Misunderstood Musicals: "The Ghost Brothers of Darkland County"

Joel Fenster

Today let's look at an original Stephen King musical.

Wait! What’s that? Stephen King wrote a musical?

Yes. Yes, he did and with John Mellencamp, no less. It took them close to a dozen years to get it on stage; the end result is entitled The Ghost Brothers of Darkland County. The show combines the best and worst of both men (well, the best of Mellencamp and the best & worst of King) into a curious piece that is probably still being worked on even though it’s had a full production and been on two tours at this point.

The story concerns itself with the McCandless family. The plot bounces back and forth between present day as a father, Joe McCandless, watches his son's battle each other and their own inner demons and the past when young Joe McCandless watched his older brothers go through the same motions with tragic results. To say more might ruin any suspense the story has, but if you have that Stephen King stereotype in your head you know exactly where things are headed; it’s just a matter of the when and how we get there.


The show premiered at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta in the spring of 2012 with a full production after almost a dozen years of King working the libretto and Mellencamp working the music & lyrics (there is one song co-written by Mellencamp and Elvis Costello). This production starred Shuler Hensley and Emily Skinner as Joe & Monique McCandless and Justin Guarini and Lucas Kavner as their sons Frank & Drake. The music direction was by T. Bone Burnett. The show had a limited run from April 4 until May 13 and got very mixed reviews. Most of the reviews noted that the biggest problems were with King’s book. Rumors of a transplant into NYC for September 2012 popped up on-line but nothing ever came of that.

A concept album was released in the summer of 2013 featuring all the songs and some of the dialog from the show. The album features an all-star cast for both as it mostly splits the roles between singers for the songs and actors for the dialog. For example the role of Drake is spoken by Matthew McConaughey but sung by Ryan Bingham, the role of Monique is spoken by Meg Ryan and sung by Roseanne Cash, while Kris Kristofferson does both for Joe McCandless. This is the way most people will be able to access this material and there is a deluxe version that contains the entire script by King. If you’ve never read a script by King they read exactly as his books do, right down to pop culture references in the scene descriptions that no one seeing the show would ever know about.

The show did get a twenty-city tour in the fall of 2013 where it traveled around the Midwest and Southeast. This production replaced Shuler Hensley with Bruce Greenwood and Justin Guarini with Joe Tippett. A second tour in the fall of 2014 travelled around the Northeast and starred Billy Burke and Gina Gershon as Joe & Monique. This is the version I had the pleasure of seeing when it hit The Beacon Theater in New York City.

Staged more like a concert than a fully produced musical (which it was when it played Atlanta), this version has enlarged the role of the narrator, known as The Zydeco Cowboy, so that he sets the stage for things no longer seen by lack of a set. The cast mostly remains on stage in the periphery throughout the proceedings, but comes downstage center to sing or play out scenes as needed. While this staging would have been perfect for a small venue, in the cavern that is The Beacon it got lost and seemed flat. Burke was a surprisingly good Joe McCandless (I was not familiar with his work because I have avoided the Twilight movies) and Gershon made an interesting Monique McCandless. Gershon’s acting was spot on but her singing was, according to my wife, somewhat “off”. My wife happens to be a singer who cannot keep from digging her nails into my arm when she hears music that is, shall we say, less than perfect. After that performance, I was left with bruises on my arm and leg, indicating that something was not quite right. Personally, I didn’t think she was that bad.

Mellencamp’s music is easily the best part of the show (and some of the best work he’s ever done). While most of it is more introspective of character than plot advancing it all works to create a mood.  All of the music is in the folk or roots rock genre, which at first seems a bit odd coupled with the horror genre of the story, but the Southern setting helps blend the two together nicely. My personal favorites are the wistfully empowering “How Many Days” sung by Joe McCandless and “Tear This Cabin Down”,  the Act One finale that gets the whole cast -- and some of the audience -- stomping their feet as we get the only real potential solution for ending the tragedy that has befallen this family.

 The cast of "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County" at the Warner Theatre in 2014. Photo by Harry Sandler.

The cast of "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County" at the Warner Theatre in 2014. Photo by Harry Sandler.

King’s story is nothing new. This is a well-worn horror trail that has been trod before by others and King is no stranger to it either. What King does bring to the table is a mystery we can sink our teeth into and characters we can care about. The entire McCandless family is cursed and haunted by a character called The Shape and there is no question as to who he actually is before he’s done with his first musical number at the top of the show. His second solo in Act Two I found to be a bit much and probably my least favorite song in the piece.

The Ghost Brothers of Darkland County is a show still in its infancy even though its creators have been working on it for more than a decade. It has only had one real production and two concert tours. I am unsure what the next move for King and Mellencamp will be. Will there be a third tour? Will it be any different (aside from cast changes) than the previous two? Are they trying to get to Broadway? Personally, I think this is a show that will thrive on the amateur and community theater level. It has an intimacy that was completely obliterated by the cavernous theaters used for tour stops. And I think a full production rather than concert staging would also help flesh things out more. It will be interesting to see what the future brings for these ghosts stuck in their own past.

In the meantime, if you are a fan of either King or Mellencamp you really should try to seek this out if you can. At the very least there is a wonderful representation on CD that preserves the important and best aspects of the show.