Ghost The Musical – From Screen to Stage; The Creative Process

Posted on January 9th, 2014

Ghost The Musical

The Creative Process

When Bruce Joel Rubin, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of Ghost, was first approached about writing a musical based on his beloved film, his answer was no. “I couldn’t see an upside to it,” he says. “The film had a life, a reputation.”

            But a meeting with the producers a couple of years later fired up Rubin’s imagination. “I love the movie,” he says, “but I thought that this might be an opportunity for me to explore the spiritual dimension of the story, things that intrigued me that weren’t in the film. When I use the word spiritual, what I mean is a cosmological view of the universe that doesn’t abegin with birth and end with death. And the producers were very open to that idea.”

            That was the first step in the journey of Ghost The Musical, which opened in London in 2011, transferred to Broadway in 2012, and is now touring the country. The show is directed by Matthew Warchus, and features a book and lyrics by Rubin, music and lyrics by Dave Stewart (the Eurythmics) and Glen Ballard (co-writer and producer of Alanis Mroissette’s “Jagged Little Pill”), and a Drama Desk Award-winning set design. “It was a labor of love for all of us,” says Rubin. “It was an exceptional experience, moment to moment, day to day.”   

            The musical closely follows the plot of the film. Sam is murdered as he and his girlfriend, Molly, are walking home one night, and he becomes a ghost trapped between this world and the next. He discovers that Molly is now in danger, and must find a way to communicate with her. Sam enlists the help of Oda Mae Brown, a phony psychic, to avenge his death and protect Molly.

Yes, there is a pottery scene, and, yes, “Unchained Melody” remains integral to the piece. “We all knew the song had to be there,” says Rubin. “And as time went on, Matthew began to feel that it needed to haunt the show. Each time it occurs, it has a different and often a deeper impact than before.”

            Probably the biggest difference between the stage and screen versions of Ghost is that the songs enable the show to probe the characters’ inner lives, their hearts and souls, in a way the film did not. “I sat down with the movie script, and began to figure out where the songs would fit and what they should be,” says Rubin.     Rubin had never written lyrics, but he decided to take them on and ended up with lyrics for 20 songs. Those lyrics needed music, and meetings were arranged with Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard. “We started talking, and the three of us had a remarkable synergy. They were surprised when I told them that I’d written all these lyrics.”

            To Rubin’s amazement, they began writing music. “I think Bruce was both shocked and happily surprised that Dave and I dived into the deep end and started conjuring melodies out of his words,” says Ballard. “In no time, we probably had the DNA of two or three songs. Bruce saw the way we flow, how we write from an intuitive place; we’re like two hands on a Ouija board, and it goes where it wants to go. Bruce was intrigued enough to let us get on the train with him.”               

In the end, just two of Rubin’s songs remained in the show. But his imprint is on the entire score. “The intention of his lyrics, what he wanted the characters to be thinking and saying, was always clear,” says Ballard. “Sometimes what he wrote was too literal, and that’s because it was the first time he had written lyrics. But the lyrics gave us a huge amount of information, and that was a gift to us. Dave and I, as the poets, took that information and said things more elliptically. But a lot of Bruce’s phrases remain, and his intention is in every single line. He’s the creator of the universe – he mentioned to us early on how he was influenced by Shakespeare, by the ghost of Hamlet’s father – and it was clear that everything he had written was coming from a special place.” 

Beginning with their first meeting and throughout the seven-year creative process, the songwriters peppered Rubin with questions. “The first time we met, I asked Bruce why Sam was so unhappy from the start,” says Ballard. “I knew we were going to have to write a song from his standpoint, and that was a mystery to me. And Bruce said, ‘This is a guy who believes that if he identifies the things that he loves most, the universe will take them away. So he can’t trust his happiness and success.’ I immediately felt I knew him a lot better, and that we were going to be able to get under his skin, and the skin of all the characters.”

The approach to Oda Mae was of great concern, as the artistic team was aware that they would be up against the memory of Whoopi Goldberg’s indelible, Academy Award-winning performance. “Oda Mae is so important, because she’s a fun character, and you’ve got a sad story, and you need some relief,” says Stewart. “I leapt on the idea of turning her into a kind of mixture of James Brown and Tina Turner, this fake psychic putting on a show. And her assistants could be her Ikettes. That allowed us to make routines with dance and over-the-top craziness. It also gave us the chance to do upbeat soul music mixed with gospel and a bit of New Orleans voodoo.”      

Stewart adds, “I think the reason audiences connect to the show the way they do is because of its evergreen message. People forget that they’re here, now. They’re so busy, and get so wrapped up in ‘living,’ that they miss life itself.” 

            Rubin says he knew they had something special during the show’s engagement prior to its West End debut. “It was during the fourth week of the show,” he says, and I turned to the person next to me and said, ‘Are you enjoying this?’ And he said, ‘Well, it’s my sixth time.’ The show goes right into your veins. The movie does that as well, but it’s always reproducing the exact same image on the screen. The show changes, evolves. Every night, the performances are different. It’s live theater. Clearly, the ghosts wanted to be born again in another form.” 

© 2013, Ghost On Tour, LLC.