Christine Dolen

April 26, 2014

‘Ghost’ makes the transition from movie blockbuster to magic-filled stage musical

The work of an Oscar-winning writer and composers with rock cred comes to Fort Lauderdale.

It’s the movie that demonstrated just how erotic pottery making could be. Take clay, two hot lovers, add water and a little Unchained Melody, then swoon.

Ghost, the 1990 Patrick Swayze-Demi Moore romantic thriller that earned more than half a billion at the box office, was probably a natural for the movie-to-musical treatment that supplies Broadway and London with so many new shows. Indeed, Ghost the Musical, which begins a two-week run at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday, did get its theatrical makeover. But the transformation was neither quick nor simple, nor did the musical enjoy the kind of soaring success the movie achieved.

Bruce Joel Rubin is the guy who dreamed up Ghost, winning an Oscar for his screenplay about a potter named Molly, her banker-boyfriend Sam, and their sometimes-dangerous, sometimes-amusing journey through the spirit realm after Sam’s shocking murder. That’s not really a spoiler: Sam gets shot by a robber early on, and the thing is called Ghost, after all.

Rubin, who spent seven years getting Ghost to the stage, says he was interested in telling a particular kind of story in the movie and the musical.

“I wanted to write a story that assumed life doesn’t start at birth or end at death,” Rubin says. “I wanted to tell it from the point of view of a ghost, to explore what it means to be trapped. It’s an extraordinary love story. Sam turns away from the light because of Molly, and he has to earn his way out. He has this unfinished business of never having said, ‘I love you.’ ”

Ghost the Musical, which opened in London in the summer of 2011 and on Broadway the following year, is the work of an impressive creative team. Rubin did the book and wrote some of the lyrics, but the score is principally by rock star (and Annie Lennox’s former Eurythmics bandmate) Dave Stewart and songwriter-producer Glen Ballard, the Grammy-winning talent whose credits include Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill and co-writing Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror.

The show was staged by Matthew Warchus, Tony Award winner and the British director of God of Carnage and Matilda the Musical. To create the other-worldly effects that are so much easier to do on film, illusionist Paul Kieve was hired early on.

Kieve, who created tricks for and appeared in 2004’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, had worked with Warchus before and knew what he was aiming to do with Ghost the Musical.

“Matthew wanted a love story, something like a rock concert, a musical that was very cinematic and a magic show,” Kieve says. “He wanted the most spectacular things, but they all had to be story-driven.”

One of the show’s most stunning effects happens when Sam’s ghost passes through a seemingly solid door.

“Walking through the door has caused quite a stir in the magic world,” he says. “I haven’t shared with anyone except the people involved in the show how it’s done. In my life, I’m not a secretive person. But magic is all about enchantment. You can’t astonish people if they know the details.”

As for the music, the movie’s signature song — Unchained Melody, written by Alex North and Hy Zaret, performed by the Righteous Brothers — is incorporated in bits and pieces as Sam and Molly’s recurring love song. But otherwise, the original music by Stewart and Ballard is a catchy pop-rock score.

Steven Grant Douglas, who plays Sam in the touring company, remembers that when he first heard the musical’s cast CD, “it didn’t sound like a musical. It sounded like a band’s album.”

Ballard and Stewart came into the process with Rubin already having written the lyrics to 20 songs. Some of his lyrics survive, but he listened when Warchus made a suggestion.

“Matthew said, ‘Your songs are good, but you have two of the best songwriters in the world here. Why don’t you let them have a shot?’ ” Rubin recalls. “A lot of my lyrics and the DNA of my songs are still there. But theirs are better. They understand more about song structure. They were and are masterful.”

“Bruce’s lyrics were too literal, but they gave us lots of information. We were more elliptical with the poetry of it,” says Ballard.

“Bruce did have some great words, but they weren’t in a song structure. He wasn’t sure how to turn the written word into song lyrics,” Stewart says. “But he got very addicted to the process. He got very good at it very quickly.”

Ghost the Musical had a longer run in London (just over 500 performances) than it did on Broadway (39 previews and 136 regular performances). Still, touring audiences have been reacting strongly to the show’s romantic story and state-of-the-art design, and the cast and creative team offer numerous reasons for the show’s ongoing appeal.

“The effects are really thrilling, and the show has something for everyone: magic, suspense, comedy, a love story,” says Katie Postotnik, who plays Molly.

Douglas, who’s doing his first major show since graduating from college three years ago, feels the messages he’s conveying as Sam.

“Tell the people you love that you love them, because you never know when it will be too late,” he says. “And appreciate what you have.”

Carla Stewart plays fake medium-turned-psychic Oda Mae, the part that won Whoopi Goldberg an Oscar. She thinks audiences are drawn to Ghost the Musical because “people love love. Just to know that love would be so great that someone would come back for you from the spirit world — it’s an emotional roller coaster.”

Illusionist Kieve and composer Stewart see something classic in Ghost and Ghost the Musical.

“The idea of a ghost being central to a narrative is Shakespearean,” Kieve observes.

Stewart concurs.

“It’s that perfect Shakespearean drama: love lost, unrequited love and the question of whether there’s an afterlife,” he says.

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About Christine Dolen

Christine Dolen


Christine Dolen has been the Herald's theater critic since 1979. She has served as a Pulitzer Prize drama juror and has won first place in arts writing in the Missouri Lifestyles Journalism Awards.

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