One of David Bowie’s final works, the musical Lazarus, opened to stellar reviews in late 2015. The story acts as a spiritual sequel to The Man Who Fell to Earth, centering on a stranded alien and his attempts to return to his home planet. However, a new story in GQ reveals that Bowie’s original vision for the production was something more than slightly different.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Cunningham (The Hours) was contacted by Bowie in the early aughts to begin work on a musical. As Cunningham details in the GQ story, the play’s plot was indeed to feature a marooned extraterrestrial, but also focus heavily on “a stockpile of unknown, unrecorded Bob Dylan songs, which had been discovered after Dylan died. David himself would write the hitherto-unknown songs.”
What’s more, Cunningham was instructed to somehow include mariachi music and poet Emma Lazarus, who wrote the poem inscribed inside The State of Liberty, “The New Colossus”. “What, said David, are we to make of a poet taught in few universities, included in few anthologies, but whose work, nevertheless, is more familiar to more people than that of the most exalted and immortal writers?”
The writer and the artistic renaissance man worked on the unfinished project for months, completing about half of the first draft as Bowie began to work on the “gorgeous and also, somehow, ever so slightly menacing” music. When Bowie’s heart problems resurfaced and required surgery, however, work halted and was never picked up again. (Perhaps it’s best a musical about fake unrecorded Dylan songs never came to fruition, as an album of real unrecorded Dylan songs was release by a supergroup called The New Basement Tapes in 2014.) Still, the collaborators kept in sporadic contact.
It wasn’t until 2015 that Cunningham happened to walk by a poster and see that Bowie had finally made Lazarus with writer Enda Walsh. According to him, he “wasn’t upset. 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.” Besides, he got to hold onto the secret of why the title Lazarus was “not clear to anyone but me.”
(Read: David Bowie’s Top 70 Songs)
Cunningham’s story is a warm and intimate portrait of what it was like to know and work with Bowie, and is well worth a full read over at GQ. The Lazarus cast album is streaming now, and its current run at London’s Kings Cross Theatre is set to close on January 22nd. Some of Bowie’s final songs were recently released on an EP celebrating what would have been his 70th birthday.