In 2012, Jemma Rix was playing Elphaba on the Seoul stop of the Asian tour of Wicked. A friend in the show asked her if she’d come across the cast recording for Ghost The Musical, a new show that had recently opened on London’s West End.
“At first, I thought, ‘Ghost The Musical? How can that work?’,” Rix tells Theatre People.
“I downloaded the soundtrack on my phone and fell in love with Caissie Levy’s voice. She was a fellow Elphaba as well! I couldn’t get over the tones that she had, with the belting and these soft, floating, yummy sounds.”
Rix said that when she learned of auditions for the Australian production, she felt she had to do everything it took to get the part.
“It’s a role for me that you can really challenge your voice with, and then character-wise, it’s quite a deep story.”
But at the time of auditions, Rix was on holiday in Italy.
“I was devastated because I thought I’d missed my chance,” she says. “You don’t get shows [in Australia] that stay in one place for long periods of time like the West End and Broadway, where they rotate casts. If you miss that timeline, that it’s. You’re out.”
Luckily for Rix, that wasn’t the end of the story.
“I was really fortunate that they were very happy for me to do a video audition, then it was lucky that the creatives were based in London, so I could actually get to them.
“It took a little bit out of our holiday, but I’m so happy now.”
Wicked fans are well aware of the challenging vocals demanded of any actress who ‘goes green’ to take on Elphaba. Rix describes Molly Jensen as being another vocally demanding role.
“Also, going through the grief that Molly goes through in the show… tires you out. You feel quite drained [from] the journey that she goes on eight shows a week. It gets easier as you keep going, so I’m finding I’m not as tired. But I still absolutely have to rest, which I obviously learned from my Elphaba days. I think that’s what put me in good stead to go into a routine, because I knew what I had to do with Elphaba and it’s similar to this. The only thing is I’m a normal skin colour, which is nice!”
Talking about the reaction the show has received in Adelaide and Melbourne, Rix reports a general response from audiences that’s been similar to her own initial thoughts about a musical based on the Oscar-winning 1990 film.
“They’re a bit sceptical about it, and I think the best proof – and what happened in Adelaide and Melbourne – is that, when people come and see it, I see them at stage door and they all say the same thing – ‘Oh my gosh, it’s amazing!’
“All of my friends that aren’t in the musical theatre world loved the show so much. I think it speaks to a lot of people who just love the film, and even people who aren’t so much into musical theatre because it has a bit more of a modern pop-rock sound, rather than the traditional sound of musical theatre.”
Producer David Garfinkle is excited for Sydney audiences to have the chance to see Ghost The Musical over the coming weeks.
“They’re going to love the fact that it’s a terrific story, well told, with incredible music… and that it’s an extremely funny and emotional experience and, ultimately, a thrilling evening at the theatre, where you see things you’ve never seen before.”
Garfinkle is the chief executive officer of Hello Entertainment, a theatrical production company based in New York City. Alongside Ghost The Musical, recent credits to his name include the critically acclaimed Broadway revival of On the Town and the 2014 Tony Award-winning best new musical, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.
It was Garfinkle who, in 2005, went to Paramount Pictures to find out whether he could acquire the rights to Ghost.
“I thought it would make a fantastic musical. It has all the elements of life and death and humour and love – elements that beg to be sung.”
Once he’d received the okay from Paramount, Garfinkle then needed the approval of Bruce Joel Rubin, who won an Academy Award for the screenplay he wrote for the film.
“The first thing Bruce said was, ‘I don’t know how this is going to be a musical’,” Garfinkle recalls. “But after three hours, we were still talking.”
By the end of that trip, Rubin had decided he wanted to write the book for the musical. From there, Garfinkle, his partner Colin Ingram, and Rubin considered composers for the score, and their top choices were Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard.
“We met with them, and they ended up joining the team,” Garfinkle says.
Discussion soon turned to the question of who should direct Ghost’s live on stage incarnation.
“We put together a first draft of the script with music. We started talking directors, and Matthew Warchus had a brilliant conception as to how to bring it to the stage.”
The entire creative team was assembled and, in 2011, Ghost The Musical appeared before its first audience at the Manchester Opera House in the UK.
The Theatre People team was interested to find out what Garfinkle found the most challenging aspect of the process of bringing the musical to the stage.
“Part of it was how to use the illusions most effectively,” he says.
“We had the good fortune of working with Paul Kieve, who’s a master illusionist. Because of the brilliance of this team, we could do many things, but how do you pick the illusions that would be most effective, [and] that have the greatest emotional pull?
“Sometimes, it’s the ones you’ve chosen not to do that makes the ones you do the most effective… Those kinds of decisions, I think, are what help make this show terrific and bring it to another level.”
World-renowned American illusionist, David Copperfield, famously reacted to his own experience seeing Ghost The Musical by tweeting, “It’s rare for me to experience wonder but my friend Paul Kieve gave me that experience for an illusion he created in Ghost.”
Talking about Copperfield’s response, Garfinkle says: “That was a true testament. If David Copperfield endorses your show, you know you’ve got something going that’s good!”
Garinfkle is highly complimentary of the cast assembled for Ghost The Musical’s premiere Australian season.
“The Australian company is fantastic,” he says. “Rob Mills and Jemma Rix have an incredible chemistry together. They are fabulous singers [and] they have a great presence on stage… And, of course, Wendy Mae Brown, who plays Oda Mae, and her sisters, are as good as it gets!
“The whole company is really at the top of any company we’ve had of this show, and this is our tenth production.”
English actor David Roberts is one of Ghost The Musical’s international cast members. Both he and Wendy Mae Brown have played their roles to great acclaim on both the UK tour and in Ghost’s recent Singapore engagement.
He’s thrilled to now have the opportunity to play Carl Bruner in Australia.
“The theatre world over here is great. There’s a big hub in Melbourne and Sydney… I love the show, but it was definitely the place that we were coming to that was the pull for me.”
When Ghost premiered in Manchester, Roberts was in town playing in another show, and had the chance to catch a performance on a day off. He immediately wanted to take on the role of Bruner.
“I loved his journey, more than anything – the arc of his role,” he says.
“He goes from someone who’s completely warm and fun, and has these big aspirations and dreams. He wants the quick fix, and I think the danger there is that so many people get ahead of themselves and when that quick fix is presented, it can be a very slippery slope. That’s where he goes.”
Roberts offers no shortage of praise for his co-stars.
“The performances are so good. Rob’s great, [and] Jemma Rix’s voice soars. It’s beautiful. If you love theatre, there’s absolutely no way you’re not going to enjoy this show.
“I think the technical aspect of this show is something that is still ground-breaking, even four years on… Some of it is jaw dropping. You’re really left going, ‘How did that work’?
And why would Rix encourage audiences to come and see Ghost The Musical?
“I feel like it has elements of everything in it because you’ve got this beautiful love story, you also have this murder mystery, and then you have this absolutely hilarious character who makes you laugh throughout the whole thing,” she says.
“The end of the show is completely heartfelt and quite beautiful and sad. So I feel like it captures all these emotions, [and] you’ve got illusions… There are so many elements that make this a magical show, and you just don’t want to miss it.”
Ghost The Musical is now playing at Sydney’s Theatre Royal for a strictly limited season. To purchase tickets, click here.