King, Mellencamp discuss ‘Ghost' story during Atlanta visit

“Ghost Brothers of Darkland County” is expected to be loaded with eerie storytelling, dark overtones and ghosts.

But the triumvirate behind the Southern gothic musical opening at the Alliance Theatre on April 4 was lighthearted and jokey while meeting with the media at the Woodruff Arts Center on Thursday.

Stephen King, rangy, grinning and gray-haired, sat shoulder-to-shoulder with partner John Mellencamp, hair cropped close and rock star cool, and musical director T Bone Burnett, who sported his omnipresent shades, as they discussed the 12-year evolution of “Ghost Brothers” and repeatedly praised Susan V. Booth, artistic director of the Alliance.

Atlanta was chosen as the launching ground, said King, because “it’s a city that is cosmopolitan, but not out of touch with its country roots,” an important factor since the play is set in small town Mississippi in 1957.

Mellencamp, meanwhile, was a bit more emphatic.

“The reason I liked Atlanta so much? Susan Booth,” he said.

Booth will direct the production, which unveils the story of two brothers and a young girl killed in a tragic event that, through the decades, becomes legend. One man witnessed the tragedy and the ghosts from that fateful night continue to haunt his family.

The cast, which boasts several members with local ties – a development that Booth called “wicked cool”– is fronted by Tony winner Shuler Hensley, a Marietta native. Joining him are Tony nominee Emily Skinner and familiar Broadway face (and long-ago “American Idol” star and former Atlantan) Justin Guarini, all of whom were in attendance Thursday.

Mellencamp said it took three rounds of auditions to find the perfect cast; the initial try-outs in New York were “too Broadway. We had to get out of town. I don’t need my songs [in amplified theatrical singing voice] sung that way.”

Also in the cast is Americana music mainstay Dale Watson.

“You don’t get [someone like Watson] out of central casting,” Booth noted wryly.

The soft-spoken Burnett, who has produced albums for artists ranging from Willie Nelson to Tony Bennett to Elton John to Mellencamp, said he wanted the music in the show to sound “dark and foggy,” a reasonable feat since Mellencamp “had already written some scary-sounding songs.”

Mellencamp, whose girlfriend Meg Ryan sat casually in the back of the room, was quick to share his admiration of Burnett’s musically encyclopedic brain.

“All of my musical references start in the 1950s until the present. T Bone goes from the '20s to the '50s. He has his feet firmly planted in Americana, blues, folk. I learned a lot from him. My songs and his internal metronome work,” Mellencamp said.

Considering the amount of time invested in bringing “Ghost Brothers,” which will run through May 13, to fruition, it wouldn’t be surprising for the playwrights to envision an eventual leap to Broadway.

But both King and Mellencamp shrugged off any expectations.

“I personally don’t care if we go to Broadway or Washington or the moon," Mellencamp said. "I hope something comes of it. But Steve and I have had a great 12 years with each other. We’ve become great friends.” Then he added with a laugh, “But that’s not hard because I don’t have any friends and neither does he.”

King chuckled at Mellencamp’s teasing before inserting his own coda.

“This isn’t like professional baseball in the minors and you hope to go to the next level. This isn’t a minor league city,” King said. “But I’m not thinking Broadway or movies or any of those things. I want audiences to come to the Alliance and be knocked out.”

"Ghost Brothers of Darkland County"

April 4-May 3. Times vary. $45-$65. Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E. Atlanta. 404-733-5000, www.alliancetheatre.org/ghostbrothers.