Steven Grant Douglas as Sam, Ghost the Musical tour. Photo © Joan Marcus, 2013.
Interview by Scott Dowd. Entire contents © Fearless Designs, Inc. All rights reserved.
In 1990, Bruce Joel Rubin’s screenplay introduced us to Sam and Mollie Wheat, a young couple with a love so strong even death couldn’t keep them apart. The film was a breakout for Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore and sparked something of a phenomenon. Now Rubin has brought his romantic story to the stage as a musical that uses music and magic to share this classic tale with a new generation. The touring production, which arrives in Louisville in March, stars Steven Grant Douglas as Sam.
Steven Grant Douglas: I graduated from college just a little over a year ago. While I was at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, I had the opportunity to carry some shows and learn what it was like to play lead characters. But this is the first time I’ve been the lead at this level. This is my first national tour and easily the longest contract I’ve ever had.
Scott Dowd: How long will you be with Ghost?
SGD: We are touring this show for a year.
SD: It’s quite an achievement for a young actor to virtually come out of school and step into the lead role of a major Broadway tour.
SGD: It comes with a great deal of responsibility, but it’s also been a very enjoyable process.
SD: Do you come from a family of performers?
SGD: I don’t actually. I come from a small rural town in northwestern Minnesota. My dad is an insurance salesman and my mom is a bookkeeper. I was very fortunate that my parents always supported my two older brothers and me in whatever we wanted to do.
SD: How old were you when you began?
SGD: Right around age 16. I thought, “This acting thing, this musical thing, is something I’m really passionate about.” So I decided to major in musical theatre at college. I have been fortunate enough to pursue my dream and not look back.
SD: Do you consider yourself a singer who acts, or the other way around?
SGD: The root of my training is in acting. Singing and dancing is kind of built onto that. That really paid off, because Ghost is a touching story with a lot of heart and heavy emotion. It can impact people on many levels.
SD: I will assume that you have seen the movie, even though you are too young to remember the phenomenon that developed around it in 1990.
SGD: The first time I saw the movie I was on a flight to New York City for a callback. I wasn’t living in New York at the time. I had just been visiting and trying to get my foot in the door. I probably had fifty auditions without actually living there.
SD: Not the standard approach.
SGD: Yeah, I would just go for a week or two at a time and audition nonstop. But when I was called back for Ghost, I decided to watch the movie on the plane for two reasons: First, I didn’t know the overall story so I wanted to see how it all unfolded; and second, the actors in the movie are phenomenal and it was a great way to experience the story.
SD: That was a big break for Patrick Swayze, and he was at the center of the craze. Was that intimidating for you?
SGD: It was definitely intimidating at the start. I mean, who am I? I’m not Patrick Swayze and everybody knows that. But even if you take Patrick Swayze out of the equation, the role of Sam Wheat and the journey of his character, the story and the songs in our show are just massive. It’s a big challenge and a great role to have the opportunity to take on.
SD: What were the early rehearsals like for Ghost?
SGD: I was pretty terrified. I mean, it’s New York City and I had little to no big professional credits under my belt.
SD: Are there members of the cast who have more name recognition? Or is it more of an ensemble?
SGD: There really are no big names in our show. For most of us, this is our first or second national tour. We’re kind of all in it together. That helped me get over being intimidated pretty quickly. The environment in the room was so positive; everybody was welcoming and supportive, including the people behind the scenes. The directing team, music director and choreographer were all really excited to get this thing on its feet. And I was the guy who was carrying a lot of the weight.
SD: The movie Ghost moves all over the city, in and out of buildings, and there are a lot of scene changes. How do they handle that challenge for the stage?
SGD: I think we have twenty-five different scenes divided between the two acts of our show. It’s pretty amazing how seamlessly they transition. The set design and technical aspects of the show really have to be seen to be believed. We have two giant LCD screens that are used periodically throughout the show. Each of these video screens weighs about six thousand pounds, but the crew flies them in and out and they touch down like feathers. The backstage flow is a remarkable achievement. Once the show starts, I am committed. The scenery shifts behind me as I go about what I’m doing. Actors go on and off stage, change clothes, and come back; and I am just sort of moved around in the middle of this vortex of activity. There isn’t a “lights down” scene change – it just flows.
SD: Looking at photos of the show, Sam the ghost looks different than everyone else on stage. He appears to be cooler than the “living” characters. Can you tell me how that is achieved?
SGD: There are a few illusions used to convey the idea that I’m not in the world with everybody else. Visually, I’m lit in a bluer light, and my costume is made from a material that reflects light differently than everyone else’s. The material has a blue tint to it, and when the blue light hits it, the material appears luminescent. There are also some subtle sound effects that accent my moving through people and objects – like a whooshing sound when I try to punch someone. The most popular illusion is when I walk through the door; I love that moment every night. It almost always gets applause, and you can feel the audience accept the idea that I am no longer a human being. It’s exciting to me that we are pulling off these precision stunts that really amaze people. It’s fun being on the inside of the illusion and feeling the audience’s reaction.
SD: The illusions for this show were created by Paul Kieve. Did you have a chance to meet him?
SGD: I had no idea that I would have the opportunity to work with Paul directly, but we actually spent a good deal of time with him. One of the interesting things about the show is that the illusions were created first. Paul decided how he was going to do these things that are impossible, and then they built a set to facilitate them – it made the illusions that much better. We all have this sense of pride that Paul has instilled. Because of the passion he had in teaching them to us, we want to execute his illusions perfectly every time we go on stage and really make him proud.
SD: The song “Unchained Melody” has become linked to the movie Ghost even though it wasn’t a musical. Tell me about the music that has been written for the musical and how it is integrated.
SGD: It’s a pop-rock ’80s-infused score with a big sound and some gorgeous pop ballads. It feels almost like you’re at a rock concert even though this very intimate story is unfolding on stage. Oda Mae Brown, the Whoopie Goldberg character in the movie, has some really upbeat, soulful numbers. “Unchained Melody” runs through the score and is the thread that ties Sam and Mollie together. I think people would be disappointed if “Unchained Melody” wasn’t in the show. There’s a moment in Act Two where the original song is played over the radio and there is a tingle that runs through the audience. As for the new music, I will say that this is one of the most challenging scores I have ever sung. The pop-rock style of music is a totally different experience than performing more traditional musical theatre numbers. I can’t rely on my ability to project and sing over the orchestra because everything is mixed into the soundboard.
SD: Are you wearing an earpiece? Or do you rely on the monitors?
SGD: We use the monitors, which change every week depending on how acoustic the venue is. Some theatres are wider than they are long, others are deeper, and all of those factors change the sound.
SD: You mentioned the intimacy of the story. Tell me about the actor playing Mollie.
SGD: Katie Postotnik was in the national tour of Rock of Ages, so this is her second road show. We met on the first day of rehearsal, and it was odd because we were both thinking, “All right, how are we going to create this incredible romantic bond with someone we’ve just met?” But each day we grew a little bit closer till now we are so comfortable with each other and have developed a great chemistry on stage. In the beginning, though, it was work. We had to think about how these people interact with each other and how they show that love for each other in an intimate way. Everybody does it their own way, and we really wanted it to be true.
SD: There is also the character of Carl who figures into that chemistry somewhat.
SGD: Right. The three of us are supposed to be lifelong friends, so we decided the three of us would start hanging out together outside work to develop our relationship. We got to know each other off stage, as people, and were able to then carry that into the show. At this point, we know each other incredibly well, and it’s so much fun to get to the theatre every day and see the people who are becoming my best friends.
SD: The character of Oda Mae Brown also becomes very important to Sam in the movie. Is that relationship similar in the musical?
SGD: The musical is pretty true to the film in that regard. Oda Mae (Carla R. Stewart) is a big ball of excitement throughout the entire show and audiences immediately fall in love with her. In her opening song, she pops out of the wardrobe and people are instantly wowed by her. Katie and Carla are a delight to work with, and they both are so talented.
SD: You mentioned life off stage. How are you coping with the stresses of doing an extended road show?
SGD: Before each show I really don’t use my voice too much, especially on the weekends when we are doing two shows a day. I’m pretty much on vocal rest between those shows. But over time that is becoming less and less of a nuisance. I really didn’t know how difficult it was going to be to do eight shows a week. Just moving in and out of climates is a big challenge! One week I’m fine; the next week my allergies are acting up. But once I get to the theatre, I have a cup of hot tea with honey and warm up with my voice teacher by phone for ten or fifteen minutes before putting on my costume. It is vocally and physically demanding – I only have about three scenes in the show where I can rest a little bit. Other than that, I’m on my feet running around trying to solve the mystery.
SD: You are on the road for a year with Ghost. Where is home at this point?
SGD: My stuff is still in Minnesota, but I plan to call New York home once the tour is complete. I know that’s where I want to be. It’s the epicenter for everything that happens, so I can’t imagine not being there.
SD: You majored in musical theatre at school. Do you want to stay in musicals? Or are you interested in plays as well?
SGD: At this point, I want to do musical theatre. Even after just talking about how tired my voice can get and how demanding the show can be, I can’t imagine doing a show without music. I love it so much and always have. Even before I knew about acting, I knew that I wanted to sing. Not to say that I would refuse opportunities, but musical theatre is where I’m at right now.
SD: What is the role you were born to do?
SGD: Not right now, but in about twenty years I would like to do Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. That’s the dream.
SD: That’s a wonderful show.
SGD: Les Miz changed my life. It was one of the shows that really pushed me, at 16, in this direction. I had the opportunity to play Marius in high school and fell in love with that show and the genre. So, while Jean Valjean is on my bucket list, right now I am loving playing Sam Wheat in Ghost the Musical. It’s also a dream come true. It really is. I don’t want to over-extend the comparison, but Sam is kind of a Jean Valjean for twenty-somethings. He has a crazy journey and a pretty intense score to sing. I’m setting the bar very high.
SD: You mentioned earlier the moment you walk through the door in the show. Can you give us a hint as to how that special effect is done on stage?
SGD: I’ve never worked on a show quite like this one, and Paul’s illusions, stagecraft and special effects add an element that is totally unique to Ghost the Musical. I doubt I will ever have an opportunity to do another show quite like it. As far as how the technical wizardry is done, I am sworn to absolute secrecy! I will say that this show is truly magical. It is real magic, and I encourage everyone to come see it live and be part of it while we’re in Louisville.
Ghost the Musical, part of PNC Broadway in Louisville’s 2013-2014 season, runs March 11-16 in Whitney Hall at The Kentucky Center for the Arts. Tickets are available at The Kentucky Center box office, by calling 502.584.7777, or by going online at kentuckycenter.org.