Brother with even bigger star power.”
[h/t Open Culture]