Twelve years in the making, Ghost Brothers of Darkland County has taken large steps to its world premiere at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre in April 2012. Directed by Alliance Theatre Artistic Director Susan V. Booth, the musical features a book by Stephen King, music and lyrics by John Mellencamp and musical direction by T Bone Burnett. After a ten-day workshop that concluded on December 15, Booth, King, Mellencamp, Burnett and the cast have lifted a lid on the process and have given a sneak peek at what is to come next year.
An Idea Twelve Years in the Making
What may seem like an odd pairing blossomed into a strong friendship between Mellencamp and King. When Mellencamp first came up with the idea for the musical twelve years ago, he suggested it to King, who immediately gravitated to the idea. He “wanted to try something different,” and he respected Mellencamp as a musician and songwriter.
Having never really written a play before, King relished the opportunity to try something new, mentioning, “the only play I wrote was in Boy Scouts when I was ten.” Because of that enthusiasm, he had a 60 page treatment ready for Mellencamp in three weeks.
As the musical developed, T Bone Burnett joined the group approximately five or six years ago to arrange Mellencamp’s music for the stage. Working with Burnett was a no-brainer for Mellencamp, who had worked with Burnett on albums in the past. He explains that Burnett “has a different metronome” and brings out a different side to the music. Their partnership “has been advantageous.”
Both King and Mellencamp love Burnett’s encyclopedic knowledge of music, especially country and Americana. “T Bone has never forgotten a song he’s heard,” states King. His expertise in this genre has brought a dimension to the project that excites them and others involved.
Bringing the Musical to Atlanta
After unsuccessfully trying to mount the musical in New York, both King and Mellencamp realized that it was neither the right time nor the right place for it. There, the vision for the musical became clear, and it started the path to bringing the musical to Atlanta.
Using talented musicians and singers has been a goal of the creative team, especially Mellencamp, since the start of the process. The situation he experienced in New York has only solidified the desire. “It was too Broadway rhythm. I don’t need to hear my songs sung that way,” he says, mimicking a traditional Broadway sound.
From that point, they decided that a regional theater would be the best place to launch the production. In evaluating options, King and Mellencamp were able to see the Alliance Theatre and learn about its facility. During their first visit, they were impressed with what the facilities had to offer. With the Alliance Theatre, they found the resources to create their vision and with Atlanta they found an audience that embraces new works.
About four years ago, Booth joined forces with the three to help shape the project. Initially, she acted as a producer before becoming the show’s director. From the beginning, she felt Ghost Brothers belonged in Atlanta.
Both King and Mellencamp feel that the relationship with the Alliance has brought the production to its next level and has helped it become a stronger musical. King feels that it was “important to get Susan Booth for her knowledge and experience.” Mellencamp echoes his sentiments, saying, “Susan has had a good vision and has been able to facilitate ideas.”
With King, Mellencamp and Burnett on board many may question why Atlanta was chosen for the musical’s world premiere and not L.A. or New York. For Mellencamp the answer is simple: Susan Booth. While agreeing with Mellencamp, King also offers an additional explanation: “I wanted a place that was cosmopolitan but not out of touch with its country roots.” King explains,“We’ve got an audience here.”
In a nod to the talent and quality of the Atlanta theatre scene as well as the strengths of the Tony Award® Winning Alliance Theatre, King states, “This isn’t a minor league city or facility.”
The Southern Gothic Tale Takes Shape
Together they have crafted a different kind of musical. In the tradition of William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, this musical is a southern gothic tale set in Mississippi. “This is a country story, a southern gothic kind of story,” King explains.
And as such it tells a haunting story about a family legend. That idea is where the story’s scary side takes shape. Like in all southern towns, or any rural town as King mentions, legends build and “people keep secrets.” Therein lies the heart of the musical’s plot.
For the music, Mellencamp has had desire to not “do a musical where the songs move the story forward,” a goal he has had since he first had the idea for the musical. Unlike a traditional Broadway musical, the songs will expand upon the thoughts and ideas presented by the dialogue.
For the sound of the musical, Mellencamp has let Burnett run with his own vision for the arrangements. “The first thing I wanted was the music to be foggy; I wanted it to sound dark and foggy, wanted it to sound scary,” states Burnett.
This pairing has crafted music that has made an impression on those who have heard the songs as well as those in the cast who have performed them. Even King himself has self-depreciating praise for the music. “The story ain’t so much – but the songs,” he says before displaying a wowed expression.
With the help of Booth, the story has been whittled down from a 500 page script to one more manageable for the audience. King jokes that an email from Booth means that “more pages of script are gone.”
What Does The Future Hold For Ghost Brothers?
With the star power of the creative team and the strong history of the Alliance Theatre, it would be logical to assume that the Alliance Theatre production is a stepping stone to Broadway or that the production is an out-of-town tryout similar to what The Color Purple did when it made its world premiere at the Alliance Theatre in 2004.
However, both Mellencamp and King emphatically state their intentions are to make the Atlanta production be something extraordinary without worrying about what will come next. Neither have a Broadway production as a goal. “It makes no difference – just would like it to go somewhere,” Mellencamp explains. King adds, ”I am not thinking about Broadway or movies.” The goal at this time is simply to stage a top-notch production in Atlanta.
Whether or not it moves on to the Great White Way, the entire creative team hopes that the musical is successful in its Atlanta run and then has a long life afterwards. King mentions that down the road he “hopes it is played in community theaters” all around the nation for a long time.
In addition to the stage version, others are waiting on a recorded version of the musical. A production of the musical as a radio play was recorded and it features top Hollywood names and musicians such as Matthew McConaughey, Sheryl Crow and Rosanne Cash among others. Popular with Mellencamp fans and King fans alike, the idea of a musical recording of CD has created just as much excitement as the musical.
Unfortunately, fans will have to keep waiting a little while longer. Right now completing the Alliance Theatre production consumes much of their focus, and the CD is on the back burner. According to Mellencamp, the release date for the CD “has yet to be determined,” so he can focus on the current production. Burnett adds of the musical, “I don’t want to take my eye off of it.”
For now, audiences wait in eager anticipation for the musical, and the city’s theatre audiences should relish the opportunity to host the world premiere of the musical. According to Booth, “Atlanta has the opportunity” to participate in getting a major new musical “into the cannon.” She adds, “There should not be a seat available.”
This southern gothic tale boasts a talented cast, featuring a mix of both Atlanta-based and New York-based actors in addition to well-known musicians. Included in the company are Tony Award® winner Shuler Hensley, Tony Award® nominee Emily Skinner, country singer Dale Watson, blues musician Jake La Botz, American Idol contestant and Broadway actor Justin Guarini, and Atlanta favorites Travis Smith, Joe Knezevich, Rob Lawhon and Kylie Brown. The full cast and creative team were announced last month.
Ghost Brothers of Darkland County makes its world premiere at the Alliance Theatre April 4 through May 13, 2012. The official opening night is set for April 11. For tickets and more information, please visit the Alliance Theatre website.
By Kenny Norton and Andrew Wesley