Atlantic's A&R Chief on Bryan Adams' 'Pretty Woman' Musical, Lessons Learned From 'Hamilton' and More

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Samantha Barks and Andy Karl during the Curtain Call for the Garry Marshall Tribute Performance of "Pretty Woman:The Musical" at the Nederlander Theatre on Aug. 2, 2018 in New York City.  

Pete Ganbarg talks about working another Broadway soundtrack, following successes with 'Hamilton,' 'Mean Girls' and others.

When Pete Ganbarg A&Red his very first project, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles soundtrack, almost 30 years ago for SBK, he likely didn't envision that he would one day win a Grammy, let alone become somewhat of a master at A&R-ing Broadway soundtracks. Today, his latest cast recording for Pretty Woman: The Musical comes out digitally; the physical album arrives Oct. 26.

During Ganbarg's career, he's mainly A&Red bands and solo singers -- from Twenty One Pilots to Kelly Clarkson and Santana -- first at SBK in 1989, then with Arista in the late 90s to Epic in 2003, then heading his own consulting company, Pure Tone Music, and finally joining Atlantic in 2008. He was made president of A&R at the start of this year.

Just in the past few years, he's worked on four original Broadway cast recordings, all major successes. The 2016 Hamilton: An American Musical soundtrack hit No. 3 on the Billboard 200; then 2017 The Dear Evan Hansen soundtrack hit No. 8 and earned him that Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album; and this year Mean Girls Original Broadway Cast Recording hit No. 42. Incidentally, Ganbarg co-produced the film soundtrack for The Greatest Showman, containing the 2018 Golden Globe-winning song, "This Is Me."

The original Pretty Woman soundtrack back in 1990 -- based on the enormously popular film starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, directed by Garry Marshall from a screenplay by J.F. Lawton -- did well, reaching No. 4, but it was a compilation of songs such as Roxette's "Must Have Been Love," Peter Cetera's "No Explanation," and, of course, Roy Orbison's "Oh Pretty Woman," executive produced by Ron Fair for Capitol.  The Broadway show Pretty Woman: The Musical features 20 original songs (except for Verdi's La traviata), co-written by Bryan Adams and long-time collaborator Jim Vallance.

The show (directed and choreographed by Broadway vet Jerry Mitchell) follows the street corner-to-penthouse story of feisty prostitute Vivian (Samantha Barks, best known for playing Eponine in the 2012 film of Les Misérables) and wealthy businessman Edward (Andy Karl, most recently a Tony-nominee for Groundhog Day).

Billboard spoke to Ganbarg about the soundtrack and more.

When was the first time you ever saw the film?

Not when it came out, that's for sure [laughs]. It was funny, when we did Mean Girls, I have two daughters, so they basically walked around the house for 10 years quoting the movie like I would quote The Godfather. And I realized that we were getting the deal, it dawned on me, "Oh, my God, I've never seen this movie." I had to watch Mean Girls before we went into record the album so I understood the movie. With Pretty Woman, I was definitely catching up as well. I wasn't a big fan of the original; I was more of a fan of Bryan's and Jim's.

Writing for a Broadway musical is an enormous undertaking with so many considerations; more so, it seems, than writing songs for a personal album.

Yeah, I know. What's so funny working with these guys is I am right in that sweet spot age-wise, where my high school soundtrack was literally songs written by Jim and Bryan, and 90 percent of them were performed by Bryan.  Now I've been sitting in the studio with them every day for the last six months getting a record done.  The crazy thing is that they've never done this before. They've collectively, both together and separately, written so many hits going back 40 years already. This is the first time that they've ever worked on a project as challenging and as demanding as writing 21 new songs for an original Broadway musical [there are 20 songs on the album and one held for bonus track later on]. It's like using new muscles that they haven't known they had. 

What is it like A&R-ing a band versus A&R-ing an original cast soundtrack?

I'm going to show my age, I'm now almost 30 years into my major label A&R career, and there's a through line, it's always about making sure that the music is right for the audience who we're targeting, either targeted by the artist or being targeted by the show.  You have to make sure that the music is bullseye right for that audience.

With these guys [Adams and Vallance], what's interesting is if you listen to the 21 songs on this cast album, they run the gamut between the classic Bryan Adams / Jim Vallance sound. There's one song ["Rodeo Drive"] where the guitars have the same type of sonic approach that a song like "It's Only Love" does. Then, the flip side is a song where the hotel manager is teaching Vivian how to dance that's almost like a samba. You would think Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance writing that? But then you're like, well, one of his biggest hits was "Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?"

There were a few songs that are so Bryan, and then others that aren't. One has a rap in it ("Never Give Up") and another is jazzy ("Don't Forget To Dance").

What's great about this show specifically, but any that we've worked on, Hamilton being the first and then we did the Dear Evan Hansen second, then we did Mean Girls third, and Pretty Woman is our fourth Broadway cast recording, in this new kind of post-Hamilton world with the one asterisks being we also worked with [songwriting duo] Pasek and Paul and did The Greatest Showman, which is a movie, but it's really, when you listen to the songs, kind of Broadway; there's that narrative theme to it that's threading all the songs.  So it's either four or five depending on how you count The Greatest Showman.  What's really interesting is that all these shows, the characters all have a different viewpoint musically. 

That's something that Bryan and Jim so brilliantly captured, where you get the wild abandon of Vivian before she becomes transformed into almost this society person running around with Edward.  Then you have the more raw styling of the songs that are written for [actor] Orfeh [who plays] Kit because she's more of a raw character.  Then when you hear the hotel manager sing his songs, he's more refined. You're not really thinking [in the musical] about Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance beyond maybe "Summer of 69," and a couple of the hits. You may not be expecting that. It really impressed me how deep they were able to go, capturing the nuance of each character musically.

Jim said there were daily changes in Chicago previews. A soundtrack has to come out in a timely manner, and yet you can't start on it until the show is locked. What's it like for you as an A&R person, used to A&R-ing a band or a solo artist, where you have much more time?

After having done a few of them, you get in the rhythm of what it is that needs to be done.  The show does not lock until right before opening night. Once the show opens and it's locked, then you can start recording. You can't really, with a couple of exceptions, start recording until the show is locked, which is why cast albums do not come out day and date with the opening of the show because that's the time that we're just starting the recording process.

In Chicago, we all went out having no idea how in-progress it was going to be.  There were so many changes, not only with new songs being added; there was a difference in casting, the male lead was different in Chicago versus the male lead now, Andy Karl in New York. We've always got to be ready to work with the composers, in this case Bryan and Jim, to say, maybe a month before, to say, "Alright guys, how many of these songs are absolutely locked in your mind? In the director Jerry Mitchell's mind, what's locked and maybe we can get a head start in the studio and record a couple of songs," -- and we did.  We put out two songs ["You're Beautiful" and "I Can't Go Back"] before the rest of the album came out.

Now you're a pro. Was it the same thing with your first cast soundtrack, Hamilton? Were you aware of all these things?

Hamilton also changed a lot from the off-Broadway run to the Broadway run. It opened at The Public Theater on Broadway, and it became a phenomenon down there.  They really wanted to make changes between The Public Theater and the Richard Rodgers [Theatre] when it opened half a year later on Broadway.  At this point, you've just got to go with the creative flow of the people who are creating this music.

Bryan and Jim would tell me that they would write a song and bring it to Jerry, and Jerry was like, "No that doesn't work. Let's do it again." The difference with just writing to write and writing for Broadway is you have a director.

As great as the cast is, they're phenomenal singers who can pull that off every single night, maybe they're also not used to singing in the studio and they have to protect their voice too, so they can't do 30 takes of something when they have to perform the next day.  There are those considerations too.

Totally. There are some Broadways actors who can pull it off amazingly on stage, but in the studio setting it's different because they're not used to singing like that, as opposed to recording artists who every cycle, they're recording in the studio, getting the record right, and then going out and touring it. Here, their day job is eight days a week, going and leaving it all on the stage on Broadway. Sometimes that isn't always the easiest translation into the studio.

Key songs for Atlantic?

Nothing is 100 percent sewn yet, but the key songs for us are the key songs you'd take from the show so "You and I," and "Long Way Home" is a big song for us, those big dramatic numbers for Samantha and Andy.

Not everyone will see the musical, but the success of the Dear Evan Hansen, Mean Girls and Hamilton soundtracks proves that doesn't matter. But with Bryan's involvement, you will reach people who aren't theater-goers or fans. Curious if he has cut any of these songs?

He has. There are versions of Bryan singing these songs. We are talking to him now about how to best cross-promote the cast recording. The versions that he will do.  We're also talking about some live events where he would potentially sing with the cast.  I don't know if you saw online the clip of him and Samantha singing in London at Bryan's show [at O2 Arena].

Anything else regarding the marketing of the album?

We're talking about doing whatever we can to do to get the music out to the most amount of people. Talking about videos; we're talking about potentially doing remixes; we're talking about covers; we're doing everything that we can just to spread the music as loud as we can.