In Defense of Ghost: The Musical (No, Really)

What’s so scary about a show that grapples seriously with death?

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The Hartman Group / Joan Marcus / AP

Twenty minutes into Ghost: The Musical, I knew the show was in for trouble. Not from me — I was sort of enjoying it — but from the rest of the New York theater critics. There are certain kinds of shows that simply have no chance with Broadway’s tastemakers. Musicals based on hit Hollywood movies. Popular stage successes from London that don’t have the imprimatur of one of the tony institutional theaters, like the National or the Donmar Warehouse. Shows with lavish special effects. Ghost pretty much covers all the no-nos. And that doesn’t even count The Disaster.

It came midway through the second act, during a preview performance attended by many of the major New York critics. A piece of stage equipment that helps create the show’s complicated visual effects apparently failed, and the curtain had to be brought down for 25 minutes so it could be fixed. While the crowd waited nervously, you could hear the critical gears locking into place: It’s another Spider-Man!

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Ghost: The Musical got predictably trashed by the critics (the technical glitch got big play) and, just as predictably, shunned by the Tony nominators in the Best Musical and most other top categories. So I seem to be the only person in authority left to tell you that Ghost: The Musical is far from the worst musical of the season. In fact, it’s one of the better ones.

If you’ve seen the 1990 Demi Moore-Patrick Swayze film, you know, and maybe love, the story: Sam, an investment banker, and his artist girlfriend Molly have just moved into a SoHo loft when he is killed in a botched mugging. He comes back as a ghost to try to warn her about the malefactors behind his murder, helped by a fake medium who can somehow communicate with him.

The production is, first of all, quite spectactular. I admire shows that try to do hard things onstage. Showing ghosts walk through walls is easy enough in a movie; onstage it requires some ingenuity. Director Matthew Warchus and his team of technical whizzes do it with a combination of lighting effects (the ghosts bathed in a blue-white light, setting them apart from the flesh-and-blood humans they mingle with onstage), some sleight-of-hand with body doubles to show spirits leaving their bodies, and video projections that give the illusion of body parts passing through solid walls. The elaborate video effects – too elaborate for many purists, because it reminds them of arena-rock shows — tackle even more challenging scenes, like Sam’s encounter with a belligerent ghost on a subway train, with pulse-racing panache.

Bruce Joel Rubin, who won an Oscar for his 1990 screenplay, has done his own adaptation for the stage, and has skillfully reproduced a fairly complicated plot (which involves Wall Street double-dealing that has even more relevant today). Dave Stewart and Glenn Ballard, two well-credentialed rock composers, have created a score that is overshadowed by the film’s famous oldie, “Unchained Melody,” but can stand on its own well enough. The numbers can be a bit tendentious and predictable (ersatz gospel for the medium, played in the film by Whoopi Goldberg and here by the lively Da’Vine Joy Randolph), but are often touching and resonant in their earnest simplicity.

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So what’s the problem with Ghost: The Musical? For some (audiences as well as critics), the show may simply be too much of a downer: a serious, plot-heavy, sometimes bombastic musical about death. On the same day that Ghost opened on Broadway, so did Nicky Silver’s comedy The Lyons, with Linda Lavin as a loudmouthed Jewish mother who spends an entire act berating her husband on his hospital deathbed. It’s a glorified sitcom that turns serious family trauma into shameless one-liners. (“I’m dying, Rita.” “I know, dear, try to look on the positive side.”) There’s not a believable moment in it. Naturally, it got raves.

Ghost: The Musical is a sentimental pop fantasy — following in a worthy tradition of afterlife romances like Heaven Can Wait and Here Comes Mr. Jordan. But it actually tries to grapple with serious issues of death and loss. Its two stars, Richard Fleeshman and Caissie Levy, throw every ounce of conviction and emotion into their roles; what happens onstage may be fanciful, but their reactions, moment to moment, are credible, honest, human (give director Warchus much of the credit for this). Yet they and the rest of the show have drawn hoots of derision. Ghost: The Musical is almost surely headed to an early grave. But may its spirit linger.

Zoglin, TIME’s theater critic and a former assistant managing editor, is the author of Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America

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