By Vincent Dowd Arts reporter, BBC News
It’s not quite a year since Lazarus opened on stage in New York. Irish playwright Enda Walsh worked closely with David Bowie on the project – yet not even he realised how sick his collaborator was. On 10 January this year Bowie died aged 69. Now Lazarus is opening in London – the city of Bowie’s birth.
In September 2014 Enda Walsh was in New Mexico when he took a message from British theatre producer Robert Fox. Would Walsh be free to pop up to New York to talk to David Bowie about a stage project the singer had been batting around for a while?
Walsh, from Dublin but long resident in London, didn’t need asking twice.
Bowie presented him with four pages of notes he’d written.
“It was David’s idea of what the musical could be. Partly it was a dramatic treatment but also an outline of a character he was obsessed with – Thomas Newton. So that was our starting point.”
Bowie had played the humanoid alien visitor Newton in the film The Man Who Fell to Earth. Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 movie was based on a book of the same name by American writer Walter Tevis.
It was the Newton character and his basic situation from which Bowie and Walsh, as co-writers, developed a detailed script. The show uses around 20 Bowie songs.
“Robert Fox told me to read the book on the plane,” Walsh says. “So I knew the basic themes – an alien who finds himself on earth and cannot escape and wants to get home. He drinks himself crazy. I thought it was a fantastic situation – a man whose brain is basically folding in on top of him.
“In retrospect, when we met in New York I can see it was a sort of audition. David needed to know if we could work together. But soon it became collaboration.
“In Lazarus it’s much later than the film and Thomas is still stuck on earth. He’s aching because this woman left him years ago and he’s drinking gin and just eating Twinkies. Basically he’s going insane.
“But David had already created three other characters and various images. And from there we discussed the tragic position Thomas is in and what the story could be.”
Work progressed partly with Bowie and Walsh in the same room, but often through Skype and e-mail.
“He would play Thomas and I would play everyone else,” explains Walsh. “David really felt that role and came up with some of the best lines. But there was no intention of David ever taking the part in the theatre.
“At this point David seemed completely fine and in great shape. He was wonderful, inspiring company.”
It was quickly clear that much of the narrative would be carried by Bowie’s songs – but the singer thought it should be up to Walsh to work out which to use from his back catalogue.
“He gave me 69 songs and said, ‘I think you may know these.’ He thought he had too much baggage with them to make the initial selection.”
Familiar numbers in the musical include Changes, Absolute Beginners and All the Young Dudes.
“There were others we had to drop, such as Let’s Dance,” says Walsh. “But David was so creative he also supplied four new songs.
“The title song made it onto his final album. Though the new number I love most is No Plan – it’s slow and heart-breaking.”
Walsh was delighted that Michael C Hall was in frame to play Thomas Newton.
“Everyone knows him from Dexter, but on stage he’d been in the musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch – which made people realise what a killer voice he has. Michael’s lovely, but he’s a very shy man. Sometimes you just can’t place him – but we always wanted someone other-worldly.”
Lazarus doesn’t have long dialogue scenes, which might leave some playwrights feeling side-lined.
“But I think David and I saw it almost like a strange album, elliptical and opaque,” says Walsh.
“Narratively it’s not totally on the nose: we left room for the audience to imagine and make their own decisions about what they see. It’s quite hallucinogenic or even drunken at times.”
The other major influence on how the show developed has been Belgian theatre director Ivo van Hove, currently much in demand on both sides of the Atlantic.
“Ivo has a really strong visual aesthetic – and he has an extraordinary team he works with. So he came in with his notes and began to shape Lazarus to what it is now. Myself and David had so much on the table that Ivo was crucial to making the show work for audiences.”
Inevitably people have looked at Lazarus through the prism of Bowie’s death, which came during the New York run. But Walsh says his collaborator’s health only started to be an issue in spring last year.
“Anyone who worked with David will tell you he was an incredibly positive man. He was very, very funny and had no ego. So although last summer I knew David was going for treatment, there was so much going on that it really didn’t loom large – however crazy it seems to say that now.
“I think in a bizarre way we fed off David’s extraordinary energy. And he was working on the album Blackstar at the same time so inevitably he wasn’t always with us anyway.
“I wasn’t fully aware of how bad things were until opening night at New York Theatre Workshop last December. And then I thought ‘Oh God – he’s sick, he’s sick definitely’.”
Walsh received a text from Bowie at Christmas, a couple of weeks before he died of cancer.
“David just said ‘Happy Christmas and I’m sorry I haven’t been in touch, I’ve been a bit sick.’
“But even then there was new work. David was amazing. He had more to write.”
Lazarus is at King’s Cross Theatre, London, until 22 January 2017.