David asked me to keep his illness a secret - Bowie musical producer
Robert Fox, the producer of the musical 'Lazarus' and the star's friend for over 40 years, talks to Mick Brown about his final months
In November 2014, the theatrical producer Robert Fox flew to New York, where the production team of Lazarus, the musical that would provide the finale of David Bowie's life, had gathered for a preliminary workshop.
Fox and Bowie had known each other for more than 40 years. Expecting to meet his friend, Fox was instead asked to go to the office of his business manager, where he spoke to Bowie via Skype. Bowie explained that he was ill and that he was undergoing treatment that meant he would be unable to attend the workshop in person. It was important for Fox, the show's writer, Irishman Enda Walsh, and its director Ivo van Hove, to know, he said, but he would prefer that no one else was told.
It was the first intimation that Fox had that his friend was ill with the cancer that would end his life just over a year later.
"It was shocking,'' he says. "David said he would be involved through Skype when he wasn't feeling up to a meeting. He wanted to be a part of it, but didn't want to be in the room,'' Fox says. ''All he said was, 'I'd really like to see this...' That was his only request. And that was very much on my and everybody else's mind.''
It is highly unusual to take a musical from planning to opening in just 12 months, but Lazarus opened on December 7 at the New York Theatre Workshop.
"It felt,'' Fox says, "that someone was smiling on it.''
Bowie had been able to attend the rehearsals in October, "absolutely present and completely involved and excited".
But when he attended the opening night, it was obvious "he wasn't feeling brilliant'', preferring to go home than join the cast for the opening night party.
"Nobody knew. Nobody even suggested there was anything,'' Fox says. "And then we woke up last Monday morning and it was on the news. He wanted the minimum of fuss. He was just a private man. And I think he wanted to protect his family from the insanity there would have been. It would have impinged on Lazarus, the album, his family, everyone would have been inundated at a time when he didn't need that or want that. And he did it perfectly.''
Fox first met Bowie at a party in London in 1974, when Fox was working as PA to the theatrical producer Michael White. "He was easy to chat to. He wasn't ostentatious or loud or attention-seeking; he was quite shy, modest; very well read and interested in everything, and he liked the theatre.''
They struck up an acquaintance over a shared interest in theatre. But it wasn't until Bowie moved to New York in the Nineties, by which time Fox had become a prominent producer himself, that they would see each other more frequently. "We'd go to the circus at Christmas and do family things.''
Bowie led an ordinary life in New York - a very present father, dropping his daughter off at school, or picking her up from friends. When Fox was in town they'd sometimes meet at a Pain Quotidien on Broadway. Nobody seemed to notice that Bowie was Bowie. "If you didn't catch that one eye was a different colour from the other, he was just an ordinary bloke with a cap on - unflashy clothes, quiet, and well-spoken, who just fitted in because he wasn't calling attention to himself.
"Occasionally you'd see somebody going, 'is it...?' But it wasn't a mad rush to get his autograph because it was apparent that he wasn't there to do anything other than have a cup of tea with a friend and go home. It was his modesty and his humility that shone through, rather than 'rock god'."
When, in March 2013, he came to London to see David Bowie Is, the exhibition at the V&A chronicling his life and career, he was able to wander the streets and show his daughter the tourist attractions without anybody realising who he was. It was on that visit that Bowie mooted to Fox the idea of doing a musical of The Man Who Fell to Earth, the film in which Bowie had starred in 1976, telling the story of Thomas Newton, a humanoid alien, who comes in search of water for his own beleaguered planet, but finds himself trapped on Earth.
Bowie had acquired the rights to the 1963 novel by Walter Tevis on which the film was based. "At that point,'' Fox remembers, "he said, all I know is that's going to be called Lazarus and it's going to be based on Thomas Newton." Fox introduced Bowie to Enda Walsh, the Irish playwright and screenwriter, who scripted the musical.
The novel and film end with Newton depressed and alcoholic, slumped in a chair. The musical finds him decades later, gin-sodden and alone in his apartment, declaring: "I'm a dying man who can't die."
There has been much talk of how Bowie "designed'' his own death. That the congruence of the opening of Lazarus, and the release of Blackstar, all pointed to an awareness of the imminence of his passing - a final, brilliant coup de theatre. Fox prefers the word ''symmetry''.
The musical begins with the title song, which is on Blackstar. The video is pregnant with symbolism. "Look up here, I'm in heaven," it begins, with Bowie lying on a hospital bed, eyes bandaged. Two metal buttons placed over his eyes, as if to evoke the Greek mythology of Charon's obol - the coins placed on a dead person's eyes as a payment for the ferryman to carry the soul of the deceased across the river Styx to the underworld. The video ends, with shocking finality, with Bowie retreating into a closet, and closing the door, like the lid of a coffin, behind him. Fox was at the studio in Brooklyn when Bowie recorded the video with the Swedish director Johan Renck on October 20.
"I couldn't believe it,'' he remembers. "The bed had to be hung from the ceiling so that David could stand in it, to give the impression that he was rising from the bed. I thought, 'what the..!' He's about to be 69, he's really unwell; what's he doing putting himself through this?
"Johan said 'David without question is the greatest artist I've ever worked with; the nicest man, the most collaborative, the most well-mannered' - what everyone said about him.
"It was odd,'' Fox goes on, "watching Lazarus for the first time on stage, knowing that David wasn't well, and knowing that the 200 other people in the audience, who did not know that, were seeing it in a different light. It's much clearer now with the loss of David because it's about this poor man who doesn't want to die, who wants to go back to his planet and find some resolution.''
Thinking of Bowie, Fox says, one memory comes strongly to mind. It was last summer, when he visited Bowie at his Manhattan apartment. "A really beautiful day. We sat on the terrace and had tea and fruit, and talked about Isil, and immigrants and refugees and what a f***ing mess it all is. About books and bands he'd heard. And he was happy. He wasn't in the middle of chemo, so he wasn't wasted by treatment; and he was optimistic. The show was going to go on, and it was going to be wonderful - like it always is before you start."
In December, two days after the opening of Lazarus, he visited again. "He wanted to talk about the show. And it did feel to me like it might be the last time. But he didn't give any sort of intimation. He was talking about a new treatment. He was very positive...''
The musical includes old Bowie songs and new ones. Last Monday, as the world awoke to the news of his death, the cast assembled in a recording studio, booked weeks earlier, to record the cast album. There was no suggestion it should be cancelled.
"The atmosphere was unbelievable - of shock, and wonder, and singing these songs, and feeling that David was definitely there somewhere.'' © Telegraph