The Herald Times: Ghost Brothers Set To Premiere

'Ghost Brothers' set to premiere
By Joel Pierson H-T Columnist

Every now and then, an event comes to town, a privilege beyond what we normally see. Such is the case this week, as the IU Auditorium hosts the first stop on the national tour of the new musical, “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County.” Part of this privilege, I suspect, stems from the fact that the music comes from our hometown boy, John Mellencamp, himself, who worked with T Bone Burnett, who produced the soundtrack.

He and novelist Stephen King have been collaborating on the show for about a decade now, and after a staged reading in New York and an out-of-town tryout in Atlanta, “Ghost Brothers” is ready to hit the road. Bloomington gets to enjoy it first.

Set in small-town Mississippi in 1967, it tells the story of a tragedy that claimed the lives of two brothers and a young woman. Forty years later, a surviving brother has two feuding sons of his own and a lifetime of memories of that tragic night. Haunted by those memories, he doesn’t realize that there are more haunts awaiting him.

Mellencamp’s blues and roots music spans the decades of the story, just as it’s done in real life, while King’s gift for telling frightening tales provides the foundation on which the music rests. Director Susan Booth says, “This is a gothic story-driven rock concert. I want the emphasis to be on this fantastic score and our great singers and how the story advances us from song to song.”

I spoke with Stephen King by phone and asked him if creating the book for this musical was familiar for him or if it broke new ground. “It was really new to me,” King said. “That was the reason to do it. John came to me around 2000 and said, ‘I’ve got this idea for a musical.’ My ears perked up — not because I knew how to do that, but because I didn’t. At that point, I’d written 45 novels and some movies and some TV, but I’d never tried anything like this. I thought, well, John hasn’t either, and he’s really talented, and maybe he’ll carry me through the process — which he pretty much did.”

The core of the story comes from Mellencamp, who learned that a summer cabin he bought was haunted. Two boys and a girl had been out there drinking. They got to fooling around, and there were guns in the house. One of them put an apple on his head and said, “Shoot it off.” One boy shot the other, and when the surviving boy and the girl went to get help, they crashed their car, and they were killed, and their ghosts stayed in the cabin.

Mellencamp spun the tale; suppose the boys were brothers, and suppose this thing happened because they were always fighting and they had a real resentment against each other. Then suppose that the people who came to the cabin years later were the descendants of those two boys, and the ghosts were still there.

King thought what would be really fun would be to put the ghosts in the cabin, and the live people on stage can’t see them, but the audience can. “I couldn’t wait to write it down,” he said. “I was a little reserved with John, because I didn’t know him. I loved his work. I thought to myself, This guy’s not just a pop songwriter. He’s got real beliefs and a popular sensibility, a mid-country sensibility that I really like.”

King learned of the legendary Mellencamp creative temperament and also of the songwriter’s gift. He told me, “John’s the most talented person I’ve ever worked with. He’s not always easy, but talented people are not always easy. That’s part of the fun. He’s got a clear idea of what he wants.” King added, “John knows what he wants, and he’s a professional about it. His talent is very down-to-earth and grounded in practicality.”

The creative team discussed how they wanted the musical to be written. One option was to tell the entire story through song, a la “Les Miserables.” Mellencamp told King, “I want to do it more like ‘My Fair Lady,’ where people talk, and somebody sings a song, and then they talk some more. What I really want you to do is carry the narrative, because that’s what you do, and I want to use these songs to create an emotional resonance and build character.” As a result, King wrote the story, and Mellencamp began composing the songs. The master novelist told me, in all honesty, “These are the best songs John ever wrote in his life.”

As each song came in, King went back to his narration and built in the intros and outros. He says, “I felt almost like I was creating a pocket for a quarterback to run in. And it worked! The transitions are seamless.”

The cast includes Emily Skinner, whom King describes as, “a terrific actress and a terrific singer,” and “Star Trek” actor Bruce Greenwood. King explains, “He came on board, and he played the part differently from the actor in Atlanta; he played it in a lower key, and John and I latched on to that. Then, when he started to sing, my God, he can really belt! I don’t think Bruce has gotten a lot of chance to show that side of his talent.”

Having seen the reading in New York, King told me confidently, “It plays like crazy. I think people who go in there with high expectations are going to have those expectations satisfied and more. One of the things I like about it is people come out of there singing the songs; that’s the real sign of success with a musical.”

King plans to be in Bloomington for the premiere presentation. A second show has been added for October 23, giving you two opportunities to witness this theatrical event. It’s an opportunity I strongly advise you to take.