How Ross Golan Went From Pop Songwriter to Musical Theater Innovator


Fourteen years ago, songwriter Ross Golan was just another struggling musician who had “been in bands and sold no records.” In an effort to get inspired (and jump-start his career), he tried to write an unorthodox murder ballad: one in the style of “2Pac, Merle Haggard, Eminem or Johnny Cash,” in which the protagonist wasn’t actually guilty.

Since then, a lot has changed for Golan, now 39, who’s published by Warner Chappell. He has achieved massive success as a songwriter for the likes of Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez -- he was named BMI’s pop songwriter of the year in 2016 -- and he hosts the popular podcast And the Writer Is... Meanwhile, that murder ballad he wrote has taken on a life of its own: It is the title track to The Wrong Man, a solo Golan performance that has evolved into a concept album (released in July on Interscope Records), an animated film (that premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival) and, now, a much-anticipated musical. It will debut off-Broadway in September, with the kind of creative team (director Thomas Kail and orchestrator Alex Lacamoire, both Tony Award-winning Hamilton alums) that could indicate larger ambitions.

The show tells the story of Duran, a man scraping by in Reno, Nev., who is framed for murder after a brief affair with a strange woman. Sung largely from Duran’s perspective on death row, Golan’s songs have a Tom Waits meets Ed Sheeran vibe. The stage production -- which expands on the album’s scope to present a wider tale of sex, murder and revenge -- stars three-time Tony nominee Joshua Henry as the protagonist.

It is not quite what Golan expected back when he was performing the in-progress project in his friends’ living rooms. The word-of-mouth around his initial Wrong Man tunes, in fact, helped him get work as a pop songwriter. But while writing for other artists centered on collaboration (“I always say my job is to facilitate my co-writer’s best song. I want them to say, ‘This is the best song I have’ ”), The Wrong Man presented a different, and attractive, challenge: writing something much bigger than one track, and wholly his own. “To be [the only] writer on a song released by a major label is a massive achievement for anybody in my day job,” says Golan. “The Wrong Man opened a lot of doors for me -- and now I feel like I’m opening doors for it.”

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 24 issue of Billboard.