This 'Ghost' carries a tune

Katie Postotnik as Molly and Steven Grant Douglas as Sam in "Ghost the Musical," running April 8-13 at the Hippodrome.
Katie Postotnik as Molly and Steven Grant Douglas as Sam in "Ghost the Musical," running April 8-13 at the Hippodrome. (Joan Marcus/Handout, The Baltimore Sun)

Bruce Joel Rubin, who won an Academy Award for his screenplay for the 1990 hit movie "Ghost," did not feel a compelling need to revisit the work.

Not long after the film's release — it went on to earn half a billion dollars worldwide — Paramount Pictures asked Rubin to write a sequel to the story of a young man named Sam who, after being murdered during a mugging, hangs around in ectoplasmic form to keep his beloved Molly from danger.


Rubin resisted the studio's overtures.

"I really didn't know where to take it," he says. "Paramount hired other people to do a sequel, which I found somewhat disturbing, but they couldn't crack it, either."


A few years ago, when some theater producers from England approached him with a proposal to turn "Ghost" into a stage musical, Rubin resisted again.

"I couldn't see it," the writer says, apparently without a pun intended. "But they were incredibly persuasive."

So persuasive that Rubin agreed to adapt his screenplay into a book for the musical. He also ended up contributing song lyrics.

"Ghost The Musical" opened in London's West End in 2011 and on Broadway the following year. It will appear at the Hippodrome Theatre this week, the latest stop for a production that has been touring the U.S. since last fall.


Rubin, 71, was drawn into the stage adaptation by the prospect of getting to retell the story in ways that differed from the movie.

"The original intent for 'Ghost,' in my mind," Rubin says, "was a gray tone palette that would be used to explore the netherworld. [Director] Jerry Zucker had a Technicolor vision for the film. I started to see how a stage version could let me explore a ghostly realm in ways that had not been addressed in the film."

Cinematic technology provides relatively easy ways to present a story involving apparitions and to get viewers to buy into it. Live theater presents a bigger challenge all around. To help with that challenge on "Ghost," the musical's producers brought in English illusionist Paul Kieve, whose credits include several stage productions and one of the "Harry Potter" films.

Kieve's illusions for "Ghost" helped to earn a Drama Desk Award for set design when the musical played Broadway.

"There is a lot of trickery and illusion in our show," says Steven Grant Douglas, the actor who portrays Sam on the tour. "Visually and audibly, there are so many special effects that help convey that I'm in a different realm. I can pass through people and objects. There's a blue tint to my clothes that becomes whitish and clear with the effects."

Douglas does not see the stagecraft as overwhelming this "Ghost."

"What I love is that all the special effects have a meaning and are not there just to show off," he says.

That meaning has to do with age-old feelings and imaginings about death and what happens afterward, especially when death comes suddenly and leaves a loved one behind.

"It's a universal idea, the instinct to have one more moment with someone," Rubin says. "It's about closure in the mythic sense of someone fighting from the other side."

Such themes have been explored by many a literary and screen work, but something about the way the movie "Ghost" addressed them seems to have exerted an unusually strong emotional pull.

It helped that there were engaging performances by Patrick Swayze as Sam and Demi Moore as Molly, not to mention Whoopi Goldberg, who won an Oscar as the fake psychic who discovers she has some powers after all.

Repackaging all of that into a theatrical vehicle, let alone one that calls on the performers to sing, was a risky business.

"When someone asks, 'Why would I want to see it on the stage?' I don't know what to say to that," Rubin says. "Except that if it was wonderful on film, it can be a valid experience on stage as a musical. It's so very touching."

Douglas can vouch for that.

"Ever since the tour started," the actor says, "I've been getting messages from people who tell me things like, 'I just lost someone and your show made me have more faith and be hopeful that the person I lost is in a better place.' They want to believe that [the dead] can reach out and make sure their loved ones are protected. That's the most powerful message in our show."

Douglas did not see the film "Ghost" until he was on a plane from Minneapolis heading to his audition in New York. But he already knew the pop classic that found pivotal use in the movie — "Unchained Melody." That song remains in the musical; all of the others are original, created by Dave Stewart (of the Eurythmics) and pop-rock songwriter Glen Ballard, with some lyrics by Rubin.

Even with the addition of 17 songs, the musical runs only a little longer than the movie.

"Having songs doesn't change the story," Rubin says. "A lot of Sam and Molly's dialogue got removed and turned into song."

Adds Douglas: "All the favorite moments from the movie are there. It is the story everybody knows, infused with a pop-rock music vibe."

The musical has not enjoyed universal acclaim in the press. The London production, which ran for 500 performances, got more approving responses in the press than the one in New York, which ran for 136. That pattern has repeated since a tour was launched last spring in the United Kingdom, running concurrently for several months with the U.S. one.

"We don't get the best reviews," Douglas says, "even though our production is an exact duplicate of the U.K. production, which got raves. But our audiences have been really great, and that outweighs some of the negative feedback."

The U.S. tour is non-Equity, using performers who are not members of the Actors' Equity union (shows on Broadway are always Equity).

"But we worked with the same creative team as the one for the Broadway production of 'Ghost,'" Douglas says. "These are all what I like to call high professionals. We all feel passionate about this show, and we're proud of it."

So is Rubin.

"Writing a musical has a lot of ups and downs," he says. "But this turned out to be a win-win, when I thought it would be lose-lose. It has been the best ride of my life."

If you go

"Ghost" runs Tuesday through April 13 at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $30.25 to $95.25 (plus fees). Call 410-547-7328, or go to tickemaster.com.

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