How Ross Golan Went From Pop Songwriter to Musical Theater Innovator

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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.