BWW Exclusive: Ross Golan & the HAMILTON Squad Unleash The Power of Pop With THE WRONG MAN
Ross Golan has written hits for Ariana Grande, Flo Rida, Lady Antebellum and more. Now he's bringing his new musical The Wrong Man to theatrical life at MCC Theater.
In 1971, the worlds of musicals and pop music collided for the first time ever with the debut of Jesus Christ Superstar, a Bible-based rock opera that made waves with its unorthodox retelling of the last days of Christ.
Through the sounds of the day - rock, pop, funk, and disco - Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice ushered in a new era of musical theatre, one that would not only secure pop music's place on the stage, but reveal its potential to tell important and challenging stories.
Though Superstar proved to be the jumping off point for two of the most record-breaking, long-running careers in musical theatre history, the beloved rock opera first hit the scene in 1970 as a rock concept album.
In the wake of Superstar, concept albums have become something of a staple on the musical stage. Shows like Lloyd Webber's Evita, Green Day's American Idiot, Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida, The Who's Tommy, Anais Mitchell's Hadestown, and even Hamilton (which Lin-Manuel Miranda initially conceived as a concept album) all made the natural leap to the stage.
Tackling themes of political upheaval, war, oppression, and abuse, these shows carried on Superstar's legacy of communicating tense subject matter while delivering pop's signature catchy hooks and infectious anthems.
The latest title to join this tradition is The Wrong Man, a new musical now having its world premiere at MCC Theater. The show, which began its life as a concept album of the same name, tells the story of Duran, a man wrongfully convicted of a Reno, NV murder, awaiting his sentence on death row.
The why and the how of Duran's circumstances are brought to thrilling life by Ross Golan, a multi-platinum songwriter who has written hits for the likes of Ariana Grande, Flo Rida, Lady Antebellum, Maroon 5 and many, many more.
Ross' story as a songwriter began at age fourteen, as a youngster experimenting with the work of other artists.
"When you start practicing your instruments, you play all these chords and you're supposed to learn the progression." he explained, "I would learn the progression and just start writing a song. I wanted to write my own thing. I just didn't want to play everyone else's."
From there it was off to Northwestern's prestigious Cherubs Theatre Arts Division, where Ross studied drama before making the transition to a music major at the University of Southern California.
"I grew up doing musicals. I'm with my people right now." he told me, sitting outside of MCC, where the show is currently in previews.
"The minute I got [to USC] all my friends were the theatre kids, but I was in the music school and that's where it starts to separate. Then I got a record deal. But the first albums I would write would all tell stories. It was always about writing sort of political songs in somewhat theatrical ways."
Named BMI's Songwriter of the Year in 2017, Golan began work on The Wrong Man over a decade ago. After his initial record deal yielded little pay off, he began playing what would become the title song as part of his set list. With no additional story or recording available, audiences, friends, and colleagues expressed interest in knowing more about the song's protagonist and the events surrounding his tragic circumstances.
Over the next fourteen years, Golan worked to expand the piece. Inspired by the murder ballads that made legends of artists like Johnny Cash, Tupac, Tom Waits, and Eminem, Golan's wish was to tell a story in a similar vein, but this time from the perspective of the innocent accused instead of the perpetrator.
"You have this empathy for these guys. 'I sell drugs', 'I killed people', 'I wish I could go home'. All of these are told from the perspective of the murderer." he explained, "I was really into artists who can tell these amazing stories. And coming from Illinois, which is a really corrupt state, I thought it would be interesting if you flip it around and get a murder ballad where the guy's innocent."
Purposely kept from YouTube and social media, Golan's initial intention for the piece was as a live-only event. A one-of-a-kind opportunity for his audience to unplug and experience musical storytelling in its most pure and undiluted form.
For years, Golan traveled with The Wrong Man as a sort of modern day bard. Armed with only an acoustic guitar, an arresting story, and more than a dozen inspired songs, from Sydney to New York, Ross walked, drove, and flew anywhere The Wrong Man was wanted. Inspiring positive word-of-mouth everywhere it went, the project attained the status of underground sensation.
Performed primarily in living rooms, basements, and backyards, it was at one of these residential performances that producer, Suzi Dietz, proposed that Golan stage the work. The suggestion resulted in a production of the piece at Skylight Theatre Company in Los Feliz. Utilizing just five projection screens, a dancer, and Ross, the production proved successful, and earned three LA Ovation Awards.
In spring 2019, an animated telling of the The Wrong Man led to an appearance at South By Southwest and admission into the Tribeca Film Festival. At Tribeca, Ross appeared on a panel with representatives from The Innocence Project, an organization that works to exonerate wrongly convicted inmates and reform the criminal justice system, and Yusef Salaam, one of the exonerated Central Park Five.
After more than a decade, Ross made the decision to head into the studio with superstar producer, Ricky Reed, and seven Grammy-winning musicians to immortalize Duran's story on record. What came out of these sessions is a sixteen-song, pathos-laden, pop opus.
From the sparse, lonely opening notes of the title song and the desperate plea of an innocent man, the listener is immediately drawn into Duran's world and Golan's complex musical tapestry.
With a haunting brightness, Golan's songs bring the emotional heft while retaining the innate catchiness that has sustained his success in the music industry. Exhibiting a lyrical dexterity that mirrors the likes of Eminem and Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ross paints a vivid portrait of the story's bleak settings and Duran's increasingly grave circumstances.
At the crux of this narrative is a masterful pop anthem titled, "Stay Positive". Employing an explosive musical style and an affecting blur of emotions, the song has all the makings of a transcendent theatrical hit in the tradition of "She Used To Be Mine" and "Waving Through A Window."
Delivering a final blast of frantic agency from an unwitting fugitive as the walls close in on him, 'Stay Positive' showcases Golan's gift for complex emotional storytelling, giving listeners a chorus they'll want to shout from the rooftops and a bridge that bursts forth with heart-wrenching conviction.
The Wrong Man's journey to New York stage began in earnest when Kurt Deutsch, the head of musical theatre for Warner Music Group, hooked Golan up with the Tony and Emmy Award-winning director of Hamilton, Thomas Kail.
As was the case for many who came before, the acclaimed director was hooked into the story from the get-go. What began as a pitch meeting turned into a full-blown, hour-long performance, culminating in Kail's agreeing to develop the story to the stage.
From there the piece has expanded exponentially, with frequent Kail collaborator, Tony and Emmy Award-winner, Alex Lacamoire, signing on to do the orchestrations, and the addition of Emmy-winning So You Think You Can Dance? choreographer, Travis Wall.
Eight actors, led by the aforementioned three-time Tony Award-nominee, Joshua Henry - who first made the scene in 2010, as one of the wrongfully accused Scottsboro Boys - round out the team bringing The Wrong Man, The Musical to life.
In its translation to the stage, brand-new songs and explorations of the album's ancillary characters, Mariana and The Man In Black, have been added to lengthen the sung-through, ninety minute musical. The new layers also give the production's other first-rate stars, Ciara Renee and Ryan Vasquez, a chance to shine.
"I'm excited for people to see it. Ciara and Ryan are so brilliant that you also want them to have the opportunity to dive into their characters more," Ross explains
He continues, "To the credit of the creative team, they all saw its potential at such an early stage and they encouraged me to continue to write for the theatre. The more we started adding other actors, the more I could dive into those characters own perspectives and perceptions of the situation. And that's been so exciting."
As for the show's star, Golan is thrilled for the world to see Henry's take on a character that has, up until now, been played solely by him. In addition to Henry's impressive stage chops, Ross has come to admire the actor's interpersonal dynamics among the company.
"What you don't get to see is that he's an incredible leader among the cast and the people who are involved. I see how he interacts and the dude's like a captain, He cares about his cast," Ross gushes.
When it comes to the topic of bringing other people into what has largely been a solitary process, Ross echoes a sentiment put forth by Lin-Manuel at the 2016 Tony Awards.
Accepting the award for Best Book for Hamilton, Miranda rhymed, "This Tony says Lin, but it's not entirely Lin's, 'cause when you work with Tommy Kail, the best idea wins. When Alex finds a place to cut, or Andy needs more bars, you can't think, 'This is mine', you can only think, 'This is ours,'" a quality that Kail and the rest of the creative team have brought to the process of The Wrong Man.
"Our team has been really good at saying, 'Hey, let's change this complete song or let's change this choreography or this lighting or this arrangement." he says, "Everyone's been game in trying to make the other person's best show."
"It feels like we're climbing a mountain together. And so I feel like this is the right group of people to share it with. I'm pretty precious about making sure that when we're walking through doors, we're walking through doors with the nicest people," he continues, "These are long processes. I don't want to show up to the theater from 9:00 AM to midnight with people who aren't nice. You have to drag me away from here every night because the people are so gracious and creative."
Making its debut in a moment where true crime documentaries and podcasts have become viral sensations and the issues of police brutality, prisoner rights, and law enforcement procedures have come under increased scrutiny, The Wrong Man seems perfectly poised to make a splash while bringing some very relevant issues to mainstream theatre.
Ross says, "I want to be helpful. I love that my job is to entertain people, but I'm trying my best to shine a light on injustices...I want people to really genuinely fall in love with Duran and understand that this could be someone they know."
Though these important issues are at the forefront of the show's storytelling, ever the songwriter, Ross pauses when asked what he hopes audiences will take out of The Wrong Man.
"Melodies," he replies, with a smile in his voice, "I want people to leave singing the songs."
If there is any truth to the old adage that the best musicals should leave audiences with a tune they can hum, then this seasoned hit maker is very likely to get his wish.
Of Jesus Christ Superstar, Tim Rice was once quoted as saying, "It happens that we don't see Christ as God but simply the right man at the right time at the right place." That sentiment rang true in more ways than one as the show made its entrance at a moment where the definition of musical theatre was in the midst of an aggressive expansion.
Golan's Wrong Man in the wrong place at the wrong time could be headed for a similar trajectory as its blend of pop, hip-hop, and rock brings the sounds of today's genre-fluid Top 40 to the stage.
And like Andrew Lloyd Webber's own tale of a wrongfully accused man, the relevance of Duran's story and the power of the compositions have potent potential to put Ross Golan on the musical theatre map, while reinforcing and reinvigorating pop music as a dramatic force to be reckoned with.