AKRON, Ohio — Stephen King, John Mellencamp and T Bone Burnett may seem like an unlikely triad of creativity for a musical.
Mellencamp, the heartland roots rocker who gave the world rock hits such as “Jack and Diane” and “Little Pink Houses” and Burnett, the Oscar and multiple Grammy award-winning producer extraordinaire, know music. King, master of the macabre, knows words — many spooky, scary words. But a musical stage play?
The “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County” features veteran film and television actor Bruce Greenwood, a cast of 15 actor / singers and a four-piece band with members of Mellencamp’s current group under the direction of Burnett. It’s now touring several heartland states.
The creation of “Ghost Brothers” started about 13 years ago with an idea from Mellencamp, who wrote all the music and lyrics for the musical’s 17 songs.
Mellencamp began dreaming up “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County” after he purchased a summer camp for his then young sons as a place for them to go and hang out. A local told Mellencamp that the camp was haunted by two drunken buddies who played a fatal game of William Tell. When one friend killed the other by accidently shooting him in the head, the naturally horrified shooter and his girlfriend hopped into a car to get help but the car crashed, killing them both.
Mellencamp skeptically investigated the story, discovered its veracity and the tale stuck with him. The Cain and Abel style plot became the basis for “Ghost Brothers'” macabre, spirit-filled story set in tiny, rustic Lake Belle Reve, Miss. It’s about ghostly brothers Jack and Andy, whose hatred for each other and lust after the same woman lead them to their mutual doom; their living nephews, Frank and Drake, who are heading down the same path; and their father, Joe, brother of the deceased, who has his own dark secret to reveal.
Mellencamp got the entire creative ball rolling with a simple phone call.
“He talked to his agent. They were in L.A. and he said âI have this idea for a play but I need someone to write the book,'” librettist Stephen King said from his home in Maine. “âBut it’s got to be somebody who can write something scary, you know, somebody like Stephen King.’
“And my agent, who is John’s agent, said I agent Steve and I’ll put you in touch. So he did, and John called me up and said I want to come down to (King’s home in) Florida and talk about it. …”
The two celebrated artists had never met, knowing each only other through their catalogs. But when Mellencamp visited King in Florida, the writer received a sign that the potential partnership just might work out.
“My wife liked him and that’s a big point,” King said laughing.
“We all come from kind of the same environment. We’re kind of country mice, the three of us. And he sat there in my living room playing my guitar and John is John and he said, (approximating Mellencamp’s rough-hewn voice) âWhat have you been doing to this thing. It’s like you beat it up. It’s all out of tune.’ And I’m sitting there thinking, âI’ve got this rock star in my living room tuning my guitar,'” he recalled chuckling.
“And he told me the idea and I said to myself this is really kind of interesting and it was also scary. … I embraced that idea because I’ve never done anything like that before and when you get to be a little bit older — and John feels the same way — you (like to) get out of your comfort zone a little bit and try something new.”
The two hit it off and King liked both the concept and the creative challenge of writing a musical, but the prolifically creative pair still had a problem.
“He said to me, âWe don’t know what we’re doing, do we?’ And I laughed and said, âNo, we don’t.’ âWell,’ he said, âwe’ll do the best we can and get something together and find some people who do and we’ll listen to what they say.’
“Which was amazing coming from John, because ordinarily he has an idea of what he wants to do and he goes out and does it. He knows a lot about the music business, but this was new territory for us both.”
King wrote a 40-page treatment based on Mellencamp’s basic plot in a few days, inserting rough “music goes here” cues in the script.
“He kind of wanted to use the songs as almost like emotional steroids, and to me that’s what a musical is supposed to do. The music is supposed to convey an emotional feeling that you can’t get from words alone.”
Rather than go with a grand Andrew Lloyd Webber style of musical where all of the dialogue is set to music, Mellencamp wanted more of a “West Side Story” style where characters talk then sing to punctuate the words and emotion.
“OK, I’ll put in the music where I think it should go and you write the songs as we go along,” King said he told Mellencamp when they started the project.
“And he did it! The guy is so talented that these songs just poured out of him, and he’d send me demos and I’d go back and try and smooth out the intro and the outro to them and I really enjoyed that work. It was something entirely new and it really woke up all my brain cells,” King said.
The pair knew they had something but it needed help to play on the stage, so they sent the story and a tape of about 20 songs to Burnett, who immediately jumped on board.
The trio took the rough draft of “Ghost Brothers” to New York for table readings and workshops, sought out and took advice from various folks, and “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County” had its premiere at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta in 2010. The play, which has a stark, bare-bones setting, was generally well-received with Mellencamp’s songs receiving more hosannas than King’s dialogue. That sent King, Mellencamp and Burnett back to the lab in New York.
“We really liked that experience,” King said. “We like the stripped-down look and feel of it because I always thought one of the great things about this play would be that it could be put on in community theaters and rep companies and that sort of thing.”
With the retooled “Ghost Brothers” ready to go, Mellencamp decided that they should take the play on a barnstorming tour through the Midwest, bypassing Broadway.
“I can’t speak for John, but I’m not real interested in Broadway,” King said. “It seems to me that the way that Broadway is now, it’s kind of grown into something that’s more like Disneyland than it is like the theater. There’s things like âSpiderman’ and âCats’ and âAida’ and âThe Lion King’ which seem more like E-ticket rides more than they do plays.”
King said the three men aren’t against staging the play on Broadway but enjoy the old-school, romantic notion of putting on the play in one town, packing it up, and driving down the road to do it all again.
“John said he learned from Bob Dylan, âGo where they’re not,’ and he’s sort of made that his motto when it comes to touring. … This idea of taking it around to Louisville and Asheville and Fort Wayne and Akron really excites him, so I said âYeah, let’s do it that way.’
“It should play better in a small venue because the music really hits and the band is really terrific,” King said.
“The Ghost Brothers of Darkland County” CD features a star-studded collection of guest vocalists taking on the parts. As listeners might expect from an album involving heartland rocker Mellencamp and Oscar- and Grammy-winning producer Burnett, the music is rootsy Americana with blues, folk and country elements.
The parts and songs are sung by Burnett’s buddies, including Elvis Costello, Neko Case, Kris Kristofferson, Sheryl Crow and two of King’s favorites — Phil and Dave Alvin of the Blasters — whom he asked to be included.
For King, writing a play with music for the stage has been an exciting challenge, and learning the technical aspects of staging a play has him curious to give it another try in the future, though he has no current plans.
“We don’t really know what we’re doing, and it put both of us in a position where we had to kind of rise above ourselves,” King said of the experience.
“And for John I think it’s some of the best music of his career and it’s absolutely the best play I’ve ever written,” he said laughing.