Late one September evening in 2006, a pair of producers visited the screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin at his house in the Hudson Valley to sell him on the idea of turning his hit film “Ghost” into a Broadway musical.
As a seasoned screenwriter, he’d been through the drill before.
“The movie was successful, leave it at that,” Rubin said of his defiant position against turning the story into a stage show. “Why tarnish it? And that was always the fear.”
But for a reason that Rubin did not fully explain, something about the producers’ pitch that evening jingled in his ears. And five years later, “Ghost the Musical” premiered in Britain to audience acclaim. A touring version of the show opens a six-day run in Shea’s Performing Arts Center on Tuesday.
“I don’t know why I kept entertaining them, but they seemed to be motivated,” Rubin said in a phone interview. “I have to say during that one conversation – which went so late that they missed their trains to get back to New York City, so they spent the night – I sort of saw what it could be.”
Rubin’s dealings with those persistent producers was like an inverse of his own experience trying to sell his script for “Ghost” to attention-challenged film producers back in the late-’80s.
“It’s not unlike being a kindergarten teacher with a room full of squirmy kids,” Rubin said of his meetings with Hollywood money-men. “What you have to do is make sure they’re really attentive. So I would make up certain things, like the moment Sam is shot, I would clap my hands really loud and I always startled them, I don’t know why. But that startle moment was very good.”
By the end of his two-year studio tour and countless rewrites, he had startled enough producers and refined his script to the point that five separate studios were interested in making a film out of his story.
After being turned down by a parade of A-list actors who Rubin said were reluctant to damage their leading-man cred by playing a dead guy – Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, Michael J. Fox and Paul Hogan all said no thanks – he convinced a young Patrick Swayze to play opposite Moore. The film was an immediate worldwide hit.
The show that emerged from Rubin’s script nearly 20 years later is a 17-song transposition of one of the most popular romantic films of the ’90s into the language of musical theater. And its journey from screen to stage, as is the case for so many such translations, was not an easy one.
Problem one: Rubin’s first try at a script. “I wouldn’t say it was a disaster, but it would never have made it to the stage,” Rubin said. “We did a sing-through in L.A. and I screened it for my sister and brother-in-law and I could see them kind of nodding off. I went, that’s not good.”
With the help of British director Matthew Warchus, known for his productions of straight plays by Yazmina Reza, Alan Ayckbourn and others as well as for the current Broadway hit “Matilda,” Rubin whittled the script down to something more stageworthy.
“I just had a lot to learn. A lot to cut or to paraphrase,” Rubin said. “A song really has to be the thing that communicates the story and the song, being so emotional, has a whole other life. Three were emotions in the movie for sure, but they were not elaborated. In the play, they do get elaborated.”
Problem two: How to get audiences to buy that the human being on stage playing Sam is an ectoplasmic apparition.
For that, Warchus and the producers turned to Paul Kieve, illusionist to the stars. In addition to his own stage performances, Kieve has served as an advisor for “The Dark Night” and the “Harry Potter” films along with many stage productions.
“The first script had a lot of additional moments which in a movie are of almost non-events. Like tap-dancing and rising in the air might be nothing in a movie, but in theater that’s a major moment if you achieve it seamlessly,” Kieve said in a phone interview from London. “You can’t have Sam walking through everything and walking through every person and walking through every object. I had to pinpoint dramatic moments of when we wanted to really see these things.”
But audiences will see Sam, played by Steven Grant Douglas opposite Katie Postotnik, appear to walk through a door as he does to his own wide-eyed astonishment in the film. And they’ll see other carefully chosen moments of visual trickery.
“We always track him with a sort of blue light. In a show like this, you’re playing a huge game of imagination,” Kieve said. In order to make the meticulously plotted illusions in the show work, he added, “you have to define your own illogical logic” – like Sam walking through certain objects but being somehow capable of sitting on a chair – “and then follow it.”
The music, by songwriter Glen Ballard and David Stewart of Eurythmics with some lyrics by Rubin, ranges from gospel to rock. And yes, it includes plaintive strains of “Unchained Melody,” the song popularized by the Righteous Brothers’ in 1965 that lent the film so much of its appeal, in more than one spot.
For Rubin, the central appeal of the film and the musical is the same, though the form it takes is strikingly different.
“What I think strikes a chord for all human beings is two things. One is that life turns on a dime, as it says in the film, and that you need to tell people you love that you love them,” he said. “I think that’s a really important idea and because you never know 10 minutes later what will happen. But there’s also this idea of life going on. Life continues.”
Both the film and the musical have been called out for containing a few too many clichés and not quite enough soul, a critique Rubin dismissed in the face of what he said has been almost universally ecstatic audience response in Britain and the United States. The show’s appeal, he said, can be traced all the way back to the ghost stories of Greek myth.
“I took a rather universal stance,” Rubin said of the idea at the heart of the musical. “This idea of having one more chance to say something to someone you love I think is really crucial. And in this case, Sam wanted to say ‘I love you.’ And I think that’s probably, given the opportunity, what most people would say.”
“Ghost the Musical”
Opens at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St. Tickets are $32.50 to $67.50. Call 847-0850 or visit www.sheas.org.