The sprawling Ghost Brothers of Darkland County is available in many shapes and sizes, but when you add them all up it still comes up short.
A collaboration between John Mellencamp and Stephen King, Ghost Brothers tells the story of two sets of feuding brothers a generation apart, whose interaction is so toxic that it threatens themselves and their family. (Since King is involved there are a few creepy plot twists.)
There is the standard CD that features music with selected dialog and a bonus DVD, a super-deluxe version with an added music-only CD and a fancy libretto and an enhanced iPad-only e-book. You can also get digital versions of both the narrative driven and music-only configurations.
But this bounty denies us the traditional and favored entry point for musicals, the presentation of the work in a theatrical setting. The best initiation for any musical is a fresh performance, where the musical and dramatic elements blend together and tell you the story for the first time. That doesn’t happen a lot in the real world, since the availability of the soundtrack occurs before you get a chance to see the play. Here, that opportunity doesn’t exist.
I’ll cop immediately to being a huge Mellencamp fan and will say right up front that these songs are magnificent. Like any musical (or any album) some songs are better than others but for the most part these story-songs stand on their own and the performances are first rate. It’s not strictly a Mellencamp album as he only sings one of the songs and plays some guitar. T-Bone Burnett, who has produced Mellencamp’s last two albums acts as conduit and the results alternately smoke and sigh.
Mellencamp’s direct presence is toned down and diluted by the other singers, including Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Taj Mahal, Neko Case, Ryan Bingham, Kris Kristofferson and Rosanne Cash (those two were also included on Rodney Crowell’s Kin, which is analog to Ghost Brothers). There is also a bit of stunt casting. Dave and Phil Alvin, once of the Blasters and recently estranged, sing the roles of feuding brothers, while Lili and Madeleine Jurkiewicz, two sweet voiced Indiana teenagers, supply the framework for the musical’s coda.
This song, “Truth,” fills the need for a final summation of the plot and the play. Beginning with the sisters’ harmonizing it segues into Mellencamp’s gruff and grizzled vocals, as if he’d just left a lesson with the same voice coach as Bob Dylan and Tom Waits. Mellencamp’s written several songs like this, simple tunes of optimism and redemption, in the context of a musical it aspires to greater weight. I’m not sure it succeeds, ultimately it is just another great Mellencamp song that you end up playing repeatedly until the neighbors start complaining.
An affecting in-studio performance of “Truth” is included on the bonus DVD, presented with subtitles and in black and white. The monochrome theme fits in well with the package’s deliberately tattered appearance but you get a better feeling for the song from the color version which is viewable here.
As great as this song may be, anyone reading the libretto and seeing which character sings what line will yearn to see and hear this song performed in the context of the play. All great musicals have a pay-off number, where the whole cast gets together and sings a song that sums everything up. If you’re lucky the song will be uplifting, as it is here.
Narrations often diminish with each listen and become intrusive, but that doesn’t happen here. Kristofferson and Costello sing and speak while the other characters are shared. Samantha Mathis becomes Sheryl Crow, Matthew McConaughey becomes Ryan Bingham and Meg Ryan morphs into Rosanne Cash.
The immersion version is the e-book, which includes the complete libretto where you read the full dialogue and stage directions while clicking on sound effect icons and the songs, where they occur in the script. Here, you lose the benefit of the actors but get to read the lyrics from songs that were left out.
But the question is still how deep do you want to go here, and how many times. This is a pretty good King story with a twisty supernatural ending, but once you know how it ends there may not be a lot of incentive to repeat the experience. Reading the libretto can be a bit confusing, since we have two sets of people (alive and ghosts) speaking concurrently and it can be hard to keep track. It would be easy if you could watch this interaction. So in order to be truly complete the deluxe Ghost Brothers version should have included a film of the play, which would be the first thing you’d watch after tearing off the shrink wrap. (And while we are thinking of other things to add to the next deluxe box, a disc of Mellencamp’s demos for these songs would be a welcome bonus.)
“John can make rock and roll records for the rest of his life and people will buy them and I can write books for the rest of my life and people will buy them,” King said in an interview from the deluxe version DVD. “But the thing is you build yourself a rut and then you furnish it. That’s no way to live if you want to be a creative person and stay creative and want to reinvent yourself.”
So it’s the combination of the two that is meant as Ghost Brothers‘ strong suit. Without Mellencamp it would be a pretty standard King short story, full of cultural and musical references, sharp dialog and snarky asides. Without King, it would be a cousin to Crowell’s Kin. which featured words by Mary Carr and a cast of characters, although without the options to go wide and deep with the plot.
Until that happens the best point of entry is the narrated version. You get the songs, of course, and a bit of vocal drama that sort of spells out the plot. Wait a while until you can go see the play or until they get around to showing it on PBS (currently scheduled tour dates are below).
I’ve dug Mellencamp and King for years, and have weathered condescension from those who feel that neither of them are quite highbrow enough. I raved about Mellencamp’s Life, Death, Love and Freedom but failed to convince. Those copies I loaned were returned. And I couldn’t get anyone excited about King’s Kennedy assassination fantasy11/22/63, which balanced the supernatural and the sentimental.
So I really wanted these guys to hit one out of the park. But Ghost Brothers isn’t going to change anyone’s minds about this dynamic duo, one way or the other. The deluxe version will probably end up in Barnes and Noble’s remainder section along with some of the other multimedia mistakes that have just missed the mark. That might be a good thing because people will plonk down $9 and get something worth discovering (despite its flaws).
As I write this Cyndi Lauper is on TV accepting a Tony award for best score, followed by a number from the reconstituted Rascals; two examples of the continued commingling of pop music and musical theater. The glitz of the Tonys is anathema to Ghost Brothers‘ grit, but there is no reason that it couldn’t find a life on Broadway or some other theater venue, where the illustration of King’s libretto would give this three-quarters-brilliant project into balance.
Tour Dates for Ghost Brothers of Darkland County (no cast information announced).
October: 10 – Bloomington, IN – Indiana University Auditorium; 11 – Louisville, KY – Whitney Hall; 12 – Knoxville, KY – Knoxville Civic Auditorium; 13 – Asheville, NC – Thomas Wolfe Auditorium; 16 – Nashville, TN – Ryman Auditorium; 17 – Evansville, IN – Aiken Theatre at The Centre; 18 – Indianapolis, IN – Clowes Memorial Hall; 19 – Akron, OH – Akron Civic Theatre; 22 – Columbus, OH – Palace Theatre; 24 – Ft. Wayne, IN – Embassy Theatre; 25 – Madison, WI – Overture Hall; 26 – Rockford, IL – Coronado Performing Arts Center; 27 – Appleton, WI – Fox Cities Performing Arts Center; 29 – Milwaukee, WI – Riverside Theatre; 31 – Minneapolis, MN – State Theatre. November: 1 – Sioux City, IA – Orpheum Theatre; 2 – Ames, IA – Stephens Auditorium; 3 – Davenport, IA – Adler Theatre; 5 – South Bend, IN – Morris Performing Arts Center; 6 – Grand Rapids, MI – DeVos Performance Hall.