Flemish theatre director produces musical with David Bowie


With a play on Broadway and a musical off Broadway, theatre director Ivo van Hove is having a moment

Written in the stars

After three weeks of previews, New York Theatre Workshop will officially open the musical Lazarus. The highly anticipated collaboration between acclaimed Flemish theatre and opera director Ivo van Hove and David Bowie – who co-wrote the music with Irish playwright Enda Walsh – includes both reworked songs from the British rock icon’s discography as well as brand-new music.

Lazarus is based on the 1970s cult film The Man Who Fell to Earth, which starred Bowie (pictured) as an alien in search of water for his drought-ridden planet. The musical production, which stars Michael C Hall of Dexter fame, marks a new chapter in van Hove’s relationship with New York.

He is already celebrated there for his adaptation of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, also currently on Broadway. Lazarus takes his cross-disciplinary focus and collaborative work with musicians and writers to new heights.

Van Hove’s preference for multi-genre productions is a longstanding one that goes back to when he was at the helm of the Holland Festival for performing arts in the Netherlands between 1998 and 2004. “At first, I met a lot of resistance, especially from musicians. They just wouldn’t accept that an electric guitar could be as valuable as a viola.”

He remembers opening his first edition as festival director with a rock concert and being ridiculed by the press afterwards. “I paid the consequences of being a pioneer,” he says.

Open-minded writers

In 2001, van Hove was appointed general director of the prestigious Toneelgroup Amsterdam, the largest theatre company in the Netherlands, a job he still holds today. It was the beginning of his international career, one in which music would continue to play a prominent role.

For proof, look no further than Song from Far Away, a monologue he recently directed in which a song by Marc Eitzel, the former frontman of indie rock band American Music Club, echoes like a mantra.

The new generation of writers don’t offer ready-made scripts but discuss the work with the team

- Ivo van Hove

Eitzel wrote the song for the musical and remained involved throughout the process. Even though Lazarus is a much bigger productions, it represents a similar collaborative effort between actors, musicians and writers, says van Hove. “Collaborating with playwrights such as Simon Stephens and Enda Walsh motivated me to tackle more projects by new writers.”

He particularly likes the new generation of writers, he says, “because they don’t offer a ready-made script but instead discuss the work with the team. When I entered the collaboration with Bowie, there was only one draft; now we are discussing draft number five. As a result, my impact on the production was much larger than expected. In the past, I used to be a bit afraid to tackle new plays, but now I don’t have any more anxiety around it.”

Of course, it helps when your heroes voice their approval.

“After the first walkthrough of Lazarus, Bowie stood next to me,” van Hove recalls. “Fortunately, he was immediately enthusiastic. ‘Can you be the director on my next big world tour?’ he asked.”

No crowdpleaser

Van Hove, a big fan of Bowie, saw the British music icon perform in The Elephant Man on Broadway back in 1981. Their collaboration, it seems, was written in the stars.

Bowie and Walsh approached van Hove last spring in their search for an edgier director. Many of Bowie’s decades of hits are featured in Lazarus (pictured above). The musical’s songs were chosen by Walsh, the Irish writer who surprised audiences with his 2001 film Disco Pigs and his script for Hunger, Steve McQueen’s drama about the 1981 IRA hunger strikes. “One of my favourite movies of the past decade,” says van Hove.

The new musical, the Flemish director says, is rather special. “Lazarus is not a crowdpleaser, though I tried to make the translation to the stage as clear as possible. The Bowie songs are exquisitely placed into the drama, so they match with the preceding and the scenes.”

According to van Hove, the singer, who is set to release a new studio album in January, was so inspired by the collaboration, he started to write one new song after the other for the musical.

“It was such a gift – not only being the first to hear these songs but also to stage them,” he says. At the same time, staging legendary Bowie songs “is a bit scary. Everyone knows Bowie songs as they’re sung by Bowie. Here, they are arranged for the stage and sung by actors.”

Until 17 January at New York Theatre Workshop