‘The Wrong Man’ musical’s epic journey to the stage, with help from Team ‘Hamilton’
Ross Golan still can’t believe he’s here.
Here, in a chair at the front of a rehearsal studio in Hell’s Kitchen, Golan is watching for the first time a dance number from “The Wrong Man,” a new off-Broadway musical.
The multi-platinum singer-songwriter has taken a decade and half to get here, so he’s savoring every moment as his music and lyrics come to life before his eyes. With its blend of folksy ballads, catchy pop and hip-hop numbers and soulful instrumentals, “The Wrong Man” tells the tale of Duran, a fictional Everyman who has a one-night stand with a woman he meets at a bar in Reno, then is framed for murder by her jealous ex-husband. Though innocent, Duran is convicted, sent to prison and sentenced to death.
“I’m originally from Illinois, which is famously the most corrupt state in the union. After the governor, at the time, put a stay on executions, I thought it would be fascinating to tell the story from the perspective of a guy who is in prison for something he didn’t do,” Golan says. “So, I wrote this song.”
What started as a single song has snowballed into an animated film, a concept album and the new sung-through musical, helmed by three of the most in-demand creatives in the industry: director Thomas Kail and orchestrator Alex Lacamoire, both Tony winners for “Hamilton,” as well as Emmy-winning dancer-choreographer Travis Wall of “So You Think You Can Dance.”
“When I started ‘The Wrong Man,’ I didn’t know where I’d be now. I’m not at all where I expected, but I’m exactly where I aimed to be,” Golan says. “I wanted to be here, but I didn’t know where here was.”
Hard work, fervid word-of-mouth and a dash of luck have taken Golan, 39, on a journey that is culminating — at least for now — at MCC Theater with the first preview held Wednesday and the opening Oct. 7 of one of the most anticipated off-Broadway productions of the fall.
To borrow a line from “The Wrong Man” album: That’s how the story ends, and this is how it begins …
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Long before he was the hit-making songwriter for some of the biggest names in music — Selena Gomez, Nicki Minaj, Flo Rida, Ariana Grande, Lady Antebellum and Maroon 5, to name a few — Golan was just another musician with some record deals and big dreams.
Three years out of college, Golan released his first album, “Reagan Baby,” on Election Day in 2004, the same year he began writing songs for what he thought would be a follow-up album. Among them was “The Wrong Man.” As he toured his album, he added the song to his set list.
“That was everybody’s favorite song, but it wasn’t on the album,” he says, “so I knew that there was something with that song.”
After the financial crisis exploded in 2008, Golan found himself among the ranks of struggling musicians. His condo in West Hollywood was being foreclosed on, and he was living on a steady diet of pasta and butter while figuring out his next move.
“I felt confused when the only thing I’m really good at is music, and I wasn’t making a living at it,” he says. “I felt like I was somebody who was not being listened to, and I was scared of what was going to happen next. It felt like prison-ish.”
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He channeled this emotion into writing, creating hit songs for others and completing half of what would become “The Wrong Man” album. Guitar in hand, he began performing for friends.
“I started playing it in people’s living rooms and kitchens,” he says. “People would hear about it and say, ‘Would you send me a CD or an MP3?’ and I’d say, no, I’d rather play it for you.”
It was at a living room party where veteran theater producer Suzi Dietz heard “The Wrong Man.” She suggested Golan stage it. The barebones production at the 88-seat Skylight Theatre in Los Feliz consisted of Golan on acoustic guitar, a dancer and five screens with video projections of scenes in Reno. The show, billed as an “underground musical,” took home three 2014 Ovation Awards.
“Afterward, it was like, what do we do with this?” Golan says. “It won all these awards. Can it go to New York? And the response was, essentially, no. The music is too contemporary, and the story is pretty dark.”
Fortunately, he was doing well in his day job. By 2016, he was named BMI’s pop songwriter of the year. The following year, he launched “And the Writer Is …,” a podcast that offers a behind-the-scenes look at the music industry.
Golan still hadn’t recorded “The Wrong Man,” so the only way to hear it was when he played it, live. But word was spreading. Fast.
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It’s a rainy April day in New York, and Ross Golan can’t believe he’s here.
Here, at the Tribeca Film Festival, Golan is just hours from the world premiere of the animated film version of “The Wrong Man.” Written and performed by Golan, the film will introduce Duran to an unlikely audience of cinephiles eager for new discoveries. Afterward, he will take part in a social justice-themed Q&A that includes Yusef Salaam, one of the exonerated men in the Central Park Five rape case.
Golan worked with designer John Hwang of Sound Visuals Club to put his music on the screen because, he says, “people have such short attention spans that any visual aids will help.”
A month earlier, he played “The Wrong Man” at South by Southwest. “It might be one of the first times I ever played using a microphone, because I’d always done it in intimate settings,” he recalls. “It was a good opportunity to move on to the next step of the performance, where you realize this is no longer only for people in a living room.”
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As it turned out, the timing for “The Wrong Man” couldn’t have been more fortuitous. Golan’s labor of love was in the works years before the explosion of true-crime entertainment, like the popular podcast “Serial,” the Netflix series “Making a Murderer,” HBO’s “The Jinx” or Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us.”
“None of those things existed, when I started. Then they all came out. And then came ‘Hamilton.’ And everyone was saying, where is the next ‘Hamilton’?” Golan says. “‘The Wrong Man,’ it just sort of — life happened to it.”
Life and a bit of luck.
As the true-crime genre caught fire and “Hamilton” opened doors for less-traditional themes and more contemporary music on the stage, “The Wrong Man” sprang to mind for several people who had heard it in living rooms across the country.
It was finally time for Golan to make a record. During a recording session in L.A., he met Kurt Deutsch, a Warner/Chappell Music executive responsible for theatrical projects, who arranged for Golan to perform for theater and publishing executives in New York.
In one of those only-in-New York chance meetings on a subway, Deutsch ran into Kail, who was about to embark on directing the FX limited TV series “Fosse/Verdon.” Deutsch suggested that the busy Kail meet Golan.
“When I first sat with Ross, I was like, ‘I have 30 minutes, I only have 30 minutes.’ Two minutes in, I was like, ‘I just found 30 more minutes,’ ” Kail says, laughing. “There was something that happened in hearing the music — hearing it live had a lot of do with it — I just thought, he should be writing for the theater.”
After hearing “The Wrong Man,” Kail immediately shared it with his longtime collaborator Lacamoire.
“I remember I listened to it all at the park,” Lacamoire says. “There’s a certain kind of spark in that music that kind of lights you up. Mind you, these demos were just guitar and voice and nothing else. But in that, you could hear a groove, a rhythm, and the insistence of trying to get a message across and the need to express it.”
In no time, they reached out to actor Joshua Henry, whom they had known since 2006. The three-time Tony nominee had just completed the “Hamilton” tour and was vacationing in Hawaii with his wife. “I remember when ‘Stay Positive’ came on, and that’s when I knew I was in,” he says. “I was, like, ‘Yo, all the way in.’ ”
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On a drizzly day in May, back at MCC Theater, Ross Golan can’t believe he’s here.
Here, in the back row of the black box theater, Golan sits stoically next to choreographer Wall as Broadway producers, music industry executives and their assistants arrive for the first of a pair of invitation-only workshops. Here, they’ll get a taste of “The Wrong Man,” with Henry singing the part of Duran.
Several guests whisper that they aren’t even sure what it is they’ll be seeing, but by the end of the performance the room is abuzz.
“There’s an inherent theatricality to the music, even though Ross wasn’t originally seeing it as a theater piece,” Wall says later. “There was a thread through it all.”
The workshop repeats after lunch, with a slightly younger, impossibly cool crowd that includes Golan’s wife, Jacquelyn. Afterward, Golan looks relieved, even excited. “When you see 10 actors and musicians bringing out that honesty from the piece, you start to realize that it’s no longer mine, it’s ours.”
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When Kail led the first reading of “The Wrong Man,” he experimented with three different actors playing Duran. “It was like a relay race,” he says, “because what struck me initially was this idea that this is so much about chance. This could happen to anybody.”
That message is important to Golan, who once considered studying political science instead of music. “This convergence of theater and political science and music makes 17-year-old Ross very happy,” he says. “He’s very proud of this Ross.”
For the creative team, the show offers an opportunity to address social justice issues through their work.
“The best kind of theater creates conversation that begins as soon as the curtain comes down,” Kail says. “That’s what makes me feel useful. I can’t build a building, but I know how to do this. That makes me feel like a citizen.”
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It’s a warm July evening in Hollywood, and Ross Golan can’t believe he’s here.
Here, at the front of the cavernous Studio 3 at EastWest Studios, Golan is welcoming guests to a listening party for “The Wrong Man” album on the eve of its release.
“This room is magical,” he says. It’s where the Beach Boys recorded “Pet Sounds.” The Mamas and the Papas recorded “California Dreaming” here. And it happens to be the place where Golan recorded his first album.
“After I sold no records for ‘Reagan Baby,’ ” he says, eliciting sympathetic laughter from the crowd, “I wrote a song called ‘The Wrong Man.’ ”
For the next 65 minutes, the room is silent, with 140 pairs of ears soaking in Golan’s album. Also that day, tickets went on sale for his off-Broadway musical. And he’d just gotten word that Amazon would be distributing the animated film.
“This album doesn’t just tell the story of Duran, the protagonist who’s trying to be heard,” he says. “It also tells the story of me trying to be heard.”
A few weeks later, Golan returns to MCC Theater, where the clock is ticking to the first preview. The buzz around the show has been deafening, but he and the rest of the creative team are laser focused on this production, brushing off any talk of future plans.
And although Golan still can’t believe he’s here, he’s sure there’s no place he’d rather be.
“I don’t know that I set out with this as my initial goal,” he says, “but this community is going to have a hard time getting me to leave it.”
Fall theater season highlights for Los Angeles include a musical version of “Almost Famous,” Bill Irwin in “On Beckett,” a revival of August Wilson’s “Jitney” and a new stand-up show by comic Mike Birbiglia.
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