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Stephen King's Down-Home Nightmare

The novelist and some iconic musical collaborators conjure up a ghost story with a bluesy beat

By Michele Pearce

It’s not easy to describe Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, the ambitious new musical arriving April 4 at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre—not even for the all-star team that created it. The show, with book by Stephen King, music and lyrics by John Mellencamp and musical direction by T Bone Burnett, involves a pair of supernatural siblings, blood-letting stage effects, American roots music and southern gothic drama à la Tennessee Williams, all blended into what Alliance artistic director Susan V. Booth calls a “ghost-story song-cycle mash-up.”

The creative trio, all icons of popular fiction and music, seem unlikely collaborators, especially in a genre that none of them have taken on before. (A musical version of King’s first novel, Carrie, was one of the most resounding flops in Broadway history in 1988, and a reimagined version is currently playing Off Broadway at MCC Theater, but King was not involved in the creation of that show.) King is the author of more than 50 novels, including the recent 11/22/63, and more than 30 screenplays. Rock superstar Mellencamp rose to the top of the charts in 1982 with “Hurts So Good” and “Jack and Diane.” Grammy-winning music producer and composer Burnett is perhaps best known as the guy who made bluegrass cool with his work on the Coen brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou?

What will Stephen King fans find to love in this ghost story? Plenty of blood. The crew includes a special-effects technician, Steve Tolin, who specializes in people getting shot in the head. Like many King novels, the story moves fluidly between past and present, living and dead. A gleefully malevolent narrator called The Shape, with bony fingers and red burning eyes, is played by the smoky-voiced film actor and blues musician Jake La Botz.

Those who love Mellencamp’s music may recognize the hand of Burnett, who has produced the singer’s last two albums, in the Ghost Brothers score. It is firmly rooted in classic American blues and folk, and three of the four musicians who appear in the show are from Mellencamp’s band, including lead guitarist Andy York. The fourth, stand-up bass player Dave Roe, played for years with Johnny Cash.

Booth, who’s directing the show, has assembled a seasoned and eclectic cast of actors and musicians, including (in addition to La Botz) Shuler Hensley, a Tony-winning actor and singer best known for playing Jud in Oklahoma!; Emily Skinner, who earned a Tony nomination for her work on Side Show; Justin Guarini, an “American Idol” runner-up who most recently appeared in American Idiot on Broadway; actor and songwriter Kate Ferber; and alternative country singer/songwriter Dale Watson.

The impressive design team includes another Tony winner, scenic designer Todd Rosenthal, choreographer Daniel Pelzig, costumer Susan E. Mickey, lighting designer Robert Wierzel, media designer Adam Larsen and sound designer Clay Benning.

In a nod to the spirit of Blanche DuBois, Ghost Brothers is set in Lake Belle Reve, Mississippi, and revolves around the tragic deaths of two brothers and a young girl in 1967. Only Joe McCandless (played by Hensley) knows what really happened that night, and he is forced to decide whether to expose the secret to save his own pair of troubled sons.

The genesis of the project was a story Mellencamp heard, about a cabin inhabited by the ghosts of two brothers who hated each other in life. He asked King to collaborate on shaping the tale into a musical, and the prolific fiction writer produced the initial draft of the book in about three weeks. That was 12 years ago.

Since then, “What a long strange trip it’s been,” King quipped at an Atlanta press conference in December. He took the project on “to try something that was a little bit risky and outside my comfort zone.” That proved true, and it’s been something of a haul to pull Ghost Brothers together—the work was scheduled to premiere at the Alliance in the spring of 2009, but was cancelled due to unspecified script problems. Several workshops in New York left the creators unsatisfied. “It just didn’t work,” Mellencamp allowed. “It was too ‘Broadway rhythm.’ And that’s not it. I don’t need to hear my songs sung that way.” Both credit Booth, who joined the project as director last January, for shaping the book and the music into a cohesive structure.

“I love a problem,” Booth says of her approach to Ghost Brothers. “I’m a dramaturgical geek. I love coming into a process where there’s such good food on the table, but we just haven’t yet figured out how to combine the ingredients for the perfect dish. And this was that.”

Booth has engaged in a vigorous e-mail correspondence with all three collaborators since taking the helm. “Once we got serious about the project, I’d see an e-mail from Susan and say, ‘There goes another two pages of the script,’” King chuckles. He traveled to the Alliance for a reading and reshaping of the musical’s book in May; then came a two-week December workshop with the full company of actors and musicians, as well as King, Mellencamp and Burnett in residence.

The collaborators were elated by the workshop process, and Mellencamp credits Booth for her “ability to deal with all three of our egos and our ideas”—not to mention her skills in facilitating the process “in a way that is not anything other than ladylike and professional, and, to put it bluntly, pretty goddamn good.”

“Here are three guys that are iconic,” Booth says with a smile and a shrug. “And it can wholly unnerve you if you think of it too constantly in those terms.” She approached Ghost Brothers as she would any collaboration. “I ask an obnoxious amount of questions. I want to know, starting at the very beginning, ‘What made you decide you wanted to tell this story with this language? What do you want to accomplish, what do you want us to feel? How do you want us to be moved, changed, altered by what you’ve written, by the song you’ve composed?’ Steve, in particular, loves to engage in the dialogue of ‘tell me why.’ And you earn a place in that conversation with him by close and careful reading."

Working with three accomplished artists who had never previously worked in the theatre posed some unique challenges. “You can be impossibly astute at the technical demands of your work, but if you’re not astute emotionally as well, you’re not having the complete conversation,” Booth says. “John has his own language, T Bone has his own language, Steve has his own language. And I better figure out how to get fluent in their languages, and then maybe we can do something together.”

As for King’s language, Booth found that it expresses itself simultaneously in narrative and visual ways. “Sometimes he imagines moments that, as a director, you think, ‘The Pontiac has to float down to the stage—really?’ And you find out that the impulse was a moment of surprise, a moment of unexpected presence.” Her role, she believes, is to take the genesis of the idea and translate it to a theatrical vocabulary.

Mellencamp, Booth discovered, is a painter and art collector as well as an aficionado of classic American films. In the rehearsal hall, as he was listening to a scene, he would lean toward Booth and remind her of a particular moment in a pertinent movie, such as The Fugitive Kind. He wasn’t suggesting that she borrow that image, Booth explains, but that the reference would give her a better understanding of the intentions of his song.

An encyclopedic knowledge of American music since 1920 and a deep understanding of how music works within a narrative make Burnett an extraordinary presence in the rehearsal hall, according to the director. “T Bone can do a wide scan and synthesize it into a three-note progression that kills you,” she enthuses. “Or it’s layering in that mandolin at that moment in that key—you’ve just made me feel what it would have taken me weeks in the rehearsal hall to get in the neighborhood of! His sound is psychological, emotional and deeply intuitive.”

Perhaps because of their outsider status in musical theatre, Booth says, her collaborators show a healthy disrespect for the “rules” of theatrical dramaturgy. King, in particular, takes great delight in challenging audience expectations: At the end of the first act, for example, the show’s malevolent master-of-ceremonies character, The Shape, plays on an old theatrical trope by telling the audience that they need to be sure to come back after intermission because there’s a gun on stage—and they should know what that means.

Working outside the traditional musical theatre structure puts a different weight on the book and the performers, Booth adds. Mellencamp concurs: “Steve and I made a decision early on that we weren’t going to use the songs to move the story forward,” he says. King describes writing a scene for the two ghostly brothers, the purpose of which is “to show that they’re still angry—that even though they’re dead, those old animosities still exist.” To do so, Mellencamp wrote a song that filled the emotion of that moment, “So Goddamn Good,” which King calls one of the high points of the show.

“Within the ghost story there are these amazing blow-ups—if it was a film, it would be a close-up—where all of a sudden you get to explode a moment and really muck around in its emotional fullness,” notes Booth.

Hensley, who plays the central role of Joe McCandless, feels the same way: “The songs I sing are so descriptive in music and in lyrics—each character has a very specific sound that matches who they are, which I find fairly rare these days.”

Broadway bona fides notwithstanding, Hensley auditioned for the show in New York City alongside innumerable young actors with guitars and country-music chops.

“It was such a wonderfully strange life moment,” Hensley confides. “You’re in a room with Stephen King, T Bone Burnett and John Mellencamp, and it’s so bizarre. I love the fact that during this whole process John didn’t want Broadway musical-theatre singers, with the vibrato and the belt—and that just made me feel fantastic, because I don’t consider myself to be that.”

For Jake La Botz, playing a character that embodies our basest, most fiendish impulses was intriguing, although well outside his usual work as a film actor and blues musician. “It’s a super-juicy role,” he says. “I suppose I’m bringing in elements of street-level characters I’ve known in skid-row Chicago, Mississippi jukes, downtown L.A. SRO hotels, backstreet dives in New Orleans. As for the blues part, I grew up in Chicago hanging out with some of the old great bluesmen, like Honeyboy Edwards, Homesick James and Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis. Part of what I learned from them was how to embody base impulses, which I’ve spent my adult life trying to unlearn.”

“It was cool when we did our first round of auditions locally,” Booth says. “There was this moment when the guys said, ‘Oh, sweet Jesus, we’re finally going to be able to get this right,’ because they were so knocked out by the people they saw here. And that was just a moment of fierce Atlanta pride.”

Will Ghost Brothers transfer to Broadway or alight at other major regional houses? King, Mellencamp and Burnett all insisted at the December press conference that they are focused on the success of the Alliance production and not thinking about moving the show, although they expressed hopes for its potential. “We just have to surf it,” Burnett shrugged, taking a zen approach. There is, however, an offstage life in the cards for Ghost Brothers—a star-studded three-CD studio-concept album, produced by Burnett and featuring Elvis Costello, Rosanne Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Sheryl Crow, will reportedly be released after the Alliance production closes. The recording will feature a radio-play version of the script as well as Mellencamp’s songs.

For Booth, premiering such a high-profile project supports the Alliance’s mission of becoming a laboratory for new American musicals. “It’s awfully gratifying to have people who are national and international brands look at us not only as conveniently placed for their story,” she says, “but also as a national theatre that’s got the chops to take on their work.” The theatre previously launched Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida and Alfred Uhry’s The Last Night of Ballyhoo into the national spotlight.

Booth adds, on a personal note, that this artistic process has been much more than an opportunity for national exposure for the Alliance. “The gift of this is that I’m really getting to be a director. I’m meeting these phenomenal collaborators less as an institutional face and more as their partner in this venture—and I’m loving that,” she says with delight.

Michele Pearce is a writer based in Atlanta. She is a founder of Synchronicity Theatre and a former associate editor of this magazine.