Twelve years in the making, scheduled and canceled, recast and rewritten, the high-stakes, high-profile “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County” might possibly be considered cursed. Or maybe all that fine-tuning and waiting has birthed something memorable and it will ultimately be seen as blessed. For now, the outlook is as hazy as a foggy autumn night on a Mississippi bayou, but all will be revealed April 4, when “Ghost Brothers” finally opens at the Alliance Theatre.
The world premiere of the Southern Gothic musical, with a book by noted horror novelist Stephen King and music and lyrics by rock musician John Mellencamp (both theatrical novices), will run through May 13, with tickets priced from $45 to $85. The cast includes Tony Award winner Shuler Hensley (“Young Frankenstein”), Tony nominee Emily Skinner (“Billy Elliot: The Musical”) and “American Idol” finalist Justin Guarini.
King talked about the roots of “Ghost Brothers” on a visit to Atlanta last year. He was living in Florida about 12 years ago, recovering from being seriously injured when hit by a van while walking on the side of a road, and Mellencamp visited with an idea for a collaboration.
As the story went, in the 1950s — supposedly in a cabin in southern Indiana that Mellencamp had bought — two teenaged brothers were drinking with a girl they both loved. “The older brother put an apple on his head and dared the other brother to shoot it off,” King said. “And because he’d had a few drinks, the younger brother took a rifle and tried to do it. And he shot his brother in the head. The brother who had done the shooting and the girl flipped out, they got hysterical and drove off at high speed and they hit a tree. And they were both killed.”
King liked the story and, when Mellencamp proposed they write it as a musical, agreed.
“One of the reasons I said yes is because I respect John as a musician and someone who has not been content to stay in one place and do one kind of pop music,” King said at an Alliance press conference during another Atlanta visit. “That’s the way you stay vital as an artist. I wanted to try something that was a little bit risky and something that was outside my comfort zone. The only other play I wrote was for Boy Scouts. I was 10.”
Mellencamp’s original story provided the premise, not the story itself. Reset in fictional Lake Belle Reve, Mississippi, in 1967, the story of the brothers becomes a legend that lives on in the town. According to an Alliance summary, “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.”
Along the way, Mellencamp brought in Grammy-winning producer T-Bone Burnett to be the musical director. Burnett, who supervised the music in the Coen brothers movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” is well known for his ear for blues, folk and Americana. He’s produced for Mellencamp as well, who said, “He has a different metronome in his head, and it’s proven to be very advantageous for my songs.”
Alliance Artistic Director Susan V. Booth is directing the play and has been quietly shepherding the project behind the scenes for years, as various approaches were reworked. It’s the latest in a string of musicals that the Alliance has launched, some of which have gone on to great success, including “The Color Purple,” “Aida,” “Sister Act” and “Bring It On.”
A Southern Gothic story doesn’t need to be set in the South, King said, even though that’s where its roots are. “It’s just a country vibe, where you’ve got a small town and a lot has gone on and legends have built up and people keep their secrets, dangerous secrets. I don’t think it changes from Indiana [Mellencamp’s home] to Maine [King’s home] to Mississippi.”
But Atlanta was the right place for the musical’s world premiere, King added. “We wanted a place that was cosmopolitan, but not out of touch with its country roots. Atlanta looked to me like the middle of the bull’s-eye. We’ve got an audience here where a story like this can succeed. It’s not a Broadway show with a chandelier falling down from the ceiling. It’s basically a cabin out in the woods.”