Fort Wayne's Journal Gazette: Rock ’n’ Gothic Mellencamp-King Musical ‘Ghost Brothers’ Comes To Embassy
10.20.2013 - Rock ’n’ gothic
Mellencamp-King musical ‘Ghost Brothers’ comes to Embassy
Keiara Carr |
The Journal Gazette
What happens when you cross horror-suspense writer Stephen King with home-bred
musician John Mellencamp?
Well, it took renowned music producer T-Bone Burnett to figure it out.
For nearly 13 years, Mellencamp and King faxed, emailed and texted back and
forth story and song ideas they had for a musical that never seemed to have an
ending. They brought in Burnett, who has worked with the likes of Bob Dylan,
Elvis Costello, Elton John and Mellencamp himself, to help find one.
“The challenge is always to find the thread, to find the tone of a piece – to
find the thing that makes it all part of a whole,” Burnett says by phone from
Sifting through a decade of correspondence, King, Mellencamp and Burnett
created the Southern gothic tale “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” which will
stop Thursday at Embassy Theatre during its 20-city tour.
Burnett, who produced the “Ghost Brothers” soundtrack, serves as the music
director of the theater production. With his help, King and Mellencamp were able
to produce a musical that conceptually feels like an old-fashioned radio play.
“I got involved as a curator,” Burnett says. “They had created a wealth of
stories and songs over a 10-, 12-year period and felt they needed an editor to
come in and help identify the core of it. The play, at that point, would have
probably have been four or five hours long – John had wrote about 40 songs.”
“Ghost Brothers” is about a bewildered man named Joe McCandless who returns
to his family’s cabin in Darkland County, Miss., with his two sons. For 40
years, Joe has harbored a toxic secret after witnessing how sibling rivalry over
a girl led to the unfortunate deaths of his two older brothers and their shared
Now a grown man, Joe is haunted by their spirits as the same sort of battle
unfolds between his sons.
The touring production premiered Oct. 10 in Bloomington with Bruce Greenwood,
known for his roles in “Thirteen Days,” “Flight” and the reprised “Star Trek”
film series, starring as Joe.
“We’re wired,” Greenwood says by phone from Bloomington a few days before
opening night. “I don’t think of it as a musical – it’s more rock ’n’ roll.
After the show, we’re climbing into a bus, and we’re touring like a rock show.”
Greenwood says he had held an immediate interest in the production when he
heard that Mellencamp and King were behind it. Excited to get back into theater,
Greenwood says he wanted to take the time do something that had a musical
“It’s wildly dark, and to me, it’s about the corrosive power of secrets and
the redemptive power of giving in to the truth. (Joe) is just a guy that has
been crushed by secrets that he is unwilling to reveal to even himself for 40
years. It basically has warped his ability to walk in the world without pain and
deal with his family,” he says.
“I think the audience will be surprised how the story unfolds, especially if
you’re a Stephen King fan – you kind of expect the unexpected.”
Mellencamp approached King in the late 1990s about writing a musical inspired
by a cabin he bought in his hometown of Seymour, Ind. It had a gruesome history
– three young people, two brothers and a girl, were found dead on his land in
the 1930s. For the next decade, the two artists would continue to collaborate on
Burnett says Mellencamp’s earthy mix of blues and rock made him think of a
radio play with actors approaching one microphone placed center stage. Whittling
the story down to 17 songs, Mellencamp and Burnett recorded a star-studded
soundtrack starring Roseanne Cash, Meg Ryan, Elvis Costello and Matthew
McConaughey before organizing the stage performance.
“It’s an interesting sonic world because there are different layers,
different levels of reality,” Burnett says.
“There’s a feeling of the Mississippi Delta – you can hear the music as if
you were floating down the river in a boat. You can hear the music off in the
distance, down the shore. You can hear it through the vines, the fog and the
“I feel like the music has all of that in it,” he says.
The musical premiered last year in April at Atlanta’s Alliance Theater for a
run of preview shows. The cast featured Tony Award-winner Shuler Hensley, Tony
Award nominee Emily Skinner and “American Idol” runner-up Justin Guarini.
With a traveling tour in mind for 2013, Greenwood was invited to workshop for
the role of Joe. Many of the actors who performed in Atlanta will reprise their
roles for the tour.
“You see us making the sounds of doors slamming, and some of us are just
doing sound effects,” Greenwood says. “It’s really different in that aspect.
“There’s not a lot of scenery – it’s very spare, which speaks to John’s
(Mellencamp) way to tell the plain truth, and with Stephen King – it all should
be really happening in your mind, anyway.”
With such an amount of material left out of the final musical product,
Burnett says he is interested to see how the production plays across its Midwest
tour and how the additional music could be used, whether for a movie or TV.
With the future yet to be seen, Burnett says he has enjoyed how a paper trail
became a journey.
“I’m just interested in watching where it goes. I’m interested to see how
these shows go, how people dig it. Which songs they dig and where it might go
next,” he says. “That’s the mystery for me – that’s the ghost story for me.”