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December 20, 2011

Southern Gothic Trifecta this Spring at the Alliance Theatre

John Mellencamp, Stephen King and T Bone Burnett bring their collaborative chops to ATL for a major musical premiere in April

By Nancy Staab

Ghost Brothers of Darkland County should provide plenty of chills and musical thrills when it makes its national debut at The Alliance Theatre under creative director Susan Booth.

It’s not often that Atlanta is the site of a major musical premiere. But increasingly that is the case with smart, visionary Susan Booth at the wheel as Alliance Theatre’s Creative Director. She orchestrated the Atlanta debut of Twyla Tharp’s Franks Sinatra tribute Come Fly With Me in 2009, which then went on to Broadway acclaim. Now, she’s banking her reputation on yet another buzzy premiere, Ghost Brothers of  Darkland County by John Mellencamp, Stephen King and T Bone Burnett which bows this spring. It seems like a pretty safe bet with this seasoned trio at the helm. Mellencamp may sing of “little pink houses” in Bloomington, Indiana; Stephen King (Carrie, The Shining, The Dark Towers) may crank out his spine-tingling thrillers in remote Maine, and former Bob Dylan bandmate and major music producer T Bone Burnett may hail from Texas, but all three ply the rootsy Americana note in their works. We can expect the same vibe in this, the trio’s first musical collaboration with a decidedly Southern Gothic flair.

T Bone Burnett T Bone Burnett

The germ of the idea for a Southern Gothic ghost story of feuding brothers was Mellencamp’s, whose rock/folk songs are already highly visual and cinematic, conjuring up dusty roads, fishing holes, Tasty-Freezes and good old Americana of the Jack and Diane variety. When Mellencamp pitched the concept to friend King, the author instantly warmed to the idea of framing a narrative around Mellencamp’s collection of songs. Mellencamp’s music producer Burnett soon joined the team and what looked like a pipe dream became a real musical over 12 years of on-and-off crafting, and the work will be staged for the first time this April in Atlanta. (The play also stars one other boldfacer: American Idol’s Justin Guarini as brother Drake.)

Many a theater courted the trio but it was Booth’s creativity and vision, the state-of-the-art nature of Alliance Theatre, and the ability of Atlanta to tap into the Southern Gothic, country roots of the story line, while still providing a cosmopolitan theater audience that cinched the deal. At a recent press conference at Alliance Theater the trio shed a little bit of light, but not too much, on this anticipated musical.

The story is described as follows:

“A riveting Southern Gothic musical fraught with mystery, tragedy and phantoms of the past, along with  a roots and blues-tinged score that is sure to leave audiences asking for more. In the tiny town of Lake Belle Reve, Mississippi in 1957, a terrible tragedy took the lives of two brothers and a beautiful young girl. During the next forty years, the events of the night became the stuff of local legends. But legend is often just another word for lie. Joe McCandless knows what really happened; he saw it all. The question is whether or not he can bring himself to tell the truth in time to save his own troubled sons, and whether the ghosts left behind by an act of violence will help him—or tear the McCandless family apart forever.”

 

A remote cabin, a blood feud between brothers, a family secret and hauntings from the past: sounds like Southern-Fried Gothic to be sure. Mellencamp once characterized the project as “Tennessee Williams crossed with Stephen King.” Ryan Agostino, an Esquire reporter privy to an early rehearsal in 2007 reported, “Musicals aren’t usually a guy thing. This one, though, is not only tolerable, it’s good. It may be the first-ever musical written by men for men.” In addition, we love that this musical has gravitas and some bite: not just froth and fluff. And, who knows, maybe ghosts will become the new vampires in our Goth-addled pop culture?

John Mellencamp and Meg Ryan John Mellencamp and Meg Ryan

At one point Mellencamp considered having the different generations of characters sing in their native musical genres from rap to blues, but no word on whether this conceit was maintained in the final show. We do know the show is not backed by a major orchestra but more fittingly and sparingly backed up by “ two twangy acoustic guitars, an accordion and a fiddle,” according to Agostno, “with rock stars pillaged from Mellencamp’s and Johnny Cash’s bands,” says Booth. Not bad, not bad at all!

Demonstrating an ease that comes from twelve years-plus of friendship and creative collaboration, Mellencamp, Burnett and King joshed with each other like brothers during the press conference, with Mellencamp’s new love Meg Ryan lurking in back with the press members. (The duo were spotted around town at The Four Seasons, Tap, and The Palm and Meg, as well as stars like Mathew McConaughey, Rosanne Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Sheryl Crow lend their voices to the soundtrack for the musical. The soundtrack is meant to sound like “an old-timey radio show,” says Mellencamp).

Casually attired in t-shirts, but for T Bone sporting shirt and coat and too-cool-for-school indoor shades, the trio seemed eager to give birth to their ghost story.

Asked what producer T Bone (Oh Brother Where Art Thou, Crazy Heart) contributes to the mix, Mellencamp replied, “T Bone thinks different from me and has  a different metronome in his head…all my [musical] references are from the ‘50s to the present, his are from the ‘20s to the ‘50s. T-Bone is firmly planted in American blues and folk. “

Later Stephen King added that T Bone’s knowledge of music arcana made him the ideal fit, as perhaps the only other person beside himself who could reference  Henson Cargill’s obscure country chestnut, circa 1967,  “Skip a Rope.” Meanwhile, King professed that he took Mellencamp’s project on because it took him well outside of his comfort zone. Supposedly he crafted the first draft in three weeks, but then it was another decade to whittle the 500-page script down to the required length and fuse it with the songs Mellencamp wrote. “Every time Susan Booth emailed, I thought ‘there goes another two pages,’ “ joked King.

Despite the good-natured ribbing, all three were very vocal in their appreciation of Booth, with Mellencamp flatly stating that she was the one reason the premiere was being staged in Atlanta. Apparently it’s kismet all around since Booth, shortly after taking up the mantle at Alliance Theater ten years ago, was asked in an interview what her ideal project would be. Her answer: to stage a musical by John Mellencamp. It practically sends ghostly chills up our spine.

Tickets for the premiere staging of Ghost Brothers of Darkland County are on sale now and we predict they will sell out, so book early. The show runs April 4-May 13, 2012. Opening night is April 11, 2012. Because of the dark content, this program is recommended for 9th-graders and up. Visit http://alliancetheatre.org/en/Our-Plays/Later-This-Season/Ghost-Brothers-of-Darkland-County.aspx for tickets and information or call 404.733.5000

John Mellencamp and Stephen King John Mellencamp and Stephen King