CMA Awards 2018

David Bowie's Collaborators Talk Bringing 'Lazarus' Back to Life In New York

Jimmy King
David Bowie

In Dec. 2015, David Bowie watched the premiere of Lazarus, a play he co-wrote with Enda Walsh. Bowie chose to premiere his latest work, based on Walter Tevis’ novel The Man Who Fell To Earth, at the New York Theatre Workshop, a forward-thinking East Village venue. Far from the glitz of Broadway, Bowie sat in a crowded room off the Bowery – a theater with less than 200 seats – in what was his last known public appearance before his death.

“He didn't want it to be a jukebox musical,” band leader Henry Hey explains. Hey is among the several members of Lazarus who knew Bowie personally and collaborated with him for years. Supported by a team of people who worked closely with Bowie to create the original play, Lazarus is returning to New York City the first time since Bowie’s death, in a one-night performance on May 2 at Kings Theater in Brooklyn.

The new iteration of Lazarus is a screening of a previously filmed London performance accompanied by a live band. Dexter’s Michael C. Hall returns to his leading role, with the original band performing 20 of Bowie’s songs as they were arranged by the artist and Hey. The one night performance boasts a team of Bowie’s peers behind the scenes, who joined the new project in order to preserve the artist’s original vision.

“It's absolutely as he wanted it. It's absolutely as he saw it,” producer Robert Fox said. “What we did in London was an exact replica of what he saw, and what he approved. We wouldn't change that.”

Fox, who has production credits in Hollywood, Broadway and West End, remembers Bowie’s career-spanning interest in Thomas Newton, the main character in The Man Who Fell To Earth. Bowie played Newton in the 1976 film adaptation, and wanted to explore what may have happened to the character 40 years later.

“He gave me a copy of the novel The Man Who Fell to Earth about ten years ago,” Fox told Billboard. “I thought ‘How lovely,’ but I realized when he came back and said that was the character that he wanted the musical to be based upon, that this was more important. Thomas Newton was not just a character he had played in a movie. It was a character that he had an enormous identification with, and liking for, and that's the character he wanted to have this musical written about.”

While Bowie was in London visiting the David Bowie Is exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, he invited Fox to tea and told him he wanted to do a musical. “He told me that it was based on the character from The Man Who Fell to Earth, and it was called Lazarus. He said, ‘That's all I know.’ I said, ‘Well, okay. We'll do it.’”

Fox was instrumental in assembling the team to produce Lazarus. While Bowie was researching playwrights, Fox suggested Irish writer Enda Walsh, who would eventually pen the script around Bowie’s vision: a sequel that sees Newton decades years later, stranded in his Manhattan penthouse, failing to drink away his memories of outer space. “Then I suggested Ivo van Hove to direct it,” Fox recalls, “and he met with Ivo and loved him."

Soon after, Bowie reached out to Hey personally to ask him to assemble a band. This wasn’t their first collaboration. Hey began working with Bowie as a pianist on the 2013 album The Next Day. Remembering Bowie as “encouraging and nourishing” to his fellow artists, Hey was eager to be part of this new iteration of Lazarus if only to remind people what Bowie was like as a person.

“He never, to my knowledge, ever talked in a manner that drew attention to himself,” Hey said. “He was much more interested in watching artists work, and he put trust in people that he was working with. He gave a lot of leeway to people, and that brought out their best.”

Hey and Walsh had full access to Bowie’s catalog to arrange the soundtrack, as well as songs he composed for the play. “Heroes,” “Changes,” and “Life on Mars?” all make an appearance, as well as four songs written specifically for the show: “No Plan,” “Killing a Little Time," “When I Met You,” and “Lazarus,” which would later appear on Bowie’s final album, Black Star.

Given the play’s unique assembly, it’s hard to lump it with other musicals. “It could've been easy for him, or any artist, to say, ‘Well, here's my music. Let's build the play around it,’” Hey says. “He has a vision of this as an art piece where the story was first.”

Broadway is rife with rock stars willing to lend their catalog to a showtune format, and while that style could certainly have brought in an audience, the producers didn’t see that as compliant with Bowie’s intentions.

“I think this is a much more intellectual, challenging statement,” Arthur Fogel, Live Nation President of Global Touring and Chairman of Global Music, said. “In no way am I slagging off Broadway. [But] it’s not a traditional musical. It's very representative, I think, of who David was, and how he approached his art and artistry.”

Fogel is one of the show’s team members that got to see Bowie’s artistry evolve. The pair first began working together to promote the Canadian leg of Serious Moonlight, the album tour for Let’s Dance in 1983. Later, they would work together on the Glass Spider tour in 1987 and several other worldwide promotions. Fogel sees the unusual set up of this production of Lazarus, where a film of the live performance is accompanied with a live band, as a version that accommodates both the audience and Bowie’s wishes.

“I guess, in a certain respect, it's a bit of an experiment. It's not something that's done regularly,” he said. “It's going to be a tremendously unique experience, to get the opportunity to see it in this way.”

In many ways, the upcoming showing of Lazarus is a reunion of artists and producers who knew Bowie personally. Fogel, along with Fox, Hey, and the rest of the team, were eager to work on Lazarus again, not just to revisit the story but to relive their memories of working with the legend.

“I would like people to know that David Bowie really was – far above being an incredible artist and an incredible performer – he was, most importantly, an amazing human being,” Hey said.

As one of Bowie’s last pieces of art, Lazarus reflects how much he invested in the artists around him. David wanted to hear everybody,” Hey said. “He was humble, and he was giving, and he was excited to see what other people would bring to the work.”