Classic film’s spirit lives on in stage show

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Mackem music, high-tech staging and supernatural spectacles are helping make Ghost a hit. Katy Wheeler saw the show in Leeds before its Sunderland debut

The film single-handedly made pottery wheels sexy, but there’s more than meets the eye to Ghost The Musical.

It’s taking the 1990 film to a whole new dimension, fusing musical theatre with cinematic special effects.

I was treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of the show, which rolls into Sunderland this winter, during its run at The Grand theatre in Leeds.

“The technology is linked to the orchestra,” explained company manager Neil White. “It moves to the speed of the show, it isn’t a case of just pressing play.

“It becomes like another character in the show, it conveys Sam’s emotions. It becomes part of it, it’s not a case of using it gratuitously, just for the sake of using video.”

Ghost The Musical at Leeds Grand Theatre. Picture: Sean Ebsworth Barnes.

Ghost The Musical at Leeds Grand Theatre. Picture: Sean Ebsworth Barnes.

He added: “Technology in theatre is brilliant when it’s used properly, when it enhances rather than distracts from the story.”

From the opening scene of the show, I realised this was no run-of-the-mill musical staging. I felt as though I was in an IMax theatre as high-tech screens transported us across the New York skyline and into the world of Sam and Molly, played in the film by Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore.

Ghosts appear to walk through doors and rise from the bodies all thanks to a complex behind-the-scenes system.

This injection of high-tech theatre is due to a million pound system of 17 computers, which help to create the effects for 48 scene changes in the most technologically-advanced musical theatre show ever to tour the country.

It’s a re-working of the film, by its original writer Bruce Rubin, which manages to tell the story in a new way while still staying true to the touching tale of a couple whose lives are torn apart when Sam is murdered.

Unlike Dirty Dancing and Footloose and their raft of songs, Ghost, which features only one main song – Unchained Melody – isn’t an obvious choice of film to translate into a musical, but Sunderland-born Dave Stewart’s music helps to make it a stage show to rival any other.

He teamed up with Grammy Award-winner Glen Ballard to create new music and lyrics for the show – but, don’t worry, the Righteous Brothers’ famous song is still in there.

The new music is a slick blend of love songs as Sam tries to reach out to Molly from the afterlife, but also gospel and disco-inspired tracks thanks to more comedic character Oda Mae Brown, played by Whoopi Goldberg in the film.

Rock veteran Dave, who grew up in Barnes, said: “I was approached by the producers to see if I would be interested in writing the music and songs for Ghost The Musical.

“I asked to meet the writer, so we all met up and I fell in love with the story again: the idea that every moment counts here and that it’s so important to let people you love know it, as life is so impermanent.

“I brought in my great friend Glen Ballard to work on it together and we spent about five years in total getting it right.

“Every show I’ve been to of Ghost – in Manchester, Broadway or The West End in London – the audience gave a standing ovation at the end.

“I’m sure the Sunderland crowd will love it.”

Neil says the touring show is even bigger than its West End production, and it’s a gamble that’s paid off.

“I’ve never heard so much sobbing in an auditorium, it really touches people,” he said.

The tears, of course, are thanks to the life and death love story which captured the hearts of cinema-goers back in 1990, making it the highest-grossing film that year.

Stepping into the shoes of the classic characters for the stage are Stewart Clarke as Sam Wheat, Rebecca Trehearn as Molly Jensen and Wendy Mae Brown as Oda Mae Brown.

Rebecca said: “There were some problems with the technology early on in the tour, there was such a short amount of time for tech rehearsals, things will go wrong. But we’re all used to it now. I was an understudy in the West End production and it was a real relief that they hadn’t scaled it down to tour.”

She added: “I last saw the film when I was about nine, but I decided not to watch it in preparation for the musical. I didn’t want Demi’s performance to be stuck in my head.”

Like many women, actress Wendy is a huge fan of the film. “I’ve always loved it and loved the character Whoopi played so well,” said Wendy.

“Oda Mae is a real lynch pin character, without her, Sam can’t do what he really needs to do.

“She goes on this amazing journey, from a con artist to someone who really has the gift.

“It would be easy to play her as just a funny part, but there are so many layers to her.”

Wendy says that it’s a show with a special story.

“I’ve met the writer, Bruce,” she said. “And he’s such a special man, you can tell he believes in the afterlife, only someone who does could write this. “It’s so well constructed. By the end of the show you can hear women sobbing and men clearing their throats.”

* Ghost The Musical is at Empire Theatre, Sunderland, from November 26 to December 7. Tickets, priced £17.90-£48.90, are available from 0844 871 3022.

* Ghost tells the story of Sam Wheat, a banker, and Molly Jensen, a talented potter, who are a loving couple who move into a New York City apartment.

At work, Sam discovers a major discrepancy in multiple bank accounts and confides in his good friend and colleague Carl Bruner.

Carl offers to investigate the matter, but Sam decides to investigate himself.

Later that night, Sam and Molly are attacked by armed thug Willie Lopez and Sam is killed by a gunshot during a struggle with Willie.

Sam’s ghost arises from his dead body, which lies next to the distraught Molly. He gradually realises that he is a ghost who needs to protect Molly from danger.

He meets Oda Mae Brown, a local con artist posing as a medium and realises she can hear him. He convinces her to help him keep Molly safe.