David Bowie's Parting Gift: Inside New 'Lazarus' Soundtrack

Collaborators recall working on one of late icon's final statements

David Bowie's 'Lazarus' collaborators recall the exhilarating, emotional process of creating the musical and its new companion album. Credit: Jimmy King

When the cast of David Bowie's off-Broadway musical Lazarus convened at New York's Avatar Studios in the early morning hours of January 11th, they were all in a state of absolute shock. Some learned late the previous night that Bowie had died after a long battle with cancer, while others got the news just before heading over to the studio. He hand-picked the musicians and performers of the production – a sequel to his 1976 movie The Man Who Fell to Earth featuring classics like "Life on Mars" and "Heroes" mixed in with four songs written specifically for the project – and they had a single day to record all of the material despite their shock and grief. They'd all spent the past few months working closely with Bowie in a tiny downtown theater, and just weeks earlier had stood with him onstage for bows on opening night. "We all cuddled in the control booth and sat in on each other's songs," says Sophia Anne Caruso, a 15-year-old actress who portrays a mysterious angel-like girl in Lazarus. "Except for mine. If I saw them sitting in there, I probably would've had a meltdown. I was crying all morning."

The journey to that sad day began in September of 2014 when pianist/producer Henry Hey – who worked with Bowie on his 2013 comeback LP The Next Day – heard from Bowie about a musical he wanted to create. "Anything with David I was interested in working on," he says. "Then I saw the script, which was quite esoteric. It's a very non-traditional theater piece that was loosely based on The Man Who Fell to Earth." Bowie wanted to take songs from throughout his entire catalog and use them to advance the story into the present. Irish playwright Enda Walsh picked out the tunes, and Hey was tasked with adapting them for the stage. Most of Bowie's obvious hits were skipped in favor of deeper cuts like "Valentine's Day," "Always Crashing in the Same Car" and "This Is Not America."

When Hey worked out an arrangement of a song, he'd send it off to Bowie via email, who would travel over to Hey's East Village apartment to go over it. "He'd say, 'Let's get together at your place and we can drink coffee and talk about music,'" says Hey. "That was a great approach, very disarming. A lot of people are intimidated by this legendary icon David Bowie, but he was very humble. For him, art came first. He didn't seem concerned with fame, and that made the process so easy." Bowie was going through treatment for cancer at the time. "Only the people who were close to him knew he was sick," says Hey. "Of course, I knew. It was necessary for me to know. But he never wanted it to define him. He was incredibly positive and creative every time I worked with him."

At the exact same time Bowie was working with Hey, Walsh and director Ivo van Hove on Lazarus, he was deep into the process of recording Blackstar with a group of jazz musicians at the Magic Shop studio in downtown New York, slightly less than a mile away from New York Theatre Workshop where the musical was staged. He often worked on Blackstar from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and then headed over to Hey's place to focus on Lazarus. "He didn't even tell us about Lazarus until sometime near the end of the process," says Blackstar saxophonist Donny McCaslin. "The ironic thing is Henry Hey is a friend of mine. We were both working with Bowie at the same time, unbeknownst to each other."

In addition to the seven songs that appeared on Blackstar, Bowie also recorded "No Plan," "Killing a Little Time" and "When I Met You" with McCaslin and his band. All three of them were written specifically for Lazarus. "He never explained that," says McCaslin. "I remember when he sent me 'No Plan' as a demo and there was a female vocalist and the way she was singing had this sort of Broadway vibe. I was also like, 'Wow, that piano player sounds familiar,' not realizing it was Henry."

In Lazarus, "No Plan" is performed by Sophia Anne Caruso. She first learned about the musical in the summer of 2015 when she read about it online. Despite being a highly accomplished stage actress with a résumé that included portraying Brigitta Von Trapp in NBC's 2013 Sound of Music Live, her agent was unable to secure her an audition, mainly due to her age. "It's a hassle to hire a child for a lot of different reasons," she says. "And so I try to differentiate myself from other people so it's worth the extra effort to hire me. So for this, I just decided to go to an open call."

It went well, and soon afterward she found herself on a bus heading to a callback. "An hour before the audition they called and said, 'David Bowie is here in our office and he wants to hear you,"" she recalls. "'Can you be here in 10 minutes?'" She jumped off the bus and sprinted to the casting office, showing up drenched in sweat. Shaking with nerves, she managed to sing "Bring the Future Faster" from the 2000 off-Broadway musical Rooms – A Rock Romance and Sting's "Fields of Gold." "It was so nerve-racking," she says. "But he was very mellow and had this way of making me feel comfortable. Not long afterwards, we were driving from from this crappy mall in New Jersey when I got the call that I got the part. I just started screaming and crying."

Over the next few months, the production came together during rigorous rehearsals and Bowie got to know the cast, which included Michael C. Hall in the lead role and Cristin Milioti as his troubled assistant. "None of us knew he was sick," says Caruso. "He was skinnier than usual, though he's always been thin. He came a fair amount, but for a new musical I sort of expected a writer to be there more often, so I did wonder if something was going on." But most of her focus was on nailing her performance, which culminated in a wild scene where she sings "Heroes" with Michael C. Hall while the two of them glide across the stage on their stomachs in a pool of white liquid. "I got floor burn on my chest during rehearsals," she says. "One night I slid off the stage and an audience member caught me. It was crazy."

The night before the cast recording, Hey was up late mentally preparing for the big day ahead of him. Just as he was falling asleep, he got a text informing him that Bowie had passed away. "I didn't get a lot of sleep that night," he says. "I wrote the cast and said, 'David really wanted this recording to happen. This is what he wanted, and we have to go and make this record. There's a reason for us to be in the studio today.' It was a hard day, but it was also beautiful." Caruso was worried the intense emotion of the day would make it hard to deliver the songs. "I had been crying and my voice had been through strain," she says. "It was the end of an eight-show week. I was worn out and getting over a cold, but I think the emotion in our voices actually enhanced the performances."

Much of the Lazarus crew is now in London prepping a West End production of the musical that opens on October 25th, just four days after the cast recording comes out. The album contains all 17 songs from the production, including previously unreleased tunes "No Plan," "Killing a Little Time" and "When I Met You" as recorded by Bowie and the Blackstar band. According to McCaslin there are still between three and five other songs from the sessions nobody has heard. "Everything he brought to those sessions was really strong," he says. "I'd love to see them all get released someday."

Everyone involved in Bowie's final projects has memories and mementos they will cherish forever. "On opening night he gave me a little gold rocket-ship pin," says Caruso. "I'll keep that forever. He also wrote me a card that someone stole, unfortunately. But I remember what it said." And the great memories might continue past the end of the West End production. "If I had to guess, if the show does really well in London it makes sense to go back to New York and do it on Broadway," says Hey. "It's all been a tremendous victory for him. He accomplished all that he set out to do in his final months. He was always creating. He was excited about creating art all the way until the end. I've never seen anybody so invigorated and energized by creating art."