Lazarus director Ivo van Hove knew about Bowie’s illness. ‘He fought against it, he wanted to live’

Sophia Anne Caruso, left, and Michael C. Hall perform in a scene from David Bowie and Enda Walsh’s “Lazarus at the New York Theatre Workshop. Photo: Jan Versweyveld/Matt Ross Public Relations via AP

News of the death, on Monday, of pop legend David Bowie (69), didn’t come as a surprise to director Ivo van Hove, who, in December, was still collaborating with the star when directing the musical ‘Lazarus’ in New York, for which Bowie wrote the music. On Friday, his birthday, Bowie also released his latest album, Blackstar. News that he had already been suffering from cancer for eighteen months and died on Monday surrounded by family took the world by surprise. Director Van Hove from Amsterdam was one of the few who knew that Bowie was gravely ill.

“I have known for about a year. We began collaborating on our show, Lazarus, and at some point he took me to one side to say that he wouldn’t always be able to be there due to his illness. The cast didn’t know all that time, and I suspect that the musicians with whom he recorded Blackstar didn’t know either. He made every effort to complete those two projects on time, not to let his illness win.”

Van Hove praises Bowie’s fighting spirit. “He was ill, but he wanted to live! For his wife and daughter, and for music. That became obvious to me time and time again during our collaboration. He wanted this show to go ahead, and he wanted this last album, Blackstar, to be released. He continued to make music until the very last moment. I have an unbelievable amount of admiration for how he really scraped together his strengths in order to still achieve this.”

The director heard the news of Bowie’s death on the radio this morning. “But I already had a hunch. I sent him an e-mail on his birthday, or actually the day before – I wanted to be the first – and I didn’t receive a response. At the time, I already sensed that something was wrong. And last night I didn’t sleep. This morning, when I heard the news, I was nevertheless in shock. I knew him as a very good man, a good person. His death is a huge loss.”

Lazarus

If you listen back to the lyrics of the tracks in Lazarus, and on the new album, Blackstar, you will discover numerous references to his illness and approaching death, explains Van Hove. “The first sentences of Lazarus’ title song are: ‘Look up here, I’m in heaven, Look up here, I’m in danger.’ Bowie’s songs are always very personal, and the Lazarus tracks are full of clues. Everything is significant. The show is about continuing to live whilst you’re actually dead. At the end, our main character disappears into a dream world by rocket, travelling towards space: that refers to death and eternal life. I saw all of that, and was unable to tell our leading actor, Michael C. Hall.”

Van Hove saw Bowie for the last time on 7 December, when they received a joint applause at the première of Lazarus. “Newspapers wrote that he looked so well, so healthy. But when we left, he collapsed straight away. It was then that I realised that it may be the last time I would see him.”

The world must now miss a major and unique artist. Van Hove praises Bowie’s “completely unique universe”, his dark, personal lyrics, the layers in his music and his masterly hand as an arranger. “He could make four musicians sound like an entire orchestra. His music is unique.”