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Grammy-winning composer and Natchez native Glen Ballard is back on Broadway with Back to the Future – The Musical



Glen Ballard
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By: Ellis Nassour

Special to Vicksburg Daily News

September 15, 2003 — With six Grammy Awards, sales of over 150 million records and #1 hits in pop, rock, jazz, country and rhythm and blues, Natchez-native Glen Ballard ranks as one of music’s most acclaimed songwriter-producers. He earned numerous awards, including ASCAP and the National Academy of Music’s Songwriter of the Year, a Billboard tribute issue and ASCAP’s annual citations for radio’s Most Performed Songs. In 2023, Ballard was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Back in his teens and at Ole Miss, Ballard was way ahead on the music curve – writing songs, recording an album and dreaming of pop stardom. Did he ever imagine winning a Grammy, much less six? Not only that, but to be working with legends such as Alan Silvestri, Michael Jackson, Annie Lennox, Elton John, Quincy Jones, Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand, Wilson Phillips, Van Halen and among many others, Andrea Bocelli?

“Yes and no,” he utters almost in a whisper. “Part of the dream is somehow knowing it will happen. It doesn’t always. Never give up hope. I was extremely, and I stress the extremely, fortunate. I am just a writer. I write every single day – lyrics, music, shows, poetry and novels. It’s all I do. All I want to do. I love to tell stories. It’s part of my DNA.”

Ballard has been steamrolling since the early 90s. In 2001, he marked a rare milestone in show business by penning and/or producing records selling more than 150,000,000 copies worldwide.

“No way,” Ballard replies when asked if he’s been able to absorb such success. “It still feels surreal. I didn’t know the business. I didn’t know what to expect. I never look back. Only forward. I had a lot of mentors. Even as I was learning, they treated me with respect.”

Novelist is an addition to Ballard’s resume. His first is due in the Fall. “Writing poetry and books – telling stories is what I wanted to, but I had to sideline that when my music career began to steamroll.”

Glen Ballard and Alan Silvestri

Glen Ballard and Alan Silvestri

Ballard has returned to theater after two adaptations from film and music – Ghost and Jagged Little Pill, collaborating with two-time Oscar and two-time Grammy nominee Alan Silvestri, acclaimed composer of countless film and TV scores, to ignite Broadway with Back to the Future – The Musical, rocking audiences at the Winter Garden Theatre.

On London’s West End, where Ballard had great pre-Broadway success with Ghost, Back to the Future was nominated for seven 2022 Olivier Awards, including Best Score and won Best New Musical.

For the few who may not know the film (which starred Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd) and its sequels, it’s 1985. Marty McFly, a teenage slacker and mean guitarist with a dysfunctional family. He’s looking to hit the big time with his band, encouraged by his optimistic girlfriend. On a visit to assist maverick scientist Doc Brown, he’s accidentally sent 30 years into the past in Doc’s experimental DeLorean rebuilt for time travel. As he descends into 1955, he meets his future parents, which gets a bit complicated. Before Marty can return to 1985, he must make sure his high school-aged parents fall in love in order to ensure his own existence.

Back to the Future the Musical

The challenge was working with iconic characters that millions of fans of the classic film [and sequels] knew and loved. “It was tricky. ‘How do we make this work onstage, how do we make it sing?’ The concept is driven by the music and Alan wrote quite a dynamic score.” There are blasting rock numbers and songs heavily influenced by pop, soul, Country and jazz.

They never gave up and somehow survived. Ballard laughed. “It wasn’t because of me but because of my music elders from whom I learned so much. We composed over 50 tunes that we constantly refined until we had 17 tunes. It only took 14 years to get it right!”

Ballard calls Silvestri “one of the greatest composers on the planet. We’ve had this collaboration of 25 years. I learned from him, musically; and lyrically, he learned from me. Alan is not only a genius, he’s also a generous genius. Robert’s talent and vision are empowering. And he’s fun. Fun’s essential. Greatness doesn’t grow out of torture but out of joyful hard work.”

For over 20 years, Alan Silvestri has been one of the most prolific film composers. In addition to his Oscar-nominated score for Forrest Gump and Best Song, “Believe,” from The Polar Express, he’s written scores for over 70 films and TV series. He’s been associated with director Zemeckis since 1984, composing for all his feature films. These include the Back to the Future franchise, Forrest Gump, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Cast Away, Romancing the Stone, and The Polar Express.

Back to the Future the Musical

Music dominated Glen Ballard’s life. Following graduation, he headed to Los Angeles. “I learned about making deals and music publishing.” Out of the blue, Ballard was hired by Elton John to play keyboards for Kiki Dee. “I had my first single playing on her charted ‘One Step.” That opened doors at MCA, which was releasing John’s music in the U.S. “I was writing songs for $100 a week.” That relationship continues today – for considerably more money. In 1999, he released The Glen Ballard Songbook, a sheet music collection of 11 tunes (available on Amazon). “I was off and running and decided to go indie.”

The gamble paid off. Country superstar George Strait recorded “You Look So Good in Love,” which soared up the Country charts to #1 and won Song of the Year. Working with Quincy Jones, he helped craft records for Michael Jackson (“Man in the Mirror”).

It was Ballard’s collaboration with Alanis Morrisette that catapulted the duo to national prominence. “I’ve done tracks with dozens of acts,” states Ballard, “but there’s something special about creating an album, rather than just trying to write a hit single. It allows you to experiment with lots of different things. I get to know the voice, then I can grow something that’s a perfect fit.”

Jagged Little Pill became one of the biggest albums of the 90s with sales in excess of 30 million copies. Voted Billboard’s Album of the Year and Best Album of the Decade, it won three Grammys and became one of the top-selling albums – and is still selling. Rolling Stone gave it a spot on its Greatest Albums of All Time list. It also led to his second Broadway outing in 2019. The musical adaptation was nominated for 15 Tonys. It’s now touring.

Now, with his third Broadway score, he established the Glen Ballard Music Composition and Production Scholarship, which helps aspiring producers at the Los Angeles College of Music.

In theater, Ballard found that “the director is the ultimate decider. He has enormous power. Theater has broadened my horizons, but going forward, I’ll make the decisions. I want to follow my muse.” There are three projects in the pipeline, including writing songs for the stage adaptation of the 1979 movie The Rose.

Ballad sadly admits to being a workaholic. “Writing is my life. Once I start working, I’m fully engaged because people have great expectations.” Are there regrets? “Oh, yes. More than a few. My biggest success is that I’m still here. It’s astonishing and overwhelming.”

Ellis Nassour

Ellis Nassour (courtesy of Ellis Nassour)

Vicksburg native Ellis Nassour is an award-winning international arts journalist and author. His Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, the first biography on the legendary country and pop singer, has been in print for 40 years. His book Jesus Christ Superstar – Behind the Scenes of the Worldwide Musical Phenomenon will launch in the Fall. He’s especially proud of The Mamie and Ellis Nassour Arts & Entertainment Collection, donated in 2004 in honor of his parents, in the University of Mississippi William Faulkner Archives Special Collections of the J.D. Williams Library. A third of the Collection circulates to faculty, students and researchers. Ellis resides in New York City.

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