Creative Loafing Atlanta: King, Mellencamp, and T Bone Chat Up Ghost Brothers

Creative Loafing Atlanta By Curt Holman 
Group press conferences about artistic projects tend to be lovefests, so it’s no surprise that the Alliance Theatre’s Dec. 15 presser for Ghost Brothers of Darkland County served as a mutual admiration society. “How often do you get a chance to work with this kind of trifecta?” director Susan V. Booth asked of Ghost Brothers’ principle creators, book writer Stephen King, lyricist and composer John Mellencamp and music director T-Bone Burnett. "Ghost Brothers" could even describe their working relationship.

The press conference capped off the Alliance’s 10-day workshop with Ghost Brothers’ full cast in advance of its world premiere on April 4, 2012. The conversation emphasized good-natured joshing around over the nuts-and-bolts creative process of the musical.

When Mellencamp said, tongue partially in cheek, “Susan has a vision and ability to deal with all three of our egos and idea,” King added, “We’d get another email from Susan and I’d say ‘There goes another two pages of the script!’ Which was okay, since the script was 500 pages.”

While chatting and answering questions at the Alliance’s rehearsal space, King, Mellencamp and Burnett seem to be very much on each other’s wavelengths for Ghost Brothers. The musical originated about 12 years ago, while King was recovering from his near-fatal car accident 1999 car accident. He recalls meeting with Mellencamp: “John said, ‘I have this idea about a cabin and some brothers who died there. Maybe we could make a musical together.”

King told him that he’d think about it and would work on a treatment if he had time. Mellencamp recalls, “I didn’t even get where I was going to next, and you sent me the treatment. And it was a book — 60 pages!”

Mellencamp explained that he and Burnett complemented each other, because Burnett has an encyclopedic knowledge of song from the 1920s through the 1950s, and Mellencamp’s musical knowledge takes up afterward.

King gave an example of his own musical simpatico with Burnett over obscure country crooners. “The first time I met T-Bone, we were in Nashville talking about the beginning of play. At first, when the audience comes and sits down, there should be 1950s-style country radio playing. I said it should sound like Hank Williams, but that we probably can’t afford the [music] clearance. So I said maybe someone like Henson Cargill, and T-Bone immediately said ‘Skip a Rope,’ which was perfect.”

Ghost Brothers concerns three killings in Mississippi in the 1950s and its repercussions for people in the present day. Burnett explained his goals for the show’s overall rootsy sound. “First, Stephen King and John Mellencamp were writing it, and they live in the same part of America, small-town America. The next thing, it was ghosts, it was dead people, it was Mississippi. I wanted it to sound dark and foggy. I wanted it to sound scary.”

The show features performers from Atlanta and across the country, and Mellencamp appreciated casting the show outside of Broadway. “Why tried casting in New York, and it didn’t work. It was too ‘Broad! Way! Rhy-thm!’ We had to get out of there. I didn’t need to hear ‘MY SONGS SUNG THAT WA-AAY!’” he said, almost slipping into an Ethel Merman impression.

Perhaps the press conference’s most frequent refrain was the “trifecta’s” excitement about debuting the play in the South, and at the Alliance Theatre in particular. The Alliance was on King and Mellencamp’s short list for regional theaters to try out the show. King said, “We talked about a number of regional theaters, and would they want to take a chance on guys who are—”

“TOTAL unknowns,” Booth quipped.

“No, professionals in our fields, but new to theater. We came to the Alliance, and my eyes fell out of my head,” King added. “And it’s not just the theater here, it’s the whole arts complex. I like that it’s in Georgia. [Ghost Brothers] is a Southern story. It’s a country story.”

“And I have an album by the Atlanta Rhythm Section,” King quipped.

King denied that Ghost Brothers’ Alliance debut was a dry run for Broadway. “This is not like when pro baseball players are in the minor leagues and want to go the majors. This is not a minor league city. We’re not thinking about Broadway or movies, we’re thinking about how we can get audiences to come to the Alliance on opening night.”

The renowned novelist does have a bone to pick with the ATL, however. “The only thing I don’t like is the traffic. This is the one place I’ve been to, next to New York, where they speed up if they see you crossing the street. Or maybe it’s just me!”