Rock legends Glen Ballard and Dave Stewart flesh out the emotions and characters of the hit film “Ghost” for its musical incarnation, now on Broadway.
How do you turn a bereavement blockbuster into a monster musical? Enlisting two pop-rock titans certainly helps. Ghost: The Musical materialized when five-time Grammy-winning songwriter-producer Glen Ballard (who has worked with Alanis Morissette and Michael Jackson, among others) and Golden Globe-winning songwriter-producer Dave Stewart (of Eurythmics fame) teamed up with Bruce Joel Rubin, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of the hit 1990 movie.
Don’t get spooked: This Ghost stays true to the original story, in which the idyllic life of banker Sam Wheat and potter Molly Jensen is destroyed when he is murdered by a mugger. But Sam’s restless spirit returns, latches on to spunky psychic Oda Mae Brown and uses her to communicate with Molly and warn her about his dangerous co-worker Carl. The tragic romance is enhanced onstage by the Stewart-Ballard compositions and a strong video element that brings the love story into larger-than-life focus.
Originally conjured six years ago, Ghost: The Musical first manifested itself in public at the Manchester Opera House last spring. It then haunted London’s West End for a successful run before being spirited across the pond to the Great White Way.
While both Ballard and Stewart are Broadway newbies, they have worked in film, and the latter tackled a musical production of Barbarella in Vienna back in 2004. “The whole thing was in German, which was a good test,” says Stewart. “Barbarella is comedic anyway, but this was funny.”
It turns out Stewart was weaned on musicals during childhood. His father made his own gramophone and had only ten musical albums on rotation for three years, including The Sound of Music, South Pacific and Oklahoma! “I knew all those numbers by heart because he drummed them into my head all those years ago,” recalls Stewart.
Ballard notes that writing for a musical allows him to escape the three-minute threshold of pop radio and take a more imaginative approach. But, he adds, you can’t get overindulgent. “Each song has to stand on its own, because if they all relate to one another and they’re no good, it doesn’t matter,” he says.
While a lot of great rock ‘n’ roll comes out of bands jamming, the twosome’s musical-theatre “jamming” was a bit different. “To tell the truth, quite a few of the songs in the musical are just first takes coming out of his mouth or my mouth,” reveals Stewart. “What happened was a very complex tapestry of an arrangement. Chris Nightingale has been amazing as an arranger…. Where all that came from is recording me on acoustic guitar or Glenn banging on the piano and singing.”
“We were just thrashing it out,” adds Ballard. “That’s what we do every day, and so to have this wonderful story and the author of the story with us and a great director [Matthew Warchus] felt totally natural to us. We had fun on it every single day for six years.”
Even though Ghost utilizes current LED technology and masterful onstage illusions to help tell the story, the sonically sophisticated Ballard and Stewart did create the score with visuals in mind. They only saw the imagery on opening night. But they had faith in Warchus and his sensibilities. “It’s using high-tech to deliver this walloping emotional close-up that you could never get onstage before,” declares Ballard. “Suddenly we have photographs of their beautiful life together…. Not a word needs to be said.”
Both songwriters feel that “With You” and “Nothing Stops Another Day,” both sung by Molly (Hair‘s Caissie Levy), are emotional centerpieces for the show. The former expresses Molly’s pain following Sam’s death, while the latter offers her epiphany that life will move on whether or not she is ready. In contrast, psychic con-artist Oda Mae Brown (newcomer Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who becomes Sam’s connection to the real world, first bursts onstage James Brown-style, with the extravagant “Are You a Believer?” The blues and gospel aspects to Oda Mae’s life were absent in the film; Stewart says his reference points for her were voodoo, New Orleans and Dr. John. (Don’t worry, “Unchained Melody” still surfaces as Sam and Molly’s love song.)
“The thing that you see in a movie is a depiction, and what we get to do is stop with each character and delve into what it is that’s driving them,” says Ballard. “What you saw in the movie we now get to explicate through songs, like ‘Why was Sam unhappy?’ I never really understood that, but Bruce said Sam is the kind of guy who doesn’t trust happiness and doesn’t trust anything good because he thinks the minute he identifies it, the universe goes, ‘Oh, you like that? I’ll take it away.'”
(This article appears in the March 2012 issue of Playbill magazine.)