OVER the past couple of years, the world of musical theatre has been overrun with a string of “jukebox” musicals such as Jersey Boys or We Will Rock You. The writers take the back catalogue of a particular artist or band and string a narrative on which to hang the songs.
But coming up with a whole set of new songs, which provide the necessary sign-posts on the narrative journey and propel the story forward, is a whole different ball game.
Yet it was an assignment which rock legend Dave Stewart — who made his name with the Eurythmics — relished.
Together with Glen Ballard he has written the music and lyrics of Ghost the Musical, which opens for a two-week run at the New Theatre Oxford next week, and he says it was a seven-year task that he thoroughly enjoyed.
“It began when I was approached by Colin Ingram, one of the show’s producers and they said that they were planning on creating a musical version of Ghost. Would I be interested in being part of it?” says Stewart.
“I watched the movie again and I looked at the moment when Sam is shot dead but comes back as a ghost and I knew I had to get my head around this idea. So I read about Bruce Joel Rubin, the writer of the film, and about what he’d experienced and when I met him, we really hit it off.
“This was all before Matthew Warchus came on board to direct. I said that I’d like to bring in my friend, Glen Ballard and then we had a reading around the table with actors and we played some of the songs and Matthew became involved. And we all got on really well from the start.”
For Stewart, working in the musical theatre represented a considerable departure from his years in rock music — although he now wonders if the seeds hadn’t already been sown in his early childhood.
“I was about four and we were living in a house in Sunderland on a cobbled street. My dad had a stereo record player in the corner of our bedroom and he built a set of home-made speakers for it.
“I remember him putting on the music from The King and I. He had about 10 albums which he’d play over and over again, recordings of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals such as Flower Drum Song. As soon as he got up, my dad would sing Oh, What a Beautiful Morning from Oklahoma!
“I had all these songs drummed into me but I didn’t realise how much of an influence this music had over me until I started working on Ghost.
“Of course, when I got older, I blocked it out. I was more interested in Bob Dylan songs and the electric guitar and anything your parents liked was automatically uncool. But the exposure to those traditional musicals must have given me a sense of melody and it all came back with Ghost.”
“It seems to me that a stage musical is like a giant stew. All the different ingredients — the music, the acting, the story, the dancing, the design, the illusions, are thrown into the pot together. You’re involved in every aspect of the show. Glen and I were already friends and we have studios that are next door to each other. We’ve both written songs for huge artists such as Michael Jackson and Mick Jagger and we’d help each other out wherever necessary.”
The pair particularly enjoyed writing music for the psychic character, Oda Mae Brown. “We felt that she’d be a psychic who’d sing James Brown-type songs and so that became the musical identity of the character,” he says. “Both Glen and I like the blues and so it was easy to give Oda Mae’s numbers that kind of feel.”
Even though a pop song and a show tune are very different animals, there are also lots of similarities — and the years he spent writing with his great collaborator Annie Lennox in the Eurythmics have obviously contributed to his skills.
“The kind of songs which Annie and I wrote did have strong emotions and an element of drama in them,” he says. “Annie and I would use quite a lot of theatre in the delivery of the songs and Annie would often put over the song in character. As a producer, I’d incorporate a lot of drama in the arrangements and so, in a way, working in the theatre felt quite natural to me.”
With the experience of Ghost behind him, it would appear to be a natural step for Stewart to consider a Eurythmics musical, utilising some of the band’s treasure trove of classics.
“It’s something I’ve been deliberating over and I’ve been looking into the various ways it could happen,” he reveals. “It would involve using the songs but not in a traditional jukebox musical way. We want to get everything right — Matthew [Warchus] has already said that he’d love to direct it.”
And as he points out, there’s no shortage of material: “Annie and I lived together for five years and we didn’t write one song between us. Since we broke up, we’ve written 125.”
* Ghost the Musical is at the New Theatre Oxford from Tuesday, February 25 until Saturday, March 8. For tickets go to www.atgtickets. com