Everything You Need to Know About David Bowie's 'Lazarus' Musical & Cast Recording

Jimmy King
David Bowie

Go inside the Starman’s swansong musical and the cast recording -- featuring new original music from Bowie himself.

On Jan. 10, 2016, the music world lost one of its most enduring and talented icons, David Bowie. For over five decades, he was among the most innovative voices in music, as he made, remade (and remade and remade and remade) his image in a constant transformation, from his beginnings as Bowie the Young Folk Singer to the the interplanetary glam rocker Ziggy Stardust, the elegant and mysterious Thin White Duke, and beyond. 

Bowie left us a sterling collection of albums, selling over 140 million LPs worldwide during his career, and he didn’t stop creating until right before his death. Two days before his passing (and on his 69th birthday), his last official album, the jazzy and experimental Blackstar, arrived with an eerie single, “Lazarus.” Its video and lyrics, his longtime collaborator Tony Visconti has said, were to be his own epitaph: “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” he sings to open the tune. Lazarus also doubled as the title of an off-Broadway play he’d been working on simultaneously in secret.

The play ran in New York City for six weeks last winter, but the songs weren't available to anyone other than the lucky few to see the live performances -- until now. On Friday (Oct. 21) Columbia Records released the double-disc Lazarus cast album. Here’s everything you need to know about it.

There’s New Music:

Lazarus features three previously-unheard tracks -- “No Plan," "Killing a Little Time," and "When I Met You" -- originally recorded during sessions for Blackstar, and with the same crack jazz group led by saxophonist Donny McCaslin. The tunes appeared in the musical Lazarus, as performed by the cast, but the second disc of the Lazarus cast album features Bowie's own renditions, all produced by Visconti.

The Musical Adaptations:

When Bowie started planning the play Lazarus in late 2014, he reached out to pianist/producer Henry Hey, who he’d worked with on his 2013 LP The Next Day. Bowie wanted to use songs from across his career, not focusing on just the big hits, and have Hey adapt them for the stage. Irish playwright Enda Walsh, who worked with Bowie on the script, helped pick the tunes and Hey got to work transforming Bowie’s songs for the stage. He’d email Bowie the transformed material, and the two would meet to discuss and refine. The songs are totally reimagined, dialed up for theatrical bombast with heavy electric guitars and operatic singing. “All the Young Dudes” is a swinging show-tune with horns that Sinatra would appreciate; "The Man Who Sold The World” is a trippy electronic voyage; and “Killing a Little Time,” sung by the show’s star Michael C. Hall, is a hard rock blaster with searing riffs and operatic wailing.

The Recording Process:

While Bowie, Visconti, and the band tracked Blackstar (and its newly-released extras) in secret at New York City’s Magic Shop studio in early 2015, the cast had a much different experience. Early in the morning on Jan. 11, 2016, the cast -- which had spent months working with Bowie and even celebrated opening night together just weeks earlier -- were summoned to NYC’s Avatar Studios. There they were told the news of Bowie’s death. Most had no idea he was even ill. It was with this lingering shock and emotion that the cast, who had a single day to record all of the material, got to work with a seven-piece house band assembled by Hey. The grief is palpable and the performances are strong and moving, especially Cristin Milioti’s tender delivery of the piano-driven “Changes.”

Opening Night:

Lazarus opened Dec. 7, 2015, at New York City’s Theatre Workshop to rave reviews. Tickets to the entire six-week run of the musical sold out within hours. He joined the cast onstage for a curtain call bow. It was Bowie’s final public appearance.

You Can Still See the Play:

While Lazarus wrapped its sold-out six-week run in New York City early this year, it continues across the pond, in Bowie’s native London, on Oct. 25 at King’s Cross Theatre, with dates scheduled through Jan. 21, 2017. 

The Plot:

To write and produce the storyline for Lazarus, Bowie teamed with Walsh and Belgian avant-garde director Ivo van Hove. Bowie wanted a semi-autobiographical musical that was a sequel of sorts to The Man Who Fell to Earth, the 1976 film adaptation of Walter Tevis’ novel that Bowie starred in. For years he had wanted to return to the storyline. Bowie wanted to use select songs from his catalog, including hits “Life on Mars," “Changes,” and "Heroes," alongside deeper cuts and new material, and return to where the film’s main character is left off. In the 1976 film adaptation of The Man Who Fell To Earth, Bowie played Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien who travels to earth in search of water for his dying planet. He starts a successful business and gets rich, then uses the cash to build a spaceship to collect and transport water to his home planet. But there are hang-ups: He’s arrested and after years in captivity, he's eventually freed. But now he’s a lonely alcoholic. 

In the two-hour-long play Lazarus, we reconnect with Newton, now played Michael C. Hall, who is depressed, guzzling gin, eating Twinkies, and is unable to leave for home or even die. He’s tormented by visions of his past and the audience witnesses his relationships with a past love, Mary Lou; his assistant, Elly (Cristin Milioti), who transforms herself into Mary Lou, losing her own identity; and another girl, played by Sophia Anne Caruso, who even tries to help Newton return to his planet. It’s a trippy, ethereal dreamscape, complete with video projections and flickering TV sets, that closes with figures in black cloaks, a sign of death approaching. Lazarus can be interpreted many ways. But perhaps Bowie was a true Starman, stuck here on earth and struggling with all our earthly pleasures. And now he’s home.

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