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Stephen King, John Mellencamp weren't scared off by "Ghost Brothers" musical
Back in 2000, while Stephen King was recuperating in Florida after being hit by a van, he was visited by John Mellencamp, a casual friend who wasn't there just to see how King was doing.
"He pitched me this idea about ghosts in a cabin and a family that was related to them -- family secrets, arguments, sibling rivalry," the 67-year-old author recalls now. "I thought it was all great, but I said, 'John, I don't really know anything about writing a musical. I've never tried to do anything like this before.' He said, 'I never have, either, but that would be the fun of it.'
"And I though, 'Well, if he's willing to make a fool of himself, I guess I can risk making a fool of myself, too."
It's fair to say the resultant "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County" is anything but foolish. Long in the making, the Southern gothic tale about two brothers -- bitter rivals who are sent to a haunted cabin by their father, where they're visited by the singing ghosts of another pair of brothers whose hatred of each other led to tragedy -- is now on the road after a 2012 opening in Atlanta. The musical was also crafted into an album and DVD released last year, produced by Grammy and Academy Award winner T Bone Burnett and featuring Kris Kirstofferson, Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Rosanne Cash and others in the roles.
"It's been very satisfying and very challenging," says Mellencamp, 63. "It's out there now but, man, it's been as hard as anything I've ever done."
King, who's sold more than 350 million copies of his books and has seen many adapted into films, adds that, "I don't think either of us realized when we got into this what an involved process it is. It's pretty arcane. i think of it almost like the Russian politburo; you have to go through a lot of hoops to get the show funded, certain rules you have to follow based on (theatrical) unions -- don't ask me what they are. There was just a lot to weed through to make this happen."
But both partners managed to sustain each other with mutual enthusiasm and dogged determination.
"John's an amazingly focused guy," King says. "He's got a lot of ambition. He's the most talented guy I've ever worked with." And Mellencamp -- a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee who's had 22 top 40 hits and a dozen platinum albums -- says much the same about King.
"Steve has been probably the best collaborator I've ever had," he notes. And despite King's often macabre writings, Mellencamp reports that "he's the sweetest guy you could ever meet. There's nothing weird about him or demonic or anything like that. He's not like his books, right?"
Mellencamp even recalls a time during the "Ghost Brothers" process when King came to see him and his band perform in Green Bay, Wisc. King plays guitar and was to join Mellencamp on stage for one song, "and I went back to get him and his hands were shaking. I said, 'You gotta be (kidding) me. The man who scared the world is scared to walk out in front of (expletive) 10,000 people.' And he said, 'Yeah, I'm (expletive) afraid.' I said, 'Get your ass out there...' "
The two confess that it wasn't always sweetness and light between them while they were writing the musical, however. "John will come up with a lot of ideas," King says. "He'll come with, let's say five ideas. Two of them will be bulls***, three of them will be great. He's totally dedicated to the project and very, very talented. And he's strong-willed.
"So sometimes I have to throw up a stop sign and say 'Let's not do that.' But there were always plenty of good ideas around, fortunately."
As they built the production, King and Mellencamp determined that the music would not be typical Broadway fare. Rather, they opted for rootsy Americana that better fit the show's rural setting.
"We didn't want to have one of those overwhelming scores like 'My Fair Lady' or 'Phantom of the Opera' where you've got a 30-piece orchestra and a lot of swooping strings," King explains. "Neither of us likes that very much. I wanted to strip down to an American basics -- blues, country-western, a little rock 'n' roll.
"I wanted it to be blue jeans music. We don't want stuff like feels like it should be dressed up in a tuxedo."
King and Mellencamp feel the same way about Broadway, which is why they were happy to roll out "Ghost Brothers" on the road rather than on the Great White Way.
"We looked at Broadway shows like 'Spider-man,' 'The Lion King,' how big they were and said, 'Really? Is this really what we want?' " King says. "The problem with Broadway is when things wind up there they're almost done, and I'm not real crazy about that idea. I think at this point, after all John and I have been through on this show, if a bunch of angels came and said, 'We want to put this on Broadway. We want to make a big production with a lot of special effects and a great big band,' we'd probably say, 'F off...' "
King says he and Mellencamp would "love" to see "Ghost Brothers" turned into a movie at some point, but they also hope more touring is in its future. And even though it's on the road (starring Billy Burke and Gina Gershon), Mellencamp -- who himself will be touring throughout 2015 to promote his latest album, "Plain Spoken" -- says he and King aren't done futzing with it, either.
"Oh yeah, Steve and I are still working on it," he confirms. "You know that art is never done, it's only abandoned. You can just say, 'F*** it' and give up on it or you can keep going on it. So Stephen and my obligation is to keep looking at this thing and make it better."
"Ghost Brothers of Darkland County" by Stephen King and John Mellencamp
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 26.
Fisher Theatre in the Fisher Building, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit
Tickets are $49.35-$79.
Call 313-872-1000 or visit www.broadwayindetroit.com
Note: John Mellencamp performs June 10 at the Detroit Opera House. Tickets are $55 to $125.50. Call 313-237-7464 or visit www.motopera.org.
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