The Atlanta Journal-Constitution interviewed Stephen King about “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” his musical with John Mellencamp that will receive its world premiere at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta next April. “Darkland” is about two teen brothers who drank too much at a dance, drove to the cabin with a girl and drank some more, then had a gun accident that led to a fatal wreck in a car speeding to the hospital. As in most King tales, the deaths are merely part of the creepy backdrop in a dissection of the flaws of human relations.
Q: How long have you known John Mellencamp?
A: I’ve known him since we started working on this. Basically we shared an agent and we didn’t know it because it’s from CAA [Creative Artists Agency] and they keep really quiet. They’re almost like psychiatrists. John was talking with my agent and said, “I’m really looking for somebody to write the book for this thing, someone who’s good with scary like Stephen King.” And my agent said, “I agent Stephen.”
John came down to Florida and told me the idea and I said I’d like to try. Because it’s something different.
Q: Is the story that he told you that led to writing the musical true?
A: John Ford in “Liberty Valance” said, “If they give you truth and legend, print the legend.” We printed the legend. I don’t know how much of it’s true. You know what? There’s a story like that about every house, every hotel.
Q: Why did the setting move to Mississippi?
A: Because John loves Tennessee Williams and he really liked the idea of it being some sort of a Southern-feeling thing, like Blanche DuBois and all that. And I love William Faulkner and I love stories about the South and it just seemed natural. It’s a Gothic thing, so why not make it a Southern Gothic?
Q: How scary is it?
A: If it’s staged the right way, with the right lights and the music, it could be pretty scary. It’s not for kids, unless they’ve got the price of admission and then [King rubs his hands like Scrooge] it’s, “Come on in, kids!”
Q: Is it hard to be scary in a musical?
A: John was really adamant that he wanted to use a small group. And I said, “Like blue jeans music?” And he said, “Yeah, yeah, we want to get away from all the strings and the high tenor voices and the sort of melodramatic thing.” He wanted to do a kind of country rock sort of crossover, more like “Big River” than the opera.
He really wanted to do this thing about sibling rivalry. At first I saw the ghosts as almost comforting because we see them and the people in the story don’t. But it turned out to be pretty scary. I don’t have any real feeling like that because it’s a musical, that it ought to be this, that or the other thing. It ought to be what it is. And John adapted his music to the story. It’s great.
Q: Did he stay with the songs while you concentrated on the script or did you get in each other’s wheelhouses?
A: Yeah, we did. John is not shy about telling anybody to change anything. I’m a little bit more shy. I did a 20- or 30-page treatment. And then we tinkered it out a bit. And then I did a script and I would put in, “Here’s [where] a song [goes]. It should be about brotherly love or brotherly hate.” John wrote the songs. And then my job was to go back after he’d done the demos and kind of build pockets for them, so there’d be transitions in and out. It was an interesting challenge.
Q: Do you feel like you’ll be tinkering up to the premiere?
A: It’s got to be pretty much done at this stage. Because John’s got this other life where he’s on tour all the time and I have to try to write a book this summer. I’ve got an idea for one but I’m going to have to tour [to promote] the book in the fall and I’ll get down here for rehearsals. I’d love to be here for some of the casting, but it’s really [Alliance artistic director and “Darkland” director] Susan Booth’s baby at this point. And if Susan says I need this or I need that, I’ll do what I can.
Q: The show was announced for the 2008-09 season. Why was it delayed?
A: Fired the director. He was really New York. John just didn’t feel like it was working. John’s a great guy. [The director] is a great guy. They just didn’t see eye to eye and finally I got tired of being like the mediator.
Q: So you feel good about where you are now?
A: Yeah, real good. I love the Alliance. You know, it’s been so long that we’ve been involved in this that it’s easy [for “Darkland”] to get a little bit flat. But the readings are energizing.
Q: Did you have any say in the musicians for the soundtrack album (a two-CD set that’s expected to be released this fall)?
A: John and I and [producer] T Bone [Burnett] got together in Nashville. And we talked about everybody from Kris Kristofferson, who’s about 70, to Justin Bieber’s kid brother. John knew some people I really admired, like Sheryl Crow, and I really pushed for Rosanne Cash. She’s a beautiful singer. We both loved the idea of Elvis Costello.
Q: What’s the ultimate goal for “Darkland?”
John always wanted to be on Broadway, see his name in lights on the Great White Way. And I’m not adverse to that. But my big thing about it is, like, one step at a time. Let’s see if we can have success in Atlanta.
Ultimately what I wanted to do and what John wanted to do is kind of like the anti-“Spider-Man.” We wanted to do a musical that had modest aspirations, modest casting, modest staging. Humble, but modest. And if that happens, I thought maybe we’ll have some kind of a life, regional theater, community theater, that sort of thing. I’d love to see that happen.
In his own words: Stephen Kind recounts his first meeting with John Mellencamp about “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County.”
“He told me a story. He assured me that this story was true. He lives in Indiana, in Bloomington. His wife decided they were going to buy a cabin on the lake and they looked at a couple of places. They went by a nearby store and the proprietor said, ‘You know, that house is haunted.’
“And John said, ‘No what happened.’
“And the proprietor said that in the ’50s there were two brothers, one 18 and 16, who were at a dance with a girl who was in between them. She was 17. They had a few drinks after the dance and decided they were going to go to the boys’ parents’ cabin by the lake, which was the one John was interested in buying. They went there and had a few more drinks. And the older brother dared the younger brother. There was a rifle in the house and he put an apple on top of his head and dared his younger brother to shoot it off. Well, the kid probably wouldn’t have done it if he was sober, but he wasn’t sober. So he took the rifle and he shot and instead of getting the apple, he hit his brother in the head. So the brother who had done the shooting and the girl were hysterical with terror, with fear. And they grabbed the older brother and put him in the car and drove out of there. About a half mile down the road, they were doing 80. The younger brother lost control, hit a tree and they were all killed.
“And John thought, I don’t know if there are ghosts but there’s a story in that. He came to me and said [King laughs] ‘We could do a musical on that!’
“I said, ‘Now John, it sure as hell won’t be ‘My Fair Lady.'”