David Bowie’s Lazarus: His Co-Writer’s Storyby Best Classic Bands Staff
Shortly before he died one year ago today, a new musical called Lazarus, with music and lyrics by David Bowie, opened in New York. Inspired by Walter Tevis’ novel The Man Who Fell to Earth and Bowie’s 1976 film based on the novel, Lazarus was the final project Bowie completed. It received mostly glowing reviews after its premiere, running briefly at the New York Theatre Workshop, directed by Ivo van Hove, and then in London, at the Kings Cross Theatre, last fall. The title song, “Lazarus,” was included on Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, released just before his death, and became Bowie’s first top 40 single in Billboard in nearly three decades. A video of the recording was also quite popular, nominated for three MTV Video Music Awards last year. It currently has more than 40 million views on YouTube.
The origin of Lazarus, however, has always been somewhat murky—until now. In a new, lengthy article in GQ magazine, written by novelist Michael Cunningham and posted online here, it’s revealed that the idea for Lazarus first came to Bowie nearly a decade ago. Cunningham explains in the piece that when he first received a phone call from the rock star, he was skeptical that it was even Bowie. Once he discovered that it really was him, Bowie proposed that they work on a musical together, something having to do with space aliens and fake Bob Dylan songs.
“He was looking to start a new project, a musical,” Cunningham writes. “I’d write the book, he said, and he’d write the music. He didn’t go into detail over the phone, but we made a date for lunch in New York the following week.”
When they met, Bowie revealed his initial concept: “David reluctantly told me that he imagined the musical taking place in the future,” Cunningham recounts in the GQ piece. “The plot would revolve around a stockpile of unknown, unrecorded Bob Dylan songs, which had been discovered after Dylan died. David himself would write the hitherto-unknown songs.”
Related: David Bowie dies, January 10, 2016
Following their first meeting, Cunningham and Bowie began working on a basic sketch of Lazarus. “David proved to be enormously intelligent, to be kind and generous and affectionate,” he writes. “It wasn’t long before I stopped obsessing about the fact that I was writing a musical with David Bowie.”
As the work progressed, though, Bowie became sick: “We were almost halfway through our first draft when David’s heart trouble recurred. This time he needed surgery, immediately. Our musical was put on hold. We never revived it.”
Years passed, and Cunningham assumed that Lazarus had been abandoned. Then, one day, he was walking in New York City and saw a poster advertising the musical. “Oddly enough, I wasn’t upset,” he writes. “Seeing the poster, realizing that David had gone ahead with another writer, was a little like running into a lover from the deep past, on the arm of his new lover, and finding that you ceased to miss him so long ago that you felt nothing but happiness for him. You had, after all, once been happy together, and your parting, while not painless (what parting is?), had left no permanent scars.”
The completed musical, Cunningham reveals, had little in common with the one they’d begun together. The two met again after the opening and talked. Cunningham says that Bowie, then very ill, looked as if he’d aged by 30 years. Bowie died over a month later.
Watch the video of Bowie’s “Lazarus”
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