Stephen King and John Mellencamp Make Terrifying Music Together
BY KRISTI YORK WOOTEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Southern Gothic once referred exclusively to scribes and literature from the land of kudzu and mint juleps. Today, a Google search of the genre serves up everything from Bon Iver’s Wisconsin folk rock to gory novels by Australian Nick Cave.
Will a new musical from Stephen King and John Mellencamp also fit into the category?
Veteran Broadway performer Shuler Hensley is betting on it. The Tony- award winner (“Oklahoma”) recently returned home to Georgia to star in “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” an eerie yarn by King with songs from rocker Mellencamp, which opened this week at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre.
The show, set in Mississippi, echoes the themes of violence and redemption found in many of King’s works (“The Stand,” “The Green Mile”) and in the writings of SoGoth staples William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and Flannery O’Connor.
One night in 1967 changes everything for the “Ghost Brothers” McCandless clan. In 2007, patriarch Joe is still reeling from an event that took the lives of his two brothers and another young woman four decades earlier. Yes, there are ghosts.
Hensley, who portrays Joe McCandless, says his character is “the only witness to unspeakable acts of violence, and must find the strength to ‘speak’ the truth.” “He holds the key not only to his own redemption, but to the redemption of all members of his family, past and present,” the actor, 45, says of Joe. “How Southern Gothic is that?”
The idea for “Ghost Brothers” began in Mellencamp’s territory of “Small Town” Indiana, where the “Pink Houses” songwriter became intrigued by a mysterious tragedy connected to a property he’d purchased there in the 1990s. He asked Maine native King if he’d like to turn the story – replete with a spooky cabin and characters both living and dead – into a musical. A few weeks later, the novelist spun the tale into a 60-page treatment. After their initial meeting (they refer to it as a “visit”), it took twelve years, a few scheduling snafus, and countless emails for the pair to finally bring the play to the stage.
“One of the reasons I said yes [to John] is because I respect him as a musician and as somebody who’s not content to do just a certain kind of pop music,” King, 64, said during a press conference at the Alliance in late 2011. Although neither Mellencamp nor “Ghost Brothers” music director T Bone Burnett (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) performs in the musical, the rootsy aesthetic they mastered on previous collaborations (2010’s “No Better Than This” and 2008’s “Life, Death, Love, and Freedom”) remains in force.
“He has a different metronome in his head than I do,” Mellencamp, 60, says of his Grammy-winning producer pal Burnett, 64. “All of my musical references start in the 1950s; his start in the 1920s. He has his feet firmly planted in Americana, blues and folk.”
When “Ghost Brothers” cast members (including American Idol alum Justin Guarini, actor Jake La Botz, and indie singer Lucas Kavner) previewed songs from the production at Atlanta’s Hard Rock Café in mid-March, each added his own nuances to Mellencamp’s compositions.
“Brotherly Love” and “Lounging Around in Heaven” emanated a cabaret vibe, as if country stalwarts The Carter Family, German composer Kurt Weill, and Louisiana blues legend Lead Belly had gathered for a supernatural jam session.
If what happens in the South no longer stays in the South, will “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County” eventually follow its Alliance-produced predecessors (Elton John and Tim Rice’s “Aida” and Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple”) to the Great White Way? Staging the play in Atlanta is what makes sense for now, the show’s director, Susan V. Booth (who also serves as the Alliance Theatre’s Artistic Director) told a room full of local and national press in December.
“Atlanta has an opportunity to put a major new American musical into the canon. How often do you get this kind of trifecta?”
Ghost Brothers of Darkland County runs through May 13 at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia.
PRESS PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ALLIANCE THEATRE