The later trio of Lazarus songs (which we can now enjoy on the download EP, released January 8) arrived in quick succession. The Plan, a lovely ballad with sweet, almost Bacharach-esque chord changes, sung by Sophie-Ann Caruso in the play, was probably the first of the trio. Killing A Little Time and When I Met You, in turn, arrived later. They are both dense, thrilling, and move the action on, ruthlessly. Henry particularly remembers the demo of When I Met you. “This demo which was all David, will probably never see the light of day, which is maybe as it should be. It was recorded on his multi-track at home, it was rough but it was fantastic. He was playing guitar, and keyboard bass, and programmed drums and singing. The lyrics weren’t finished but everything was there. You realise how much was encapsulated from him, all the harmonies and all the bits that needed to be there he had come up with – all that genius stuff was his.”
Michael C Hall remember David always being open about the delivery of songs – this was the sole example where he was specific about any aspect: “There’s the lyric, ‘the monster fed, the body bled’… And [David] said, ‘It’s a bit ham-fisted , but intentionally so. And deliver them as if, all the world deserves is this crap lyric, just spit it out like that!’ It was probably the only acting note he gave me but it was brilliant.”
Throughout the play, one senses the overlap between Bowie and Newton; both isolated in their apartment, in search of transcendence, while the alien’s immersion in gin recalls Bowie’s various altered states. Bowie did not share Newton’s self pity, nor did the alien have access to the singer’s incessant jokiness. For all the links between then, them they’re not the same person – apart from one crucial moment at the midpoint of the play, when Hall/Bowie/Newton lovingly evokes those Hauptstrasse days in Where Are We Now?, accompanied by vintage footage of Berlin.
Hall, as he delivers the song, sees it as “a time where [David] shines through, where we are reminded of the genesis of this whole piece . Not just that he wrote the songs but that he maintained a fascination with Thomas Newton. I continually marvelled at what a perfect gem of a song it was. Such a joy to sing, because it falls around the middle of the show, and feels like a moment of meditation.”
Enda also shares the sense that this is a crucial moment, when Bowie’s own love for this magical period shines through: “It’s this huge soliloqy in the piece. Lyrically, you feel the purity, the simplicity, the naiveté of the lyrics pierce you. You’re suddenly face to face to the character, much more than you were before. I was really surprised when Ivo said it will be. It’s a nostalgia for the world. As much as the character. This momentous occasion with he wall coming down – a time gone. So Newton starts to become, not just Thomas Newton – he becomes man.”
There is one scene that struck me as harrowing in the New York run, which seemed all the more loaded with portent after the news that hit us on January 11. Sophia, the teenage girl, has a conversation with an older man, Alan Cumming, a grainy presence on the central video screen. We learn she is dead; it seems Cumming killed her, accidentally. This was yet another element mapped out by Bowie: “David was going, Right, we have this guy Newton losing his mind and this girl… but this girl is dead.” says Enda “And I thought, OK. And part of the journey is the girl working out who she is, where she’s come from and what her job is meant to be.” The scene, Sophia Ann-Caruso’s most potent, felt especially significant even in previews. Hall, too, recalls it as “chilling.” There was something strange about this scene even at the time – when many elements are open to interpretation, this explanation, that she is dead, seems very specific. Now, knowing Bowie’s condition, and that his daughter Lexi is the age of the Girl, it invites even more vertiginous metaphysical reflections: for how else will Lexi see her father now, but as a presence via grainy video, always present somewhere in the digital information flow? It was surely one of the reasons that David told Robert Fox, “I don’t want my daughter to see [the play].” (Fox believes Duncan didn’t see the piece, either.) I wonder if the loaded nature of the sequence, which was a major setpiece in the New York production, was a factor in its being dropped at some point in the London run – the biggest change from the original production.
David turned up for many workshops, sitting quietly by a doorway, plus several previews, as the work was reshaped (Ashes to Ashes was dropped right at the last moment). All of those present share the sense that David was “genuinely” happy, as Fox remembers: “He was around during the technical rehearsals, sitting in the theatre. Laughing and smiling. Happy. Part of the group.” Henry, too, remembers his appearances as joyful: “He never carried [his illness] outwardly. He was always a force of positivity and creative energy.”
Yet by the time the previews started on November 18, 2015, it seems the principals – Robert, Enda and Ivo – were aware that the opening of a new work would also represent a farewell. Robert: “When we saw it, finally in the shape it was going to be in previews, it was very poignant. Because three of us were sitting there, watching something on stage that was very personal to what was happening in real life. The audience weren’t aware. If you had the information we had… it takes on an added dimension.”
Enda: “I had a really good pal who died in September then my mum died in October then we were working on this and I was going, Jesus. Yes, it was bloody sad. ‘Course it was. He’s this fantastic, fantastic person. Then watching somebody who’s ill and thinking, They’ve still got so much work in them!”
No-one was certain whether David would make the official opening night. “I was sitting down in my seat with my wife, it was getting towards the time it should start, and the row behind was empty,” says Fox. “Then he came in, looking fabulous, with Iman and Coco.” Bowie was undeniably proud of “the piece,” as everyone describes it. Towards the end of the evening, he was tired, in pain, and had to sit down. But in the theatre, says Fox, “he looked elegant and happy.”
For fans who saw him, this was a special moment. But the Lazarus family all shared the view that his appearance was really “for us,”says Henry. “He did it for the audience but he especially did that for us, the cast and the production.” Michael: “I didn’t know he was coming out. It was a pinch yourself moment. There’s some sort of mantra you say to yourself, this is actually happening, I am actually taking a bow in a show initiated and composed by David Bowie and there he is taking a bow on stage. It was… a peak moment.” David went around to thank everyone, cast, ushers, front of house, “and he knew everyone’s names. Of course,” says Enda.
In the end, perhaps this was the key point of Lazarus. David had built another little family, a community: “And he’s a guy created communities, all through his life,” says Enda. “It comes back to really basic things. We are all lucky we have found work we can make… it feeds your soul. And he looked to himself as being fortunate that he was making work he loved. And was the greatest collaborator.”
Poignantly, on Lazarus‘s opening day, David emailed his old drummer, John Cambridge – the man who had drummed on much of the “Space Oddity” album, and introduced David to Mick Ronson ( another loss to liver cancer) – and had then been sacked, as part of David’s route to fame. As 2015 ended, David made his other farewells. Fox was in New York and went to see him in his apartment: “We chatted for about 10 minutes. He was very pleased [with what we’d done together]. But you could tell he was very tired, so I didn’t hang around. He walked me to the lift. We had a hug. And that was the last time I saw him.” Enda’s farewell was “a text saying, Things aren’t great… but Happy Christmas.”
At the end of Lazarus, Thomas Jerome Newton takes off. Where to, we don’t quite know. Enda: “For me he’s finally left earth. He’s left reality. Or he’s in a part of his mind where he can exist.” Michael: “I have no desire to be definitive. It varies from night to night.” Enda: “It’s somewhere… calm.”
Thanks to MOJO and the Lazarus team. All copy © Paul Trynka. Please don’t quote without permission or attribution.