Wall Street Journal: Stephen King And John Mellencamp Make Terrifying Music Together
04.07.2012 - By Kristi York Wooten -
Wall Street Journal
Southern Gothic once referred exclusively to scribes and literature from the
land of kudzu and mint juleps. Today, a Google search of the genre serves up
everything from Bon Iver’s Wisconsin folk rock to gory novels by Australian Nick
Will a new musical from Stephen King and John Mellencamp also fit into the
Veteran Broadway performer Shuler Hensley is betting on it. The Tony- award
winner (“Oklahoma”) recently returned home to Georgia to star in “Ghost Brothers
of Darkland County,” an eerie yarn by King with songs from rocker Mellencamp,
which opened this week at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre.
The show, set in Mississippi, echoes the themes of violence and redemption found
in many of King’s works (“The Stand,” “The Green Mile”) and in the writings of
SoGoth staples William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and Flannery O’Connor.
One night in 1967 changes everything for the “Ghost Brothers” McCandless clan.
In 2007, patriarch Joe is still reeling from an event that took the lives of his
two brothers and another young woman four decades earlier. Yes, there are
Hensley, who portrays Joe McCandless, says his character is “the only witness to
unspeakable acts of violence, and must find the strength to ‘speak’ the truth.”
“He holds the key not only to his own redemption, but to the redemption of all
members of his family, past and present,” the actor, 45, says of Joe. “How
Southern Gothic is that?”
The idea for “Ghost Brothers” began in Mellencamp’s territory of “Small Town”
Indiana, where the “Pink Houses” songwriter became intrigued by a mysterious
tragedy connected to a property he’d purchased there in the 1990s. He asked
Maine native King if he’d like to turn the story – replete with a spooky cabin
and characters both living and dead – into a musical. A few weeks later, the
novelist spun the tale into a 60-page treatment.
After their initial meeting (they refer to it as a “visit”), it took twelve
years, a few scheduling snafus, and countless emails for the pair to finally
bring the play to the stage.
“One of the reasons I said yes [to John] is because I respect him as a musician
and as somebody who’s not content to do just a certain kind of pop music,” King,
64, said during a press conference at the Alliance in late 2011.
Although neither Mellencamp nor “Ghost Brothers” music director T Bone Burnett
(“O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) performs in the musical, the rootsy aesthetic
they mastered on previous collaborations (2010’s “No Better Than This” and
2008’s “Life, Death, Love, and Freedom”) remains in force.
“He has a different metronome in his head than I do,” Mellencamp, 60, says of
his Grammy-winning producer pal Burnett, 64. “All of my musical references start
in the 1950s; his start in the 1920s. He has his feet firmly planted in
Americana, blues and folk.”
When “Ghost Brothers” cast members (including American Idol alum Justin Guarini,
actor Jake La Botz, and indie singer Lucas Kavner) previewed songs from the
production at Atlanta’s Hard Rock Café in mid-March, each added his own nuances
to Mellencamp’s compositions. “Brotherly Love” and “Lounging Around in Heaven”
emanated a cabaret vibe, as if country stalwarts The Carter Family, German
composer Kurt Weill, and Louisiana blues legend Lead Belly had gathered for a
supernatural jam session.
If what happens in the South no longer stays in the South, will “Ghost Brothers
of Darkland County” eventually follow its Alliance-produced predecessors (Elton
John and Tim Rice’s “Aida” and Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple”) to the Great
Staging the play in Atlanta is what makes sense for now, the show’s director,
Susan V. Booth (who also serves as the Alliance Theatre’s Artistic Director)
told a room full of local and national press in December.
“Atlanta has an opportunity to put a major new American musical into the canon.
How often do you get this kind of trifecta?”