Recently I caught up with the cast recording of the Stephen King/John Mellencamp musical, Ghost Brothers of Darkland County. As a longtime fan of Mellencamp’s, and an admirer of King’s (there’s a difference, and I’ll explain it shortly), I was curious to see what they’d come up with working together, and in a form neither had tried before.
The results, for me at least, were disappointing.
The story involves two sets of brothers, one alive and one dead. The ghost brothers died in the Sixties, and their still-living baby brother, now the dad of the other pair, is trying to prevent history from repeating itself. Got that?
The story was inspired by Mellencamp’s purchase of a haunted cabin in Indiana, which struck Maine-born-and-bred Stephen King as a great spark to a story. So where did they decide to set their play?
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, except that, since neither is a native Southerner (references to Tennessee Williams and Flannery O’Connor notwithstanding) they get the dialect and vernacular pretty much all wrong (and don’t get me started on the accents the cast uses on the recording). For example, the living brothers’ mom uses the Yiddish word, “schtupp,” when she walks in on one brother and his girlfriend. Since she’s established as an alcoholic, church-going traditional Southern wife, this feels totally wrong, like the kind of joke a New England Yankee might make about the South. Oh, wait….
But there are more general issues. As I said above, I admire King for his willingness to push his own boundaries, when he could simply write the same books over and over and continue to add to his fortune. But he’s far from a flawless writer, and there are a lot of flaws here. Chief among them is the presence of The Shape, a character (played by Elvis Costello on the recording) who is supposed to be the devil, or at least a demon. He has several solo numbers extolling his own virtues, and we’re supposed to enjoy his manipulation of the other characters, whispering unseen in their ears throughout the show.
The thing is, by including this character, it totally obviates the tragedy. In real tragedies, the downfall of the hero is due to something innate in his or her character; here, it’s due to Satan. Both sets of brothers, alive and dead, have their animosity stoked not by their own personalities, but by this outside force. What is King trying to tell us by that? That nothing awful we do is really our own fault? That’s not tragedy. That’s Calvinism.
There’s also the old King standby of having one character, in this case one of the living brothers, be a misunderstood writer. As voiced by Matthew McConaughey and sung by Ryan Bingham, his main issue is that his brother, the failed musician, has always been mommy’s favorite. It’s disheartening to have a writer like King still putting obvious Mary Sues into his work.
Mellencamp’s music, produced by T-Bone Burnett, is a different issue. According to various interviews, the songs were designed to provide all the character development, while King simply worried about moving the plot forward. But that creates its own problems, most notably the songs’ collective obviousness.
For example, when Anna, the live bitchy girlfriend, sings to explain herself, her song is “That’s Who I Am.” When Jenna, the dead bitchy girlfriend, sings of the pleasures of visiting juke joints, it’s called, “Jukin’.” When the two living brothers sing about their contentious relationship, it’s called “Brotherly Love.” Their mother’s song about how no one in her family really knows her? “You Don’t Know Me.” And so forth.
Not that most audiences would notice, since the music is produced by T-Bone Burnett, whose talents are so important he’s given equal billing with King and Mellencamp. Some of the songs are really good: “So Goddam Smart” and “How Many Days,” for example. And on a surface level, King writes an entertaining libretto, with many poignant and funny lines. But there’s no denying, as the New York Times said in its review of the initial Atlanta production, “it has the feel of something devised over Skype.” Still, as Mellencamp told the Baltimore Sun after a November performance, it’s a work in progress: “this thing will only be done when Steve and I go, ‘It’s done.’ He’ll continue to make changes, I’ll make changes. That’s what art is. It’s just constantly in motion.”
So there’s hope. But like so many musicals–and this is the reason I don’t like them–everything good is on the surface. Dig deeper, and you simply don’t find much of anything. Because the biggest ghost in Ghost Brothers of Darkland County is the ghost of something meaningful.
Here’s the trailer: