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Spirited Show

Detroit native Bruce Joel Rubin’s smash movie Ghost is now a musical on Broadway.

Bruce Joel Rubin in front of the theater marquee of Ghost the Musical.

He earned an Oscar for writing the blockbuster supernatural romantic thriller Ghost, and now there could be a Tony Award in his future. Native Detroiter Bruce Joel Rubin, who won Hollywood’s golden statue for Best Original Screenplay in 1990, has adapted Ghost for the Broadway stage. Ghost the Musical began previews this month at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York City and officially opens April 23.

Rubin’s successful Hollywood career spans three decades. This 1960 Mumford High School graduate’s body of work includes writing the screenplays for Deceived, My Life, Stuart Little 2, Jacob’s Ladder, The Last Mimzy, Deep Impact and The Time Traveler’s Wife.

But it took more than a few years before Rubin found his groove.

After graduation from Mumford, Rubin spent a couple of years at Wayne State University before moving to New York City and earning a degree at NYU, where he hung out with good buddies Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma. He landed a job at NBC working in the news department but, like many of his generation, soon left to explore the world in pursuit of a spiritual journey. His 1966 trip around the globe included stops in India, Nepal, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Japan.

When he returned to New York, Rubin met and married Blanche Mallins of Long Island. Following a job at the Whitney Museum as curator for its new American filmmakers department, he and his wife moved to Indiana, where they both went to graduate school. Relocating to DeKalb, Ill., Blanche taught at Northern Illinois University, and Rubin wrote screenplays.

But it wasn’t easy pitching scripts from the Midwest so Rubin moved his family, which then also included two young sons, to California. And that’s when his career took off.

Rubin currently travels between his homes in Los Angeles and upstate New York and his apartment in New York City, so he doesn’t get back to Michigan very often. His parents, Jim and Sondra Rubin, have passed away;  brother Gary is married and lives in LA and sister Marci lives in Atlanta with her husband.

Richard Fleeshman and Jewish actress Caissie Levy, a native of Hamilton, Ontario, star in Ghost the Musical. (Sean Ebbsworth Barnes)

Still, Rubin expressed a fondness for the place he was born and raised. The Jewish News recently spoke to Rubin about his work, life and Detroit roots.

JN: How did Ghost the Musical evolve?    

BJR: It’s been seven years since my first meeting with the producers. Initially, the producers came to me with the idea and convinced me the characters could sing their emotions. We found Glen Ballard and Dave Stewart to do the music and lyrics, and they are amazing. The play opened in Manchester, U.K., last March and transferred to London’s West End, where it is a huge hit and still running at the Piccadilly Theatre.

JN: Didn’t you write some of the songs?

BJR: I wrote 20 songs, and Dave and Glen created the music for them. Three of my songs are still in the show:  “Believer,” “Life Turns On A Dime” and “Three Little Words,” but my DNA is in all the others.

JN: Is the plot similar to the film?

BJR: Yes, we stuck to it very closely. We embellished a little bit and took some scenes and transformed the words into songs and dances. It turned out great.

JN: Were you a part of the casting in both the film and the show?

BJR: Yes. I have a lot of ownership because I created the story. In the show, Caissie Levy, [who is Jewish and from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada], and Richard Fleeshman are terrific. In the film, both Jerry [Zucker, the film director] and I wanted Demi Moore. She was a hot property and a wonderful actress. Patrick [Swayze] was not our first choice at all.  Jerry wanted Tom Cruise or Harrison Ford, and we went to them and they said they didn’t want to play a dead guy. But this was a dead guy with a tremendous amount of power, and Patrick really understood that.

JN: Initially, what inspired you to write Ghost?

BJR: I always had a desire to write a ghost story, and I wanted to tell it from the side of the ghost. I always felt that life precedes birth and does not end at death, and this was a great way to dramatize that. One day I was watching Hamlet. There was the ghost of Hamlet’s father telling his son to revenge his death, and I thought, “That is my plot.” I felt it would be great to turn this idea into a 20th-century story.

JN: What was the first feature film you wrote that got made?

BJR: Brainstorm, which was Natalie Wood’s last movie.

JN: In 1984, you moved to Los Angeles. What was the first movie of yours that was produced after moving there?

BJR: I’d been offered a Wes Craven movie called Deadly Friend, but I was determined to maintain my integrity in Hollywood and reluctant to write a horror film. I was sitting meditating and feeling smug that I had turned down the job. Then I heard the voice of my dead teacher, Rudi, calling out through the ether. He said, “Schmuck (he talked that way)! There is more integrity in feeding your family than in turning down jobs.”

He told me to get up, go to the phone, call the producer (it was 7 a.m.) and say I wanted to write the movie. I got the job. It turned out to be one of the happiest film experiences I had in Hollywood. Although the movie did not do well at the box office, it saved my life.

By the time it came out, the writers were on strike, and I was on my last $400 and didn’t know what I was going to do. When I didn’t have enough money for my son’s bar mitzvah and was afraid it was going to be the first peanut butter and jelly bar mitzvah in Los Angeles, I got a big residual payment for Deadly Friend —$37,000 — and it saved my life.

This horror film that I was going to turn down gave me a real bar mitzvah for my son with chicken and fish and allowed me to live.

JN: Much of your work explores life and death events and an afterlife.  Jacob’s Ladder centers on a young, haunted Vietnam vet, and Ghost is about a deceased man who is stuck between this world and the next and tries to protect the woman he loves. When did you become interested in an afterlife?

BJR:  I was a product of the ’60s. I traveled around the world looking for some kind of spiritual guidance. I was Jewish but was looking for something more in the metaphysical realm, and I hitchhiked around the globe to find it. Ironically I met my teacher (yogi) Rudi when I returned to New York. He taught me to meditate. I have been meditating ever since. Meditation is a portal into oneself. It remains a centerpiece of my life. I meditate every day and teach meditation in both LA and in New York.

JN: You have said that you had an LSD experience that was terrifying yet influenced you.

BJR:  Of course I would never recommend that anyone take LSD, but it was the 1960s and I had one basic trip that changed my life. It was an awakening; it made me more spiritual and made me realize that nothing is what it appears to be. For me, it was a rebirth.

JN: Growing up in Detroit, was writing movies a childhood dream? 

BJR: It was something I always wanted to do, but there was no path from Vernor Elementary School to the Oscars. My original dream was theater. The first musical I saw was The King and I at the Shubert Theater in Detroit. I loved it, and when I was 14, I began ushering there. I also ushered at the Northland Playhouse and Cass Theatre. It’s funny because Ghost is playing at a Nederlander theater in New York, and I told [the Nederlanders] how magical this is for me. If it weren’t for them doing shows in Detroit, I would never be able to be in New York now. They made my dream possible.

JN:  You rarely get back to Detroit, but have you gone to any of your Mumford reunions?

BJR:  I went to the 30th-year reunion, and Ghost had just come out. It was pre-Oscar, but it was already a successful film. I had the fantasy of coming back to high school as a kind of celebrity, but I discovered that celebrity insulated me from everybody else, and people were approaching me as someone who I wasn’t. They weren’t relating to me as the guy they went to school with but rather someone who they imagined me to be. And girls who wouldn’t date me in high school, or even talk to me, were all over me. It was a very strange experience.

JN: What role did, and does, Judaism play in your life?

BJR: When I was growing up, we were Reform Jews. I had a bar mitzvah at Temple Israel with Rabbi Fram, and we celebrated all the holidays. Right now I consider myself a cultural Jew. There is something about bagels and lox and being Jewish that is very important to me. A lot of religions speak to me, and I appreciate the spiritual underpinnings of all of them.

JN: What’s next for you? Your sons, Ari and Josh, are screenwriters, and you have a granddaughter. Are you going to retire anytime soon?

BJR: Doing Ghost on Broadway is my swan song. I am not pursuing more work. However, if I come up with something in the middle of the night, I will write it. Having a show on Broadway is one of the most remarkable experiences of my life. I stand in front of the theater, look up at the marquee and just can’t believe that this is really happening.

By Alice Burdick Schweiger/Special to the Jewish News


1 Comment

  1. Peggy Roebuck Chong on 04/05/2012 12:08 PM at 12:08 PM


    I’m so happy for you! This is just wonderful.


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