New York Times: Haunted By Ghost Tale? Call An Expert

By Wendell Brock - New York Times

NO one told John Mellencamp that he’d bought a crime scene. But after signing the papers for a cabin in his home state, Indiana, in the early 1990s he learned that it had been the backdrop for a deadly love triangle a half-century earlier. Two siblings arguing over a girl got into a fight at their family’s lakeside cabin.

“The younger brother hit the older brother with a fire poker and killed him,” Mr. Mellencamp said recently, his voice dropping to a whisper as he explained why he had hardly spent a night at the cabin. When the panicked killer and the girl tried to run, they accidentally drove their car into the lake and drowned.

Haunted by the tale, Mr. Mellencamp decided he wanted to turn it into a musical ghost story. And when you’ve sold 40 million albums and need a collaborator, you can start with the best ghost-story writer you can find.

“I got this call out of the blue from John Mellencamp, saying he wanted to write a play,” Stephen King said.

“What I always remember was he tuned my guitar while we talked,” Mr. King added of their first meeting at Mr. King’s Florida home. “He said, ‘I have this idea for a story,’ and the idea was a classic, about ghosts in a cabin. And what I really liked is that we could put ghosts and live people in a cabin, and they wouldn’t see each other. Visually, that turned my dials.”

Twelve years and one cabin sale later, a period that Mr. Mellencamp likens to Sisyphus rolling his rock up the hill, the creator of “Jack & Diane” and the author of “Carrie” and “Cujo” hope to elicit goose bumps with “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” the musical that begins previews Wednesday at the Alliance Theater here.

Not counting a play that Mr. King wrote for Boy Scouts when he was 11, “Ghost Brothers” is the first theatrical venture for both men. (Mr. King, a rabid music fan and amateur guitarist, wasn’t involved in the musical adaptation of “Carrie” now playing in New York.)

Describing themselves as the ultimate theater outsiders, the collaborators say they’re at a place where they can afford to take risks. At 64 Mr. King is the author of more than 50 books. Mr. Mellencamp, 60, has released only a measly 26 albums. But he’s hardly the only rock star to write for the stage. Paul Simon (“The Capeman”) and Duncan Sheik (“Spring Awakening”) have done it, and Cyndi Lauper (“Kinky Boots”) and Phish’s Trey Anastasio (“Hands on a Hardbody”) are soon to join their ranks.

“Part of getting on in years, a little bit, is if you want to keep doing what you are doing, you try to keep it fresh, and you try something new,” said Mr. King, who wrote the book to accompany Mr. Mellencamp’s music and lyrics. “We are way out there. We are risking our necks on this.”

Because of that, perhaps, they are taking care to play down their ambitions for the show. “I personally don’t care if we go to Broadway or Washington, D.C., or the moon,” Mr. Mellencamp said at a December news conference that capped a nine-day “Ghost Brothers” workshop in Atlanta. “It really makes no difference to me.”

That’s a change from four years ago, when the Alliance announced a Broadway-bound “Ghost Brothers” as part of its 2008-9 season. The show was postponed, after the writers said they needed more time and was conspicuously absent from the Alliance’s next two seasons. Mr. Mellencamp now attributes that delay to the absence of a director. Liv Ullmann, who staged the rapturously received production of Tennessee Williams’s “Streetcar Named Desire” with Cate Blanchett in 2009, had expressed interest but later changed her mind, Mr. Mellencamp said in an interview.

The writers asked Susan V. Booth to direct the show. Ms. Booth, the Alliance’s artistic director, has been the mastermind of the theater’s ascension from regional stalwart to national player. Under her watch Alliance, the city’s largest playhouse, won the 2007 Tony award for outstanding regional theater, and has become a dependable launching pad for ambitious plays. It was home to the world premieres of, among others, “The Color Purple,” “Come Fly Away,” “Sister Act” (produced with Pasadena Playhouse) and “Bring It On: The Musical” (now on national tour).

From Mr. Mellencamp’s original cabin-in-the-woods idea “Ghost Brothers” has morphed into a blues-, rock- and folk-inflected musical for 19 performers and a 4-piece band, including Dave Roe, whom Mr. Mellencamp proudly identifies as “Johnny Cash’s old bass player.” The show’s music director is T Bone Burnett, who has produced two Mellencamp albums and wrote the songs for Sam Shepard’s “Tooth of Crime (Second Dance).”

Mr. Mellencamp and Mr. King’s Southern Gothic tale has been set in the fictional town of Lake Belle Reve, Miss. Belle Reve is the name of Blanche DuBois’s ancestral home in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and both men are Williams fans.

At the news conference they said they weren’t trying to mimic Broadway conventions. “Steve and I made a decision early on that we weren’t going to do a musical where the songs move the story forward,” Mr. Mellencamp said. “So he had to be able to write something, and I had to be able to try to expand the moment without telling part of the story. So in essence it was like ‘Pygmalion’ and ‘My Fair Lady.’ The story was here and the music was there.”

Purists they are not. A couple of times Mr. Mellencamp turned his voice into an Ethel Merman-like belt and said, “I don’t need to hear my songs sung like that.”

Ms. Booth said: “They are not retiring blossoms. They each have very strong opinions about each other’s work, but they are also very facile, in-the-moment problem solvers.” Mr. Mellencamp has been known to call in a song by cellphone, leaving it to the show’s bandleader and musical transcriber to put notes on a page.

Shuler Hensley — an Atlanta native who won a Tony award as Jud in Trevor Nunn’s “Oklahoma!” — stars as a Big Daddy-like patriarch who knows the secrets behind the mysterious 1967 deaths of his two older brothers. It is 2007, and he is trying to save his sons (played by Justin Guarini and Lucas Kavner) from a similar fate.

The story alternates between past and present, with the dead characters dancing around the margins of the tale as ghosts. Ms. Booth compares the show’s structure and style to “11/22/63,” Mr. King’s time-travel best seller about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. “Steve plays with our rules of time and space, of living and dead, really gleefully,” she said.

She promises vintage Stephen King gore too.

During a recent rehearsal the actors playing the dead brothers ran through a crucial scene amid a clutter of beer bottles and cowboy boots. A rack of shining guitars sat off to the side.

“I’ll haunt you for the rest of your life,” one actor shouted. A menacing satanic character called the Shape manipulated the action with a cane. Soon the tension dissolved into a darkly giddy anthem called “Put Me in the Ground.”

In recent days Mr. King and Mr. Mellencamp have been in and out of Atlanta, and both plan to be back for the April 11 opening. Aptly for a show 12 years in the making, the final song is called “The End Is Here.” For this pair that’s a welcome sentiment. As Mr. King said not long ago, sounding almost elegiac, “What a long strange trip it’s been.”