David Bowie’s Lazarus is a musical based on the same novel as his 1976 sci-fi film The Man Who Fell To Earth, and it tells the story of an alien who visits our planet and gets swept up in the many vices we have to offer—all set to a soundtrack of Bowie songs. Apparently, though, Bowie’s original concept for the show was significantly crazier, with mariachi bands, Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus,” and a secret cache of fake Bob Dylan songs all playing crucial roles. It was going to be written by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Cunningham, and he recently wrote a piece for GQ telling the story of Bowie’s “secret final project.”
As the story goes, Bowie called Cunningham out of the blue one day and asked if he could help write the book for a musical. Cunningham met with Bowie to discuss ideas, and from there he began to get a fantastical glimpse into the man’s creative process. Bowie’s initial concept was that it would have something to do with aliens, that it would take place in the future, and that the plot “would revolve around a stockpile of unknown, unrecorded Bob Dylan songs.” Naturally, Bowie intended to write these songs himself.
Cunningham tried to envision how this would all work, and then Bowie added “The New Colossus,” better known as the poem inscribed at the base of the Statue Of Liberty. Bowie was apparently fascinated by the idea that this is one of the most famous poems of all time, but most people have no idea who the writer is. The final wrinkle Bowie threw in was mariachi music, which he thought was “under-appreciated.”
The specific details about Cunningham and Bowie working together are fascinating (Bowie really liked Post-it notes), but this ridiculous musical ends up not working out so well. Halfway through writing the first draft, Bowie’s medical problems forced them to put the project on hold. They never got back to work on it, but years later, Cunningham saw a poster for the Michael C. Hall-starring Lazarus and reconnected with Bowie to say that he was happy that some version of their ideas had survived.
We’ll never get to see Bowie’s original vision, but the GQ piece ends with Cunningham asking readers to try and imagine a perfect world where it turned out to be “a theatrical experience stranger and more beautiful, darker and funnier, more moving, more transcendent, than anyone, including its creators, had any reason to expect.”