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Stephen King and John Mellencamp’s New Musical
The horror master and the rocker join forces to unveil a Southern gothic musical at the Alliance
From Faulkner to Dickey, stories about the South often suckle at the teat of scary, with batty relations and pitch-black secrets leading the way. In other words, a perfect stomping ground for author Stephen King. The horror writer is one-third of an unholy trinity of Americana—along with musician John Mellencamp and musical director T Bone Burnett—who have made their way to Atlanta to debut their long-time-coming musical “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County.”
Premiering April 4 and running through May 13 at the Alliance Theatre, the eerie tale will be directed by Alliance artistic director Susan V. Booth and will star a shiny-penny cast of locals like Kylie Brown and former Atlantans Shuler Hensley and Justin Guarini. King’s script flits from past to present as it tells the story of two generations of the McCandless family touched by a 1967 triple homicide in a backwoods Mississippi cabin.
For the past twelve years, King and Mellencamp have been nurturing "Ghost Brothers" like an oak-casked bourbon. They’ve soldiered through talks with shifts of directors—including Ingmar Bergman muse Liv Ullmann at one point—and the doldrums of rewrites, crazy schedules, and tag-teaming bouts of self-doubt. That is, until Booth jumped in like a knight on a white charger, offering up the Alliance as a berth.
A wisecracking, exceedingly likable cuss who peppers his conversation with “darns” and saltier stuff too, King, sixty-four, discussed the complex road of transforming an Indiana ghost story into a two-fisted, hip-shaking Southern gothic.
King (left) and Mellencamp (right) fine-tuned their new musical for more than a decade; photograph by Caroline Kilgore
I heard an agent at Creative Artists Agency originally suggested John Mellencamp get in touch with you about working on his idea for a horror-musical? My agent at CAA—he's now moved on, he's at Paradigm agency—but he was at CAA for years, a guy named Rand Holston. A terrific guy . . . had been my agent for years. And talk about discreet; he'd been John's agent for years. And we didn't know each other. And so one day when John was with Rand he said [King puts on a gravelly, been-around-the-block voice in imitation of Mellencamp's], "Rand, I've got this terrific idea for a gothic, a kind of a ghost thing, and I'd really like to get somebody to write it. I was thinking about Stephen King. Do you know who his agent is?" And Rand said "I am," and the next thing I knew Rand put John and I in touch and John came down—we've got a place in Florida. The best thing about that first meeting was, John tuned my guitar.
This was in 1999? I think it was. It might have even been '98. It's been a long road. It's been eleven or twelve years. We were both relatively young men when we started and now we're old and used up.
And had you not been playing the guitar until he tuned it? The embarrassing thing is, I had been.
How long did it take to write? The first draft didn't take too long. It was all the other drafts that were the killer. John came to me and he had this basic idea. He said, "Think about this conflict between two brothers that might lead to murder or to trouble." And I said, "Well you gotta put booze in the mix," and he said, "Yeah, yeah, yeah!" And I said, "And there's gotta be a girl." And he goes, "Yeah, there's gotta be a girl." And a roadhouse and a lot of other elements that lead to that sort of thing. I don't want to give too much away, but we did work that part out and I said, "Well okay, this is a terrific story. Now there's two ways you can go with something like this. If you want to do a modern Broadway musical like 'Cats' or 'Les Mis' it means my work is done. I'll do a little treatment of it and you just write songs that carry the story forward. The other way you can go is with 'My Fair Lady,' where they talk a little while, and then they sing, and then talk some more." And John said he wanted to do that. So I said, "Okay, I'll do a more complete treatment."
Keep in mind we're feeling our way through this process. Neither one of us has done it before, and it's a little bit like the idea of setting it in the South when he's from Indiana and I'm from New England. You approach it carefully with as much confidence as you can. But you also try to be respectful and say to yourself, we don't know a whole hell of a lot so let's do the best we can and then ask for input. Which is pretty much what we did. So I wrote the play and I put in little pockets and said, "There ought to be a song here about the brothers fighting, which will be a duet," and, "There outta be a song here about this little boy talking about how much he wishes his brothers weren't angry all the time." And when John wrote the song, I would rewrite the area around them so the intro and the outro would feel natural, with good transition as much as possible. And in some cases I had to ask him to rewrite the songs a little bit. And I think probably the actual play of the show has gone through five different iterations. John probably wrote, by the time he was done, twenty different songs, where somewhere between nine and fourteen are still in the original show.
The other thing that I was concerned about was to try to create a setting that would allow this play to be produced in repertory. Neither one of us knew if we would—let's put it this way, we didn't know we would get to a city as big as Atlanta, let alone Broadway. So the major thing was to say, well let's try to create something that could at least be put on. We tried to keep it fairly modest.
The South seems to be having a moment these days, perhaps because it embraces its regionality while much of the country can often seem to be becoming more uniform. Can you talk a bit about that idea of authenticity—which seems really important in "Ghost Brothers," with the inclusion of T Bone Burnett and people like alt-country singer Dale Watson. John has worked with a lot of musicians in places like Muscle Shoals [Sound Studio]. And he just finished making a record in Sun Studio in Nashville. And T Bone worships that kind of music. And it lends itself naturally to what we were doing. John and I said from the beginning the last thing that we want is a slick New York show. We are people who are not from the city. We're pretty much ordinary kind of blue jeans folks and we wanted that kind of music. We didn't want the big forty-piece orchestra. And once you make certain key decisions, like it's going to be this kind of music and this kind of setting, then you just go back to your roots and you try to make sure that you're going to do right by the material.
I spent some time in Mississippi and also in Selma, and I wanted to get a feel for the place. And I also spent a year—it seemed like ten years—working with [movie producer] Dino De Laurentiis in Asheville, North Carolina, and places like that. I know a little about the South, and I'm humble enough to not want to think I know it all. You don't just swagger in from another part of the country and say you know the South. Because then you wind up with the fucking "Beverly Hillbillies" or Cooter and Daisy Duke and all that other crap. That's not the South. But at the same time, all respect to Atlanta, we didn't want that South either. That's the new South. The other thing that you have to keep in mind is the play divides its time between 1967 and about 1996. So even at the most recent, the "present day" is still fifteen years ago. And it's not a city we're talking about. It's the lake region in Mississippi, not too far from Oxford. I could show it to you on a map, but it doesn't matter because it's all make-believe.
You did mention that Atlanta is in many ways part of the new South. But did you go anyplace that felt really old school? No, not since I've been working at the Alliance. That was like Downtown Atlanta and the Four Seasons, which could be a hotel anywhere. One thing I did notice when I took a walk down the street to the convenience store, I was boggled by the number of different kinds of pork rinds and pork cracklings I could get. It's little things.
When it comes to the South I took a lot of what I remembered from Corinth, Mississippi, and Selma and Wilmington and places like that, where you've got the big wide Main Street and maybe a bar over here and a barbershop on the other side and a place that cashes checks. And the buildings are brick and there is a kind of feeling of quiet and almost desolation because a lot of those shops are empty. But that's not Atlanta as I knew it.
And the other place where I went out and signed books, was like a suburb of Atlanta. I was horrified by the traffic. They call it a part of Atlanta but it took a half an hour to get out there and it could be New Jersey, Illinois, anyplace. You've got Applebee's and Walmart.
At the Alliance I just felt like they're theater people: that's their particular country.
I thought Esquire had a funny characterization of "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County": a musical for men. Do you think this is a musical pitched at an audience that might not typically go to musicals? I don't know. It's so different. Here's another reason to do it in Atlanta. There is a feeling about Atlanta that they are about serious art but they are willing to go a little more textured, a little more gritty. There is an awful lot of Broadway right now that seems calculated for the kids' day off from school to enjoy the theater. Or for the blue-haired ladies who come in on the bus that they charter from upstate Connecticut: "The Lion King" or "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark." Those things are almost like Disney rides in a theater. That isn't something that we wanted to do. I wanted for people to go out singing the songs. I want people to have a fun time, and I want them to be entertained. But I'd also like for them to be awake.
When you sat in on the rehearsal for "Ghost Brothers" in Atlanta at the Alliance, what was the feel and the tone? Did it remind you of your own work or of a specific Southern gothic?
No. I was thrilled out of my shoes. I got goose bumps. Some of it was the arrangement of the songs. But some of it was having actors. And I think it was because Susan had worked with actors who really understood the material. They made the lines more than the lines really are. That's what actors do when they're good and they understand their part.
I can't say enough about Susan. About her professionalism, about her talent, and also her ability to get John and me to both change things when she needs them changed. She's the boss. She's established control over the project. And I'm delighted to have her. I trust her. That's very rare for me. I'm like John, I've worked on my own for so long that I don't have a big capacity to trust anybody creatively except myself.
The other thing is, it didn't seem like John, and it didn't seem like me. I have collaborated with a couple of different writers—Stewart O 'Nan and Peter Straub. This feels like a true collaboration in the sense that the talents mingle and become something that's different. I hope greater. It doesn't seem like either him or me. It seems like its own thing.
Was it difficult to get so much feedback from different directors, including Susan V. Booth, and from so many different people during the process of writing "Ghost Brothers"? No. It wasn't difficult. Sometimes it was difficult to find the time. And sometimes she'd ask for this effect or that effect and I would think about how to write things to get that piece in there. It's easier when the director asks you to cut. I just knew from the first time that I met her that she was somebody totally in control of that particular environment and when she asked to direct it, I thought to myself we really lucked out here. You're always happy when you make a judgment about people and it turns out to be right.
At what point did T Bone come on and what did you hope he would add? We were talking about doing a recorded version of the play. I'm not sure what's going to happen with that. We certainly recorded it with a lot of good people, from Sheryl Crow to Meg Ryan. And John is now with Meg Ryan and that's how he met her. She played the mother on the "Ghost Brothers" recording. But the play's undergone a lot of changes since then. Expansion in some places and contraction in others. That's when John brought T Bone on board, to coordinate the record, which has got a real different sound. So that's been a process of evolution too.
So this album is not going to come out before the play? Don't ask me. I'm just the writer.
*EXTENDED VERSION OF THE INTERVIEW THAT RAN IN OUR MARCH 2012 ISSUE