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With ‘Ghost Brothers,’ Mellencamp meets King

Harry Sandler
John Mellencamp.Kevin Mazur

“Ghost Brothers of Darkland County” hasn’t made it to Broadway, at least not yet. But the musical by Stephen King and John Mellencamp hits Boston for a single performance Friday night at the Colonial Theatre, having started its monthlong national tour in King’s neck of the woods, in Orono, Maine.

With a book by King and songs by Mellencamp, “Ghost Brothers” offers a dark tale of the family ties that bind in small-town Mississippi, as Joe Mc-Candless recounts the tragedy that befell his two older brothers 40 years earlier and hopes his two sons won’t meet the same fate. Billy Burke (Bella’s father in the “Twilight” saga) and Gina Gershon now star as Joe and Monique McCandless. Much of the rest of the cast returns from the show’s premiere run at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta in 2012. There’s also a four-piece band to play Mellencamp’s roots-music songs.

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Mellencamp got on the phone recently from his home in Indiana to talk about the show. It turns out we owe its existence to, of all people, ABBA.

Q. What’s it like to work on a project for 14 or 15 years?

A. Well, you know, art is never really completed, it’s just abandoned. I have songs that have been hit records that I hear on the radio that I think, oh, [expletive], I wish I would have written a different last verse for that thing. But I had to put the song out. I have a song called “Pink Houses” that if I could write that song now, then I would have a much better ending. [Laughter.] With Steve and I, we have the ability to keep working on this. So until Steve and I are happy with what’s going on, and we feel OK, this is the best representation of what we’re doing, then we’re going to keep working on it. We might be talking again in five years, and you’ll go, “Hey, you guys are still working on this thing, huh?”

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Q. Did you have much experience with musical theater growing up?

A. My older brother was the star of all the musicals back in the ’60s when I was growing up. He was five years older than me, and they did stuff like “Kismet” and “South Pacific,” very ambitious things for a high school production. And my older brother Joe always had the lead. So I was forced to go to those things whether I wanted to or not, and consequently ended up liking those things. I’ve gone to Broadway shows and plays, and I’m interested in Tennessee Williams and all kinds of writers.

Stephen King.Handout press photo

Q. What was the impetus for you to get involved with this project?

A. Life is full of opportunities, you know? And I’m always looking for trouble. The original invitation for me was about 15, 20 years ago. “Mamma Mia!” [the musical based on ABBA songs] had become very successful on Broadway, and Broadway being the lemmings that they are, they thought, “Wouldn’t it be good if we find more people to do this with!” They came to me and said, “John, would you be interested in taking some of your hit records and we’ll make a story around them?” And I said, “No, I’m not interested in that. I’m not interested in looking backward. But if you guys want to create something new, with new songs and new stories.” And I said I have some stories in my head, that if I knew Stephen King, he could really take them and make a great story out of it. And my agent looked at me and said, “That should be easy to do, because Steve’s my client.”

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Q. How have you had to change your working method for this?

A. Really the only difference was there’s an assignment — “We need this here.” I’m a professional songwriter. It’s what I do. Steve and I made the decision that he was going to tell the story and I was going to do the character development in the songs, which is quite different from most Broadway shows. Most musicals, the songs are meant to move the story forward. But we approached it the same way “My Fair Lady” was done.

Q. You seem heavily involved in all aspects of the show, not just the songs.

A. Steve and I are actually the producers, so we kind of have final say on everything. I was just on the phone with the wardrobe department before I talked to you. I am interested in creating characters that people won’t forget, and that has a lot to do with what they have on. I’m trying to convince the guy who’s playing the lead character to wear an eye patch. And he said to me, “There’s nothing in the libretto about an eye patch.” And I said, So? You put that eye patch on, and it’ll be like you’re carrying a monkey on stage every time you walk on. Everybody will look at you. If somebody’s doing a scene and you walk out with a [expletive] monkey, who they gonna look at? The guy holding the monkey! Or the guy with the eye patch. The audience will create a back story, even if it’s not in Steve’s libretto. I haven’t even talked to Steve about it. That’s the way it’s done around here. [Laughter.]

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Q. You’re about to go on tour behind your new album, “Plain Spoken.” Has 15 years of working on “Ghost Brothers” affected your own music?

A. Any time you write something, there’s always something to be learned, from the last song, the last chord structure, the last melody. I can’t put my finger on anything, but creating is about learning from your last endeavor. So yeah, I would imagine there was some stuff I learned from “Ghost Brothers” that went onto my new record.


Interview was edited and condensed. Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.