The story of “Ghost the Musical” came from “Ghost” the film, a mega-hit in 1990 for Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg.
Transferring that movie magic to the musical stage was the work of a creative team. including:
Bruce Joel Rubin (who wrote the original movie script and the book – and some lyrics - for the musical)
Dave Stewart (one half of The Eurythmics who wrote music and lyrics)
Glen Ballard (A-list songwriter and record producer who wrote music and lyrics)
Paul Kieve (special effects illusionist who worked on “Matilda The Musical” and appeared in “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”)
I talked to the team about their efforts, which South Floridians can see during the show’s 16-performance run at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts.
The producers had been trying for some time to sell Bruce Joel Rubin (book, some lyrics) on the idea of turning his story into a musical.
“I just didn’t see it,” Rubin recalls. “But they took a train upstate to where I lived, and we talked and talked. And they kept trying to sell me on how it could be, how we could musicalize all these emotions, which are there subliminally in the film if you look at Demi Moore’s eyes or [Patrick Swayze’s] face, but are never vocalized or spelled out.”
Rubin says that as the day turned into night, he began to come around to the producers’ argument that “something could be brought out in music, and it could be beautiful. We talked so long that the producers missed their train home, so they spent the night, and we kept on talking. The next morning, I said, ‘OK.’”
Spirituality is a theme for Rubin (“it’s the only reason I ever wrote”), who also wrote the screenplays for “Jacob’s Ladder,” “Deep Impact” and “The Time Traveler’s Wife.” In the 1960s, he hitchhiked around the world, exploring cultures and spirituality in Greece, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Laos, Cambodia and Japan. “I wanted to dig as deep as I could go,” Rubin says. “It was a very powerful time for me, and out of that came an urge to tell stories. I like to live my life with a deep investment in the spiritual side of life.”
Dave Stewart (music, lyrics) remembers thinking that the movie “Ghost” was too glossy.
He much preferred an earlier, grittier movie with similar themes titled “Jacob’s Ladder.”
He recalls: “But nevertheless, I thought the story was interesting, and the fact that the in the end game what it was trying to say is, ‘You’ve only got this moment, and so you better tell everyone now that you love them. You better be in the moment, basically.’ That is a theme that fascinates a lot of songwriters. I could see the possibility of writing interesting stuff around it.”
But first, Stewart asked that his friend Glen Ballard (music, lyrics) be brought into the project. Ballard, who is working on a stage musical version of the movie “Back to the Future,” says he enjoys working on musicals where so much of the context is already in place.
“It’s easier in some ways when the ground rules are already there,” Ballard explains. “Millions and millions of people know this work. It’s embedded in our pop culture. You don’t want to disappoint anybody. There are certain emotional touchstones that we’ve got to hit. And we had to use ‘Unchained Melody.’ We’d be crazy not to use it. But we try to use it in an inventive way. Basically, we’re not trying to change the characters. We’re trying to get to know them better.”
However, the two did make some changes from when the show debuted in London’s West End in 2011 to when it came to Broadway the following year.
“Mainly, the hospital ghost song,” Stewart says. “The whole scene is different. We fiddled around with the scene in the hospital a lot. There’s this character in the hospital trying to explain to Sam that he is dead. So we came up with four or five songs, and things were rejiggered about and changed, and certain songs were shortened and then reappeared.”
Stewart, who wrote the musical “Barbarella” (based on the 1968 film), has been working on a documentary with Widestream Films auteur Mark James about the lost archives of the 17 North Parade record store and recording studio in Kingston, Jamaica.
Both men agreed that the score had to be highly melodic. “That’s one thing that Bruce [Joel Rubin] insisted on from Day One,” Ballard says. “Even though we were writing modern pieces for a modern show, we still wanted to make sure it had the emotional resonance. And for me and Dave, that’s always melody.”
Illusionist Paul Kieve (special effects) took an edict from the show’s director Matthew Warchus very seriously.
The magician recalls: “He said, ‘We’re not creating a movie onstage. We’re creating a story onstage.’”
So Kieve, who worked on the movie “Hugo” with Martin Scorsese, said he “didn’t watch ‘Ghost’ again until after I did the show. It’s incredibly different in a theater.”
The effects that get oohs and ahhs include characters levitating, disappearing and passing through solid doors and subway walls. “I remember at that first preview in Manchester, the director told me he’d never seen people applauding and crying at the same time,” Kieve says. “Magic is a pretty ancient art form. The point at which it hits people is pretty primal.”
He admits computers help out a bit, particularly with the timing of the special effects. “Now with the lighting tech you can be very, very precise…and controlled. It’s not like someone is going to forget to swing a spotlight around. But someone said, I wish I could remember who, that magic is as much about the decline of the waistcoat in fashion as the invention of the microchip.”
IF YOU GO:
"Ghost the Musical"
Where: Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale
Contact: 954-462-0222 or BrowardCenter.org.