"I have all his albums at home," van Hove says of Bowie. "'Young Americans' was the first record I ever bought. My first Broadway show was The Elephant Man. I made a special holiday to come to New York just to see that." (Bowie took over as the lead in the 1980 production of Bernard Pomerance’s drama.)
It's odd to think of the avant-garde, Belgian director as a fanboy of anyone, let alone a pop star. But that seems to be the case where Ziggy Stardust, aka the Thin White Duke, aka David Bowie is concerned.
He also saw "The Man Who Fell to Earth" when it came out in 1976. That film — inspired by the 1963 Walter Tevis science fiction novel of the same name — provided on-again, off-again actor Bowie with his first major film role. An alien who crash-lands on Earth in search of water for his drought-stricken planet, he falls prey to the destructive vices of human life. Lazarus is also inspired by Tevis' book and has that stranded alien, Thomas Jerome Newton, as its central figure. The creators are quick to point out, however, that it is not simply a stage version of the story that inspired the film.
"Lazarus is not like a remake of that movie," declares van Hove. "In it, we see Newton 30 years later, still on Earth. It's a completely new story invented by Enda Walsh."
Newton is played by actor Michael C. Hall, another Bowie fan. A generation younger than van Hove, Hall was introduced to Bowie's music during his famous 1983 "Serious Moonlight" tour. "That music led me back to what proceeded it," says Hall, mentioning the albums "Hunky Dory," "Station to Station" and "Low" as favorites.
To the delight of Bowie fans everywhere, the Lazarus score is largely made up of extant Bowie compositions, though they have been given new arrangements. Bowie has also penned four new tunes for the production.
Hall is the first to sing a few of these new songs. "Some of them are challenging rhythmically," he explains. "But once you're there, you're home."
The last year has been a very musical time for the "Dexter" and "Six Feet Under" actor, what with his recent Broadway turn as the titular transgender rocker in the musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Hall then became involved in Lazurus after a meeting with van Hove. The encounter was intended as just a general meet-and-greet. But, "A little bird had told me about this production," admits Hall. "I alluded to it in the interview and van Hove said he was sworn to secrecy." Once an offer was officially on the table, Hall jumped in eyes closed.
"I didn't even have to look at any material to know I wanted to be a part of it," he says. "I was taken by the fever dream nature of the whole thing."
His director agrees. "It was very exciting," van Hove recalls. "David would say 'I'm going to write a new song for here,' and then I hear a new song by David Bowie—the first time anyone has heard it."
Bowie is experiencing his own sort of thrill with Lazarus. According to van Hove, the notoriously press-shy star has long dreamed of creating a theatre piece. "This idea didn't come from a producer," says van Hove. "He wanted to do this."
Van Hove was called in by English producer Robert Fox in spring 2014, when Bowie and Walsh had a first draft of the show ready. "They told Fox they didn't want a regular, conventional director," says van Hove. "Robert Fox said, 'I have one name: Ivo.'"
Though van Hove's 2015–16 schedule was already full — his acclaimed production of A View from the Bridge opened earlier this fall on Broadway and another Arthur Miller revival, The Crucible, is due in the spring — he didn't feel he had a choice but to slip another production into his crowded New York season.
"How could I refuse?" he says.
Fox is partly financing the New York Theatre Workshop production, which has a budget of one million dollars — a high number for an Off-Broadway, nonprofit attraction. The theatre and producer have already made some of that money back. Owing to Bowie's involvement, Lazarus has become the fastest-selling production in the company's 36-year history; and this is the company that produced Rent. The planned run has already been extended by three weeks to accommodate demand.
The creators have played it very close to the vest when asked about the plot of Lazarus. But Hall allows a peek into his view of the story.
"I think it's about someone who is in the world and not of the world," he says, "and has been implicated in the seductions of love and lust and greed and ego, and finds himself on the other side of all of that. He finds himself unable to live the way he’s been living and unable to die or escape."