Dedication really does eventually pay off.
In the case of the supernatural rock musical “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” it’s been 16 years of dedication, to be exact.
It was all those years ago when Grammy-winning singer-songwriter John Mellencamp approached best-selling author Stephen King with the idea for the musical, which would be fueled with blues, roots gospel and Southern rock. And ghosts.
‘GHOST BROTHERS OF DARKLAND COUNTY’
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 28
Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph
Created and written by Mellencamp and King, with musical direction by T Bone Burnett, “Ghost Brothers” stars Gina Gershon (“Killer Joe,” “Boeing, Boeing”) as Monique McCandless, a mother trying to keep her battling sons from destroying each other. Billy Burke (“Twilight”) stars as her troubled husband, Joe, a man haunted by a long-ago tragedy involving his two brothers — a scenario that is seemingly playing out all over again only this time involving his sons. A stay at a lakeside cabin haunted by the past may be the only way to save them all.
“John got in touch through a mutual friend of ours who said John wants to talk to you about writing a musical,” King recalled of the process that began in 1998.
“I’d never written anything like that, except [laughing] when I wrote a play when I was 12 years old in the Boy Scouts. So I talked to John. He came out to my house and he picked up my guitar and strummed it and tuned while he told me the story of the play. I told him I don’t know anything about musicals other than going to see them. John said, ‘I don’t know either but we can teach each other as we go along.’ So I wrote the treatment for it and John sent it back to me with some demos he had done and they just brought the whole thing to life.
“It’s almost like a concert play in a way. More like a radio play with live actors.”
The musical eventually premiered in 2012 at the Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, which was followed by a 20-city tour last year and now a fall tour of one-nighters that brings it to Chicago on Nov. 28. (An audio eBook is available on iTunes.) Many revisions later, the play has a totally different vibe, according to King, a “totally stripped-down version with a band on stage.”
“John’s idea originally was that the songs would stand alone and amplify what was going on in the story,” King said. “And I told him, let me take the songs and integrate them into the story itself. I did that to build pockets for the songs, so the story could flow in the songs and flow out again.”
About the story, King said Mellencamp’s Southern Gothic tale stems not from his imagination, but reality.
“It’s based on something from John’s life,” King said. “He told me that he bought a cabin for his boys in Indiana on a lake, and after the deal was done, the guy who sold it to them said the place was supposedly haunted. He told John the story of two boys and a girl who were drinking, got a gun and started to pretend they were William Tell trying to shoot an apple off the head of one of the boys. Well, they shot him in the head. The two of them put the wounded boy into a car and started off driving him to the hospital, but on the way there they hit a tree and all three of them died. After that they supposedly haunted the cabin.
“So John said to me, ‘What if the two boys were brothers and it’s 30 years later and they’re going down the same path, with a girl they’re fighting over. What if their dad brings them out to the cabin and tells them the story of the original brothers and the ghosts and all that?” And that’s where we started.
For King, who has sold more than 350 million books in his 40-year career, with titles that include “Carrie” “The Shining,” “Salem’s Lot,” “The Stand,” “Misery” and “The Green Mile,” writing the book for a musical was completely new territory.
“It really was a totally different process,” King said. “The first thing I did was try to restructure my [writing] method. When writing a book or a movie, you can go anywhere, in any direction. You can have one scene set in Chicago and the next thing the characters are in farmland in Wisconsin. With a play, you’re pretty much stuck with one setting. I like the idea of that kind of discipline in writing, of keeping things in one small space. What takes four lines of dialogue in a play takes me one line in a book.”
The ability to revisit his work and change it after it was technically “finished” also was new territory for King, who found it quite liberating for a writer.
“There was lots of rewriting along the way [to opening night] and more tweaking [since that time],” he said. “A lot of plot elements have changed over the years. Staging has changed. We now have musicians on stage instead of an orchestra. … It’s very cool to have a work for the stage because in a way it’s alive forever. A book is a live thing while you’re working on it. It goes through several iterations and then at some point it’s finished and gets published. And that’s that. [This play] is still alive, and even when it’s done, it’s not done as you and the actors continue to tweak it in rehearsals.”
One such revision involved Gershon’s character.
“And recently I asked John, ‘What If we toughen up the mom character a little bit?’ So now she’s more like Martha in [‘Who’s Afraid of ] Virginia Woolf?,’ one of my favorite characters in American theater.”
Gershon told the Associated Press in a recent interview that she’s in awe of King, whose creativity is matched only by his speed. “I love the way he writes women,” the actress told AP. “He understands them in some instinctual way and he writes great female characters.”
As for the show’s music, King said: “I think the music is terrific. It’s some of the best stuff John’s ever written. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. But if you have a song that’s really, really good, and you wed it to a good story, then you create an emotional gradient that’s so high you can lift an audience. A song like ‘Tonight’ [from ‘West Side Story’], for example, does just that. It’s an emotional journey. And that’s what we’ve created here.”
As for the biggest revelation for King about the stage musical process, the author didn’t skip a beat.
“Learning to play with a group,” King said. “Writing is a solitary job. This was a team effort. That was a big change for me.”