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'I will treasure Bowie's gold rocket pin gift for ever'

As the pop legend's last musical, Lazarus, opens, its teenage star Sophia Anne Caruso tells Susannah Butter how the cast gathered to sing his songs when they heard of his death in New York

Sophia Anne Caruso auditioned for David Bowie's show Lazarus in secret. She was 14 and they only wanted actors over 18. "But it sounded so cool that I went to an open audition without telling anybody," she recalls.

As she was leaving the house for her second-round call-back, her phone rang. "The producers told me if I arrived in the next 10 minutes I could sing for David Bowie. I jumped off the bus and sprinted over. I arrived at the casting office sweaty and out of breath. I was in awe of David Bowie so I was so nervous. He said it was nice to meet me. He was wearing jeans and was thin, but he's always been thin, and he seemed pretty happy."

She heard that she'd got the job a few days later, on her 15th birthday.

Working closely with Bowie didn't stop Caruso "getting butterflies" every time they met. She talks about him with reverence.

"On opening night he gave me a gold rocket pin and wrote me a card. It was a sentimental card, about how he appreciated me doing the role. The card was stolen; I'll always treasure the pin," she says.

He came to as many rehearsals as he could, "observing quietly and giving helpful notes". "Once he asked me to sing his song No Plan. He said, 'If it's no trouble, would you mind singing it again?'. I was, like, 'Of course, are you kidding me?'. That was a moment. At the first rehearsal I took a photo of a cup with his name on it and wondered if he'd be upset. None of the cast knew he was sick."

Bowie's last public appearance was Lazarus's opening night in New York on December 7 last year. He died on January 10. He had known that he had liver cancer for 18 months but kept his illness private. Caruso heard about his death the next morning. "I had tons of messages telling me what happened. I've convinced myself that I'm some sort of psychic. I woke up in the night feeling strange. The next day I was in shock.

"We had the cast recording booked, which was good because otherwise it would have been a day off and I'd have been alone and depressed. Instead we sung David Bowie's songs together, which was a bonding experience - kumbaya."

Life on Mars became a particularly poignant song for her. Bowie had told her how to perform it, going up gradually on the 'a' sound in 'Mars', to lift the performance. "I'd have never thought of that. He gave me notes on these tiny details."

Now, Caruso has come over from New York to star in Bowie's show when it opens in his home city of London next week. We've met in the Covent Garden flat she's staying in with her mother. She drinks rooibos tea with cocoa in it to keep her vocal chords in optimum condition and is wearing a crushed-velvet gold dress she proudly says is vintage - "I'm a big thrifter". Her long hair has been bleached blonde for her role, which is a striking contrast with her brown eyes.

She describes Lazarus as a "chaotic space nightmare". It's inspired by Seventies sci-fi film The Man Who Fell to Earth and is the story of Major Tom Newton (played by Six Feet Under and Dexter star Michael C Hall), a Martian who comes to this planet to look for water and gets stranded, living a lonely, immortal life. Caruso's character represents hope, but is also stuck in limbo. The soundtrack comprises Bowie's greatest hits, including Life on Mars, Heroes and Changes, although Caruso says the show is "more like a play than a musical".

"After he died, Lazarus made more sense," says Caruso. "Lazarus and the album Blackstar were his last gift to us. People say his lyrics are nonsense jibber-jabber but they are really meaningful."

The first performance after Bowie died was "a daze". "Everyone was still in shock. There was a shrine outside the theatre and somebody built a head that looked like him. When I got on stage I performed as a tribute to him. The whole run I wanted to be great because it was his musical and he was my idol. But perhaps there was a different energy after he died."

Caruso first heard Bowie's music growing up in Spokane, Washington State, a "dreary place". "You don't want to go there, it's a small community of people who hate each other."

Her father is a former pro-golfer and her mother owned vintage shops, where she played "what you'd call vintage music. Every once in a while a Bowie song would come on and that was my favourite. His music has a way of making you feel like everything will be fine. It's so relatable. He was also a freaking good performer."

Her own break came through her mother. "She lent jewellery out for shows and through that I was cast in Annie when I was nine." That led to more roles and she moved with her mother to Manhattan for work, and more recently has lived in New Jersey. Recent shows include the Broadway run of The Nether (which played in London earlier this year) and Smash on NBC.

Caruso is professional and says in no uncertain terms: "I don't consider myself a child or even a teenager. If anyone thinks of me as a child I tell them I'm already corrupted, they don't need to worry about not speaking freely around me." She teaches herself on a computer programme, is a feminist who posts political hashtags on Twitter and mainly reads books about theatre.

The election back home has her foxed. "Can't someone decent become president? Obama has been a decent president and I have no clue what is going to happen to America next."

Does she ever become tired of working? "I know theatre is what I want to do." Before she goes on stage she has a "dance party" in her dressing room. "I play Bowie and I boogie." The rest of the Lazarus cast are "crazy like nuts but also really cool". She watched Michael C Hall play a serial killer in Dexter but had to stop "because I was picturing him holding a knife the whole time".

This is her first time in London and she's quite taken with it. "It's sort of like New York but the people are so much nicer. I bumped into a guy and apologised and he said it was no problem. Over there they would spit at you. And your Tube is so nice and clean and quiet. Public transportation is so pleasant."

She wants to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and shows me a brown notebook full of recommendations for which shops to find the best vintage bargains. Fiona Golfar, an editor at Vogue and the wife of Lazarus's producer, Robert Fox, has given her tips, as has Enda Walsh, the show's writer.

"I can dig for hours in a store - I once found a pair of Gucci shoes for $10. There's a shop I like in New York that donates money to Aids charities, which I prefer to big chains."

Her mother comes in to offer us more tea and reiterates that she can't believe her daughter worked with Bowie. "She'd come home and go f*** yeah I'm working with David Bowie." Caruso laughs, then says seriously: "Working with David Bowie was the highlight of my life."

  • Lazarus is at the King's Cross Theatre London now. For more details go to www.lazarus

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