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Contemplating mortality while listening to David Bowie's final recordings on the new Lazarus cast album
"Look up here, I'm in heaven / I've got scars that can't be seen." Those are the first words David Bowie sings in "Lazarus," the title tune of the rock star's one and only musical, whose original cast recording just came out. That song was previously released on Bowie's 69th birthday, two days before his death from cancer -- a purposeful and poignant parting gift to his fans. In light of his untimely demise, hearing the song again on this new album -- which also features a rendition by Michael C. Hall, who starred as an immortal extraterrestrial in New York Theatre Workshop's production -- the lyrics take on a deeper meaning. A man facing death head-on, performing a number about a creature who cannot die.
The two-disc album Lazarus is three things: an original cast album, a tribute, and the last creative output of a music icon. Bowie's final three recordings -- "No Plan," "Killing a Little Time," and "When I Met You" -- are included at the end. The rest of the tunes were recorded by the cast and band of the NYTW show on January 11, 2016, the day after Bowie's death. They didn't find out about his passing until arriving at the studio.
The emotional impact of that news is palpable in every song. The vocals are so raw. In Cristin Milioti's powerful rendition of "Changes," she practically spits out the words. Fourteen-year-old Sophia Anne Caruso's numbers, particularly "This is Not America," are chilling.
Bowie's death is unmistakably present in the creation of the album and also how I listen to it. When I saw Lazarus onstage about a month before Bowie's death, I didn't think too much about the theme of mortality. Hall played Thomas Newton, an alien who came to Earth on a mission to find water for his planet, unable to die or go home. In the theatre, I took everything at face value. After all, Bowie hadn't gone public with his illness, so there was no way to know this show was about what he was privately grappling with. On the album, I now experience everything through the lens of Bowie's (and my own) mortality. There are two different versions of "Killing a Little Time." When Hall sings it as Thomas Newton, sounding remarkably like Bowie, it's about waiting for a death that will never come. When Bowie sings it, he knows it's just around the corner. It's haunting.
Rock stars have written musicals before and their renditions of their songs have been included on the cast albums: see Green Day's American Idiot and Sting's The Last Ship. But Lazarus is the first time that the songs are the creator's last recordings. Even though that seems depressingly final, I take solace in the fact that these songs give us more to discover from Bowie even after his death. Plus, Lazarus is currently playing in London, and will undoubtedly enjoy additional mountings elsewhere. So he doesn't just live on through his rock albums -- through actors, he can strut onstage again.
Photo by Jan Versweyveld. Michael C. Hall in Lazarus.