In its final form, David Bowie‘s surreal 2015 musical, Lazarus, featured the musician’s own songs within a plot inspired by Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 sci-fi/drama film The Man Who Fell to Earth. But the project’s origins were more bizarre and experimental than originally thought.
In an expansive GQ piece, novelist Michael Cunningham revealed that he and Bowie collaborated for a full year on a musical involving aliens, poet Emma Lazarus, a mariachi band and a “stockpile of unknown, unrecorded Bob Dylan songs, which had been discovered after Dylan died,” written by Bowie himself.
Cunningham, a faithful Bowie fan since college, worked intermittently with the musician, often in the same room, with Bowie often improvising musical ideas at a synthesizer or piano. The novelist arrived at a basic plot involving an alien who assumes human form and falls in love with an Earth woman.
“They reach a point of intimacy at which he feels he must show her his true form, which is quite different from the mildly handsome guy in his 30s she thinks she’s been dating,” Cunningham wrote of the story. “Let’s just say that the sight of her new lover’s actual appearance is … challenging for the young woman.”
“I read that passage to David over the phone,” he continued. “The next day he phoned me back and played me a few minutes of music he’d composed for the scene. It was, unmistakably, a fucked-up, slightly dissonant love ballad.”
In 2004, roughly halfway through scripting a first draft, the musician suffered a heart attack and underwent surgery. The duo never resumed work on the musical, and the author never exactly figured out how to combine Bowie’s strange plot threads: “I managed, in rough form, the first third of the book of a musical that did, indeed, involve an alien, Emma Lazarus, and a mariachi band,” he wrote. “I hadn’t yet figured out a way to work the undiscovered Dylan songs into the plot.”
Throughout the piece, Cunningham shared intimate details of the duo’s collaboration. In one charming section, he emphasized how much Bowie loved shopping at Staples: “How starstruck, after all, can anybody feel after the object of one’s veneration says, early on, without a trace of irony, that he was excited to start a new project because: ‘Now I get to do one of my favorite things: Go to a stationery store and get Sharpies and Post-its!'”
Cunningham and Bowie saw each other “once or twice” after the surgery and occasionally emailed each other, though they never discussed the abandoned musical. “A silent understanding had somehow been reached, and with it, a reluctance on both our parts to refer to that which was no longer in our future,” the author wrote.
Cunningham later watched Lazarus on opening night and realized the only connection between the two projects was “that it centered on an alien.” He also implied that the title itself stemmed from Emma Lazarus: “It wasn’t quite clear, at least not from the production, where the title Lazarus had come from, or anyway, not clear to anyone but me.”