GHOST: The Musical

Book by Bruce Joel Rubin, based on his screenplay
Music by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard
Lyrics by Rubin, Stewart & Ballard
Directed by Matthew Warchus
Lunt-Fontanne Theatre
Official Website

A Rumination by David Spencer

I’m not going to review Ghost because I think my review would be meaningless. And predictable. Enough people have had at it so that the general spectrum (or spectre) of opinion, not to mention word-of-mouth, is well-known. I want to go somewhere else with this. So indulge me while I ruminate a bit.

                        Here’s the truth, so help me. If you’re a producer putting together a musical and get it into your head that the way to go is to hire pop recording artists to write the score—be it Dolly Parton, Bono and The Edge or now, with Ghost, these guys from the Eurhythmics—you’re going to get the same nearly interchangeable thing: generic songs with little verbal wit that don’t carry the story forward but act, instead, as place markers for mood; one or two high energy numbers for extreme supporting characters that stick out because they go a little faster and the character archetype has been wedded to a pop genre that seems to match his energy—it’ll be catchy for about five minutes and it’ll have a few mild jokes; and overall, a sense of sonic wallpaper. You can call the result a musical, but it isn’t really. Actually, I take that back—it’s not a musical that’ll make any impact on the literature, that can be emulated or used as a model for aspiring writers—not for any lofty or effetely purist reason, but simply because the fuzzy definition of its songwriting makes emulation impossible—nor is it a musical in any commonly understood sense of the term. It’s a musical that fits into its own subgenre, one even more limited than the bombastic, through-sung, subtext-free Euro-musical, because at least the Euros, like them or not, have scores that can carry a narrative. No, your new hybrid is a musical that requires the visual opulence and technical complexity of a sustained music video, because imitating film is the only way in which it can sustain interest—and that’s because the score is not theatrical, but filmic.

                        I hereby, therefore, dub this half-breed creation by the name that identifies it for what it is.

                        The MTVical.

                        So okay. The MTVical is essentially a staged movie in the guise of a theatre piece; or at best a multi-media event that employs some live participation.

                        Does that make it bad or undesirable?

                        It certainly doesn’t help the art of writing musicals because it turns its back on the craft of writing musicals. It sends the message that those who know how to do it—who train for years and sweat over every perfect rhyme, every dot of every accompaniment figure, every nuance of character in a highly compact and highly exposed lyric, every connection between text and subtext—are superfluous. It further propagates a key misunderstanding of the term “authenticity.” As in: We approached the Eurythmic guys, Bono and the Edge or whoeverthehell because we wanted a sound that speaks to contemporary audiences, because we wanted that thing that only the Eurythmics guys or Bono and the Edge or whoeverthehell do. Because the fact is, when those guys play in the theatre sandbox, they’re trying like hell to do the thing that only trained theatre people do, and because they suck at it, their own imprimatur is compromised. Meanwhile, there are at least dozens of competent, trained, even experienced young composer-lyricists and composer/lyricist teams who grew up listening to Bono and the Edge and the Eurythmics and more and not only do they have that vocabulary authentically in their arsenal, but they have the craft-art savvy to put it through a theatrical filter and apply it in a theatrical context that has all the layers, nuance and function of which authentic musical theatre scores are capable. (I say “young” because I will concede this much: it’s not impossible, but less probable, that a theatre writer of a certain generation—more accurately of a certain musical disposition growing up—would have as natural or organic a connection to a certain style of rock writing as one who grew up immersed in it, for whom those sounds formed an essential part of his matrix. For example: Stephen Schwartz’ connection to the pop music of his day is what set him off from the pack with Godspell and Pippin; while Leonard Bernstein’s pop writing in his notorious Mass of approximately the same period [on which, ironically, a young Schwartz was co-lyricist] reeks of the effort to “write young,” or symphonically do for rock what Gershwin did for jazz.)

                        In fact, historically I can only think of two pop-rock writers who transcended the barrier, each an exception because they entered the game under exceptional circumstances, and their pallets were very and recognizably wide enough to encompass theatre as evidenced by their work: Rupert Holmes was writing story-songs that flirted so heavily with theatricality anyway that the Public Theatre (actually, if I recall correctly, it was Gail Merrifield-Papp in particular) solicited him to create a project. The Mystery of Edwin Drood was his own self-generated show. He didn't get drafted to do a job for which others were better qualified. As for the extraordinary and wonderful David Yazbek: he had not been the first choice for The Full Monty. At first the producers approached Adam Guettel—young, hip but also the grandson of Richard Rodgers. And Guettel told the producers, in essence, I don’t think I’m the guy for this. But I know the guy who has the groove… And guess what? Yazbek knew the theatrical literature, and among his major influences was Frank Loesser. And he’d written comedy and for television.

                        If a pop writer belongs in the theatre, he’ll be writing theatrically long before you get to him. Because he’ll have cared enough to develop the muscle.

                        As for the rest, direction and libretto-writing…the jury is still out in some aspects. There’s nothing much more to say about Spider-Man: its score is a joke, and the rest is a freak-of-nature combination of high-art/high-tech conception that was initially incomprehensible (as well as dangerous), combined with a vigorously competent job of triage that got it all to make sense but left it bland. Ghost seems a little reactionary, in the sense of lessons having been learned: the tech stuff is in control, the storytelling is coherent. (But given that, imagine—just imagine—that story with a score capable of truly dramatizing the characters’ inner and outer lives [and after-lives]; and imagine how much hotter that structure itself would be if song could carry the weight of the narrative.)

                        But that still doesn’t answer the question posed. Is the MTVical bad or undesirable? Truthfully? It doesn’t add health to art in a large sense, but taking each one on a case-by-case basis, if an MTVical is being consistently enjoyed by its audiences, then it’s demonstrably good enough on several levels. And if it sustains a run, it’s clearly being found desirable. Those are indisputable conclusions.

                        But what’s also indisputable is that these shows can never enter the literature. There’s nothing in them for a stock, amateur or regional company to hold onto. Stripped of the technical hoo-hah it cannot function, because the technical hoo-hah is what’s standing in for the function of theatre song.

                        Which is why the MTVical will always live up to—or down to—its category name.

                        MTVical. Say it out loud a few times.

                        You’ll get it.

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