When singer/songwriter John Mellencamp bought a cabin years ago, little did he realize it would result in a 13-year collaboration with author Stephen King. That result, “The Ghosts of Darkland County,” is a musical that soon begins a 19-city Midwestern tour that includes a performance Oct. 24 at Embassy Theatre.
During a phone interview, King said the initial idea came from Mellencamp, who purchased a “haunted” cabin when his boys were small. Of course, no one told Mellencamp beforehand, but the more he thought about it the more he felt it would make a great story and he told his agent so. He told his agent he needed King to write the story.
“His agent happened to be my agent at the time and called me,” King recalled. “I thought it was interesting.”
King said he owned a residence in Florida, while Mellencamp owned one in South Carolina. They met and hit it off. Mellencamp even tuned King's guitar while they spoke about the project. “We're just a couple of country kids,” he said. “We saw eye to eye. We've been hanging out ever since.”
The original story involved three kids who were drinking one night. One died of a bullet wound to the head when he put an apple on his head and asked one of the friends to shoot it off. The two survivors then died in a car accident trying to take the dead boy to town.
Mellencamp and King changed the storyline considerably: Two brothers fall in love with the same woman and their lives end tragically. Later, the surviving brother relates the story to his sons.
“We changed the story so that the shooting was a thing that had happened as a result of the constant fighting between the brothers over a girl,” King said. “You basically take a story or event and build a piece of fiction around this,” comparing the resulting changes to the ending of the film “Who Shot Liberty Valance?” King added, “Do you print the truth or print the legend? You print the legend. We're myth-making.”
While neither had any experience writing musicals, each relied on their God-given talents for the challenge. King wrote the play, while Mellencamp wrote the music. They participated in table readings, workshops, revisions and even went to New York as the musical evolved.
“Productions on Broadway are very expensive,” King said. “We decided to take it on the road to play in smaller venues… These are whistle-and-stop tours. In those days, people would go by train to the next town's performance… This is a seat-of-the-pants thing.”
“Ghost Brothers of Darkland County” enjoyed a test run at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, which was directed by Susan Booth.
Bruce Greenwood, best known recently for his role as Capt. Christopher Pike in “Star Trek Into Darkness,” joins the upcoming tour in the title role of Joe McCandless with Broadway actress and Tony Award nominee Emily Skinner as his wife, Monique McCandless.
The musical includes a live four-member band. T Bone Burnett worked with Mellencamp to arrange the music, and Steven Cohen is lighting designer.
“There's a wonderful advertisement for smaller theaters,” King said. “I always thought that when it was at the Alliance. The sound system was incredible. I always thought it was perfect for smaller theaters. It'll be interesting to see how it plays that way.”
King said he was about 2 or 3 years old when he lived in Fort Wayne, where his father's family resided at the time, but spent many of his formative years in Connecticut and Maine. He said his only memory of Fort Wayne was July 4th fireworks. He also said he did not select the cities included in the current tour of the musical.
“John has a good attitude regarding this musical,” he said. “Take it the mid-section of the country. A middle-American tour for middle America.” The tour debuts in Bloomington and includes stops in Louisville, Ky.; Nashville; Madison, Wis.; Sioux City, Iowa; South Bend and Grand Rapids, Mich.
While King said he will be in Bloomington for final practices and the first performance, he plans to attend other performances as permitted by a busy book tour, which will take him overseas for the first time. The American tour of “Dr. Sleep” begins this week, and then expands to Germany and France.
As far as writing another musical, King replied, “Maybe I ought to ask John if he's going to do another one. It's been fun and really interesting. It takes me out of my comfort zone and it refreshes you creatively.”