What happens when you cross horror-suspense writer Stephen King with home-bred musician John Mellencamp?
Well, it took renowned music producer T-Bone Burnett to figure it out.
For nearly 13 years, Mellencamp and King faxed, emailed and texted back and forth story and song ideas they had for a musical that never seemed to have an ending. They brought in Burnett, who has worked with the likes of Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Elton John and Mellencamp himself, to help find one.
The challenge is always to find the thread, to find the tone of a piece – to find the thing that makes it all part of a whole, Burnett says by phone from Los Angeles.
Sifting through a decade of correspondence, King, Mellencamp and Burnett created the Southern gothic tale Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, which will stop Thursday at Embassy Theatre during its 20-city tour.
Burnett, who produced the Ghost Brothers soundtrack, serves as the music director of the theater production. With his help, King and Mellencamp were able to produce a musical that conceptually feels like an old-fashioned radio play.
I got involved as a curator, Burnett says. They had created a wealth of stories and songs over a 10-, 12-year period and felt they needed an editor to come in and help identify the core of it. The play, at that point, would have probably have been four or five hours long – John had wrote about 40 songs.
Ghost Brothers is about a bewildered man named Joe McCandless who returns to his family’s cabin in Darkland County, Miss., with his two sons. For 40 years, Joe has harbored a toxic secret after witnessing how sibling rivalry over a girl led to the unfortunate deaths of his two older brothers and their shared loved interest.
Now a grown man, Joe is haunted by their spirits as the same sort of battle unfolds between his sons.
The touring production premiered Oct. 10 in Bloomington with Bruce Greenwood, known for his roles in Thirteen Days, Flight and the reprised Star Trek film series, starring as Joe.
We’re wired, Greenwood says by phone from Bloomington a few days before opening night. I don’t think of it as a musical – it’s more rock ’n’ roll. After the show, we’re climbing into a bus, and we’re touring like a rock show.
Greenwood says he had held an immediate interest in the production when he heard that Mellencamp and King were behind it. Excited to get back into theater, Greenwood says he wanted to take the time do something that had a musical element.
It’s wildly dark, and to me, it’s about the corrosive power of secrets and the redemptive power of giving in to the truth. (Joe) is just a guy that has been crushed by secrets that he is unwilling to reveal to even himself for 40 years. It basically has warped his ability to walk in the world without pain and deal with his family, he says.
I think the audience will be surprised how the story unfolds, especially if you’re a Stephen King fan – you kind of expect the unexpected.
Mellencamp approached King in the late 1990s about writing a musical inspired by a cabin he bought in his hometown of Seymour, Ind. It had a gruesome history – three young people, two brothers and a girl, were found dead on his land in the 1930s. For the next decade, the two artists would continue to collaborate on and off.
Burnett says Mellencamp’s earthy mix of blues and rock made him think of a radio play with actors approaching one microphone placed center stage. Whittling the story down to 17 songs, Mellencamp and Burnett recorded a star-studded soundtrack starring Roseanne Cash, Meg Ryan, Elvis Costello and Matthew McConaughey before organizing the stage performance.
It’s an interesting sonic world because there are different layers, different levels of reality, Burnett says.
There’s a feeling of the Mississippi Delta – you can hear the music as if you were floating down the river in a boat. You can hear the music off in the distance, down the shore. You can hear it through the vines, the fog and the moss.
I feel like the music has all of that in it, he says.
The musical premiered last year in April at Atlanta’s Alliance Theater for a run of preview shows. The cast featured Tony Award-winner Shuler Hensley, Tony Award nominee Emily Skinner and American Idol runner-up Justin Guarini.
With a traveling tour in mind for 2013, Greenwood was invited to workshop for the role of Joe. Many of the actors who performed in Atlanta will reprise their roles for the tour.
You see us making the sounds of doors slamming, and some of us are just doing sound effects, Greenwood says. It’s really different in that aspect.
There’s not a lot of scenery – it’s very spare, which speaks to John’s (Mellencamp) way to tell the plain truth, and with Stephen King – it all should be really happening in your mind, anyway.
With such an amount of material left out of the final musical product, Burnett says he is interested to see how the production plays across its Midwest tour and how the additional music could be used, whether for a movie or TV.
With the future yet to be seen, Burnett says he has enjoyed how a paper trail became a journey.
I’m just interested in watching where it goes. I’m interested to see how these shows go, how people dig it. Which songs they dig and where it might go next, he says. That’s the mystery for me – that’s the ghost story for me.