The Morning Call: How Three Legends Created 'Ghost Brothers' Musical

By Alan Scully - Special To The Morning Call

One of the things celebrated author Stephen King has come to respect about celebrated songwriter and musician John Mellencamp is his nerve and sheer sense of determination.

Those traits came into play more than a few times as King and Mellencamp embarked on what would become a 13-year partnership in creating the stage musical "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County," described as a southern gothic, supernatural tale of love, lust, jealousy and revenge.

King, in a telephone interview, admits that his own patience with the project was tested as he and Mellencamp sporadically continued to develop the play during times when they weren't busy with their "day jobs" — King writing the latest titles in his prodigious catalog of horror novels and other books, and Mellencamp recording and touring behind new albums in a discography that includes such hit albums as "Uh-Huh," "Scarecrow" and "Human Wheels."

"John really kept it alive because he's got a tremendous amount of determination to succeed, an amazing drive to succeed and huge amounts of energy," King says. "And every time I would say 'Well, John, I don't know. We've been doing this for quite a while,' he would say to me, 'Just come along with me a little further. It's going to be great.' And I did enjoy the process."

Eventually King and Mellencamp completed "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County," as well as a star-studded soundtrack for the play that was produced by T Bone Burnett, who has produced Mellencamp's last two albums, as well as Grammy-winning albums like "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and the Robert Plant-Alison Krauss collaboration "Raising Sand." The musical is on the road for the second year, and stops in Philadelphia Nov. 13.

King says the production, which stars Billy Burke ("The Twilight Saga") and Gina Gershon ("Killer Joe," "House of Versace"), is better now than when the play debuted in 2012 at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre.

"I think it's a lot better because I think it's leaner," King says. "It's leaner in terms of the dialogue and in terms of the action, but it's also leaner in terms of the actual staging. When we did it at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, it was a fully staged production like you might see on Broadway, and it had a very complex set. There's a part of the show where these kids jump from Lovers' Leap, and in Atlanta they actually jumped off of the stage and disappeared from sight. It was a jaw dropper, and there were a lot of various effects. And I think that when we took it on the road, the idea was at the beginning and the end, there's recorded music and a static-y radio kind of thing. John and my idea was let's try to present this as it's almost as much of a radio play, an old time radio play, as it is a musical. We didn't want to stage it so that the actors are just standing there and not moving around. So the whole thing is choreographed. It has the feel of a play, but it's much leaner."

Throughout the production, the eerie blues 'n' roots music reveals the inner workings of the characters as opposed to just propelling the play's narrative, with only a few songs directly advancing the plot. The show features a four-piece live band, comprised of members of Mellencamp's band.

Mellencamp was the instigator of the project. During the late 1990s, he bought a cabin near his home base of Bloomington, Ind., and found out later that the cabin was said to be haunted.

Intrigued by the legend of the cabin, Mellencamp began to form a story built around the real-life tragic events that began in that cabin.

Through a mutual talent agent, Mellencamp — showing some of the nerve King has come to admire -— reached out to King with his idea, and the two got together in Florida, where King has a winter home.

"He had a really good skeleton of an idea, there's no doubt about that," King says, noting this was the first time the two had ever met. "[Mellencamp's real estate agent] told him this story about two friends and this girl. The three of them were in the cabin and they had too much to drink and they got to playing around with a gun.

"And one of them got shot, and the other two grabbed him and went to take him to the nearest hospital. And they were on a gravel road and they were going too fast and they hit a tree and they were all killed."

"John's idea was, what if these two boys were brothers?" King explained. "And what if they had a younger brother, and 20, 30 or 40 years later, the surviving brother has two sons of his own? They start this sibling rivalry thing [like the one] that got the dead brothers in trouble, and he takes them to the cabin. And the ghosts are there in the cabin. That was sort of where my interest sparked, because I could see the live people in the cabin along with the ghosts. And the audience would see the ghosts, but the live people wouldn't. And I thought that would be fabulous to play with."

The big issue for King was that although he had written books — more than 50, including such famous works as "Carrie," "The Shining," "Cujo" and "The Green Mile," as well as short stories, screenplays and comic books — he had never written a musical. Neither had Mellencamp.

"So I said 'Well, we don't know what we're doing,'" King says, recalling a key moment in that initial meeting. "And he said 'We'll figure it out as we go along, and when we need somebody to help us who knows that world, we'll find somebody.' And I said 'All right, let's try it.' I respected his nerve, you know what I'm saying?"

The credits on the production may show that King wrote the play and Mellencamp wrote the music and lyrics, but King says the project was far more collaborative than it appears.

"We're mixed so completely that I've even got a writing credit on one of the songs, where I did some of the words," he says.

"It was give and take, and the result is we're so intertwined you really can't tell where John begins and I end and visa versa," King says. "He had a lot of input into the story. He's got good story sense. But as a songwriter, he would."

Through the many ups and downs that were part of the long process of finishing "Ghost Brothers," King says the two have become good friends.

"I remember at one point, we were probably doing workshops in New York," King says. "So this would have been before the Alliance (Theatre) thing, probably 2008 or 2009, and one of his guys in the band asked me if I had been subjected to a full-blown Johnny Cougar tantrum yet. I said 'Not yet.' He said 'You will,' because John's intense, an intense guy. But I've never been subject to that yet. We get along pretty well. And you know what, temperamentally we complement each other. He's really intense and I'm kind of a laid-back guy. So we get along.

"You know what, I think, too, that John has mellowed a little over the years, and I've been part of that process," King says. "He's a great guy. John's a great guy, the most talented guy I've ever worked with, no doubt."