Set in Reno, “The Wrong Man,” a concept album by Ross Golan, tells the story of Duran, a guy who’s dealt a very bad hand. He loses a lover, picks up a woman in a bar, has a one-night stand and ends up framed for a double murder.
Is this the stuff of a major new musical?
Yet, two years ago, after listening to Golan play only a couple of songs on his guitar from the album, director Tommy Kail, Tony winner for “Hamilton,” was all in.
“Something inside me lit up,” says Kail. “I was very struck by the mode and density of storytelling, how the songs stuck with you, how it invited a larger conversation about the distribution of justice. I go a lot on instinct and I just tried to follow that impulse.”
Impressed by a score that was a skillful blend of hip hop, folk, blues, Latin and soul, Kail recruited a powerhouse team to adapt it into a stage musical: Alex Lacamoire, his longtime Tony-winning music director (“In the Heights,” “Hamilton”), Emmy-winning choreographer Travis Wall (“So You Think You Can Dance”) and Tony nominee Joshua Henry, as Duran. After a reading of the piece, producers Robert LuPone and Bernie Telsey jumped at the chance to develop ”The Wrong Man” at MCC, their off-Broadway theater. Currently previewing there to sold-out audiences, the sung-through show, co-starring Ryan Vasquez and Ciara Renée, will open Monday, Oct. 7.
Golan, for his part, is surprised to find himself on the verge of breaking into mainstream consciousness. Not bad for a guy, now 39, who a decade ago was fighting to keep a roof over his head in Los Angeles and whose first pop album in 2004, “Reagan Baby,” barely moved beyond single-digit sales. However, what Golan could not do for himself, he has since been able to do for others, having written dozens of chart-topping hits for the likes of Justin Bieber, Lady Antebellum, Keith Urban, Selena Gomez and Maroon 5.
Emerging into musical theater through a concept album, Golan follows in the footsteps of other pop songwriters, such as Pete Townshend (“The Who’s Tommy”), Green Day (“American Idiot”), Anaïs Mitchell (“Hadestown”), and Alanis Morissette (“Jagged Little Pill”). Golan says that what binds pop songwriters and musical theater artists is “a desire for long-form storytelling,” creating characters and narratives that are emotionally compelling. He adds that pop albums with stage potential are perhaps more prevalent than we might imagine.
“I actually think that this has been done many times before,” he says. “The difference is the writers who didn’t have the time to maturate their songs in the way that ‘The Wrong Man’ has been able to.”
A 15-year maturation, to be exact, beginning in 2004 when Golan, drawn to the murder ballads of Merle Haggard, Tom Waits, Tupac, Eminem and Waylon Jennings, laid down the first chords and lyrics of “The Wrong Man.” Since most of those songs were written from the perspective of a guilty man looking back at his crime, Golan decided to turn it on its head. “I thought it would be interesting to write a ballad about a guy who was innocent,” he says of the star-crossed dreamer he concocted.
Unemployed when he began tracing Duran’s journey, Golan recalls that he would take as much as a month to work on a single lyric. “When you’re not in a rush, when you’re not aiming for anything, you have all the time in the world to make these edits,” he says with a laugh. In the ensuing decade, he was content to play the slow simmering songs on his guitar for small gatherings from which emerged one question: “What happens next?” In 2017, Golan decided it was time to lay down tracks for an album. At a recording session for Interscope Records was Kurt Deutsch, a Warner/Chappell Music executive who was on the hunt for theatrical projects.
“I immediately thought it would make an incredible musical,” says Deutsch, who a few months later would set up the meeting between Golan and Kail. “They were songs unlike any I’d ever heard before. Ross had created this world of Reno and a group of people that made you care deeply about what happened to them.”
As immersed as Ross was in the pop music world — he was named BMI’s Pop Songwriter of the Year in 2016 — his foray into musical theater was not entirely unexpected. When others at recording sessions would cite Jay-Z, Eminen or Beyoncé as their musical influences, he would startle the room by listing Stephen Sondheim. His fondness for theater began as a community player in such musicals as “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Oklahoma” in his hometown of Deerfield, Illinois.
“My discography is strangely eclectic,” he says. “I love when you leave a theater with a melody in your head. A big part of my job is making sure people grab onto that. The people who were best at creating melody were those who were [the generation] previous to those in the Brill Building. Every word matters, every note matters. They never allow laziness to get in the way. I hope my writing is meticulous in the same way.”
Lacamoire, the show’s musical supervisor, says that he was impressed with just that rigor when he heard the demos to “The Wrong Man.” “The music had an innate sense of rhythm, melody, theatricality and propulsion that kept the story driving forward.”
This was particularly true of one of the show’s highlights, when Duran faces his horrific situation: Henry’s rendition of “Stay Positive.” The cri de cœur is at the heart of the moral and ethical concerns of the musical: how men, mostly of color and mostly of the underclass, must contend with the ugly reality that there is no justice for them. Kail says that Joshua Henry’s riveting performance of the song — at a recent preview, the actor received a loud and sustained ovation — is a reflection of his personal magnetism. “His spirit, the size of his talent and his enormous heart and humanity, is a good match for this,” says the director.
Golan says that the power of “Stay Positive” scared him. In fact, he had months of writer’s block after composing it. For the longest time, he even refused to include it in his performances of songs from “The Wrong Man.” “It’s me at my most vulnerable,” he says. “You can hear the pain in that song.”
What got him over the writer’s block, he says, was the next song in the show, “When Evil Men Go on the Run,” a cynical summation by Man in Black, Duran’s nemesis. Despite the seductive Latin beat, Golan says that he shares little of its nihilism. He casts his lot with those who fall between the cracks through no fault of their own.
“In so many songs and movies, you have empathy for the guy who says, ‘I’m guilty,’” he says, pointing to Tony Soprano as an appealing anti-hero. “You’re okay with these guys being genuinely evil. And Ryan [Vasquez as Man in Black] is amazing. How do you not clap or have a good time watching this guy? There’s this strange empathy you can take as an audience in a theater. But you don’t have to take it as a citizen.”
Within that political milieu, Golan believes that change is possible. He hopes that “The Wrong Man” will be a small part of the larger conversation about exoneration of the innocent. “I do believe we can change things. Fight. Donate. Learn.”
“Yeah. That, too.”
“The Wrong Man” is on stage at the MCC Theater through Nov. 17.