(Editor’s note: The world premiere of ‘Ghost Brothers of Darkland County’ ran April 4 to May 13, 2012.)
The artist formerly known as Johnny Cougar has accomplished quite a lot over the course of his 35-year career as one of the American heartland’s most beloved singer-songwriters. John Mellencamp has sold more than 40 million albums, had 22 Top 40 hit singles, has been nominated for 13 Grammy Awards, co-founded Farm Aid, and has been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. But his 12-year quest to take Ghost Brothers of Darkland County from concept to reality may have been the most challenging.
The concept, which he first spoke to novelist Stephen King about in 2000, is the story of a father who takes his two constantly bickering sons to a cabin in the woods, where deep, dark family secrets are gradually revealed. Although details of the plot have been kept secret, Mellencamp, King, producer T-Bone Burnett and Alliance Theatre Artistic Director Susan V. Booth did chat about the show during rehearsals.
Here’s some of what this bona-fide rock ‘n’ roll legend said about the show’s journey.
Question: You and Steve have both written a ton of material in your respective fields. What were the unique challenges of trying to write something for the stage?
Answer: Steve and I made a decision early on that we weren’t going to do a musical where the songs moved the story forward. He had to be able to write something, and then I had to be able to expand the moment. In essence, it was like Pygmalion and My Fair Lady: The story was here, and the music was there, now how do we work it together?
Q: I’m curious about the dynamics of creating this show. How did the collaboration work?
A: Steve and I should probably publish the emails, because some of our conversations are pretty laughable. Steve writes all the time, and I’m always on tour, so it’s hard to get our schedules together. Steve and I, we never really plan anything in our lives. … It’s more like, “Hey, we’ve got 15 hours to work on this!” I think that’s one of the reasons it took 12 years to get here. But we’ve had a great 12 years with each other on and off, and we’ve become really good friends.
Q: I’ve read that you worked on a radio play version of this project with some pretty high-profile actors. Is that true?
A: Yeah, we worked with some great people – Kris Kristofferson, Rosanne Cash, Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Matthew McConaughey, Meg Ryan. … It’s like an old-time radio play. T-Bone Burnett produced it, and it’s going to come out as an album eventually.
Q: What can you tell us about the casting of this show?
A: This was our third attempt to get this show together. We had done it in New York, and it just didn’t work. It was too [singing] “Broadway Rhythm,” but that’s not what this show is. We had to get out of town, even though some of these people in the cast are from New York. I think that we needed to redesign it from the ground up. I don’t need to hear my songs sung that way, and it was imperative that none of these people did that. But all these kids are great singers, and they can act. Steve and I have done this before, but, under the supervision of Susan Booth, they really brought life to these characters. Quite honestly, we’re floored!
Bret Love is the founder of ecotourism/conservation site GreenGlobalTravel.com; the national managing editor of INsite magazine; and music editor for Georgia Music Magazine. He freelances for more than a dozen other national and international publications, and performs on numerous improv teams with Jackpie at Relapse Theatre.