Bruce Joel Rubin, who won an Academy Award for the screenplay of Ghost, talks about the making of the musical.
Q: How were you initially approached about writing a musical version of Ghost?
BJR: David Garfinkle, whom I’d met before, called and said he wanted me to meet with him and an English producer named Colin Ingram. They came to my house in upstate New York, and as we talked, I remembered that when I first worked on Ghost, I saw it as a more modulated, grey-tone movie. It became a more Technicolor film when Jerry [Zucker, the director] came on. I have no regrets about that. I love the movie. But I thought that this might be an opportunity for me to explore more of the spiritual dimension, things that intrigue me that weren’t in the film. By spiritual, I mean a cosmological view of the universe that doesn’t begin with birth and end with death. They were very open to that idea. We talked for so long that they missed their train back to the city. When they left in the morning, I felt this was something I would like to try to do.
Q: What was your initial reaction when you were approached?
BJR: It took about two and a half years until I committed to doing it. At first, I couldn’t see an upside. The film had a life, a reputation. I thought about having to explain to a composer and lyricist who these characters were, how they spoke and thought and felt. And looking at musicals of the last 20 years, my sense was that they weren’t creating music that I cared about. I’m very old-fashioned. I love Oklahoma!, Carousel, the old musicals. So when I was first approached, I basically said, “I don’t think so.”
Q: Did Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard get involved soon after?
BJR: I was brought in to meet Dave Stewart, and I told him I was looking for music like “Some Enchanted Evening.” The second time we met, he brought along his friend, Glen Ballard, and the three of us had a remarkable synergy. They were surprised when I told them I’d written 20 songs; they thought they would be doing lyrics as well as music. But they asked to see one of my lyrics. Dave pulled out a guitar, and the next thing I knew he was writing this beautiful music. If I had the ability to create music, it would have sounded exactly like the music that Dave was creating on the spot.
Q: What did you discover at that first workshop?
BJR: We had the story, the songs, the characters, everything I wanted – and it was inert. It wasn’t a musical. It was a play with music. Where does one go from here?
Q: Where did you go?
BJR: That’s when Matthew Warchus got involved. He’s one of the most creative talents I’ve ever been around. He became our teacher. He had a sense of the piece that was quite remarkable. He started to reconceptualize what I had done, in really fascinating ways.
Q: Was it a given that the show would include “Unchained Melody?”
BJR: Yes, we all knew it had to be there. And as we worked on the show, Matthew began to feel that it needed to haunt the piece. So rather than back away from it, we’ve allowed it to play a significant role. Each time it occurs it has a different, and often a deeper, impact than before.
Q: How is writing for the stage different than writing for the screen?
BJR: One of the major differences is that there are no close-ups in plays. You can’t just look at someone’s face and read the subtleties. But one thing I understood fairly early on is that songs are close-ups. It’s the songs that bring you into the character. I also learned how to use dialogue as a way to get into and out of a song, and to cut dialogue that was just repeating what a song was saying.
Q: What does Ghost gain by being a stage musical?
BJR: It has an aliveness to it that is thrilling. It speaks to you, it goes right into the veins. It affects you in a remarkable way. The movie is powerful too, but each time you see it, it’s reproducing the exact same image on the screen. In the theatre, it’s changing, it’s evolving. Every night the performances are different. Every night something reaches you that didn’t reach you before.
Q: The show is a huge hit in London, and yet you made some changes for Broadway. Why?
BJR: We changed three songs, because we found ways to improve the scenes. There was one song that was particularly problematic in London, the number in which Sam is being taught rules about being a ghost. In my original conception, the ghost teaching him was an old-time hoofer. Andrew Lloyd Webber actually said to us, “This is the greatest show of the last 20 years, minus that song. If that song were gone, it would be the best musical of the last 20 years.” So the song is gone. Matthew and Dave and Glen came up with a New Orleans funeral type song, upbeat yet sorrowful. It works really well.
Q: Could you reflect on the entire experience?
BJR: Matthew allowed me – somewhat reluctantly – to be at rehearsals every day. And I didn’t miss a day. I wanted the complete tutorial. I wanted to see it from conception all the way through to the end. Working on Ghost was collaborative in the best sense of the word. People put aside their own agendas and egos for the sake of the show. It was an act of love. People worked so hard to make this happen. We love what we created. It was an exceptional experience, moment to moment, day to day. I think that when you watch the show – and it’s also true of the movie – there’s a sense that it’s driven by heart. It’s a very emotional, heart-felt experience.