Few details are known about David Bowie's death Sunday—his family has not revealed where he died or even what type of cancer he had, and, as the New York Times reports, even some people who had been working closely with Bowie on his latest projects didn't know he was dying. One of the few collaborators Bowie did tell was Ivo van Hove, the director of Lazarus, a stage musical Bowie co-wrote that's playing at the New York Theatre Workshop until Jan. 20. Van Hove says Bowie told him about his illness during the early stages of working on the show, in November 2014, and asked him to keep the information secret. "It was immediately clear it was very serious," says van Hove, who kept his promise and didn't disclose the information to anyone else before Bowie's death. (Van Hove told a Dutch radio station that Bowie had liver cancer, though rumors floating around before his death suggested lung cancer.)
What is clear is that Bowie's "sudden burst of new projects," as the Times puts it, was likely meant as a farewell, as both the Times and the Sydney Morning Herald report. Bowie had basically vanished from public view after a heart attack in 2004, then released a "powerful, elegiac single about memory and farewell" three years ago, the Herald notes; even the video for "Where Are We Now?" "looked like a farewell and sounded like it," the Herald notes. Bowie surprised his record company with both of his final two albums, The Next Day in 2013 and Blackstar this year, in both cases swearing his producer and the musicians he worked with to secrecy until the album was delivered to the label. It wasn't until after Bowie's death that his producer confirmed Blackstar was meant as a "parting gift" from Bowie. Lazarus, the musical, also makes more sense in retrospect: Says the artistic director of the workshop, "What seemed not too long ago intriguingly complicated, ambiguous, and opaque now seems pretty clear: a man who was yearning for immortality."