“I wouldn’t normally do this,” said Sting, grinning mischievously as he ambled onstage following the curtain call at the Oct. 2 preview performance of his new Broadway musical, The Last Ship. “But it’s my birthday, and I always sing on my birthday.” To the delight of the audience and cast, he ripped into an outtake from the production, backed by the pit band — a rockabilly-style song titled “Jock the Singing Welder” — doing a rubber-limbed Elvis imitation that reminded everyone who the biggest star in the room really was.
A few days later, asked about the impromptu show-stealing celebration, he mutters sheepishly, “I couldn’t resist.” He’s sitting in the downstairs lounge of the Neil Simon Theatre on New York’s 52nd Street to discuss the journey of Ship, which officially opens Oct. 26 after a well-received summer trial run in Chicago.
“It’s been almost five years of my life that I’ve lived, ate, drank, slept this whole thing,” says Sting, 63, who has sold nearly 100 million albums with the Police and as a solo artist — a career that has seen him explore everything from African music to 16th century lute compositions (he will be recognized at the Kennedy Center Honors in December and recently was nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame). “It’s been the most absorbing five years, and the most challenging, and I’ve learned a great deal. Now that’s coming to an end, and I have no idea what’s going to happen next. Once it’s over, I’m going to be bereft because I won’t have a job.”
Ship is set in the shipbuilding community of Wallsend in northeast England, where the 16-time Grammy winner was born and raised, and tells the story (with roots in real incidents) of workers who respond to news that their shipyard is being closed by occupying the docks and building one final vessel to sail around the world. Sting has explained that after he finished his previous album of original material, 2003’s Sacred Love, he lost interest in songwriting (“I got sick of the process, lost my mojo about it,” he said in 2013). Eventually he came up with the idea of revisiting the setting and memories of his childhood and developing a theatrical piece. “If you tell somebody you’re writing a musical about a shipyard, you might get a raised eyebrow,” he says. “But it does have universal themes. In America, most of our grandparents got here on a boat, and that symbolism doesn’t go away. And also the symbolism of living in a postindustrial city like Detroit or Chicago — [that audience] understood very clearly what it’s like to lose the thing that defined you as a community.”
Musicals by rock stars have a mixed record on Broadway: Cyndi Lauper’s Kinky Boots has been a hit, but Sting’s current touring partner, Paul Simon (they resume a co-headlining trek in January), suffered a high-profile disaster with 1998’s The Capeman, which closed after only 68 performances.”Paul told me to do exactly the opposite of what I’m doing,” says Sting. “He told me, ‘Don’t put yourself too much in the promotion of it.’ But I don’t think in this day and age there’s any alternative. There’s so much trying to grab your attention, so you really have to put yourself 100 percent into getting people to come and see it.”
Sting has worked to maximize a sense of Ship as an event. In 2013, he released an album of its songs and promoted it with a series of intimate performances at The Public Theater in New York, which were filmed for a PBS special. “I think it’s paid off,” he says (the album debuted at No. 13 on the Billboard 200, and the PBS show continues to air). “The audience is hearing songs they might be a little familiar with, rather than suddenly having a brand-new set of songs foisted on them. There aren’t many places now where you can get an audience to listen to songs in the sequence you meant them to be heard. If you’re trying to produce something that’s a coherent series of songs, theater is one of the last vestiges of that.”
Lead producers on the project are his longtime music manager, Kathryn Schenker, and Tony winner Jeffrey Seller (Rent, Avenue Q); fellow musician Herb Alpert and his A&M Records co-founder, Jerry Moss, also are onboard. Director Joe Mantello and book writers Brian Yorkey and John Logan all are Tony winners. “I’d never met a rock star before, much less worked with one,” says Logan, a three-time Oscar screenplay nominee (Gladiator, The Aviator, Hugo) whose father was a shipbuilder in Belfast, Northern Ireland. “He completely understands the give-and-take of putting a play together, and he works as hard as anyone I’ve ever known. I’ve never worked on a musical before, either, so since we don’t know the rules, we have the ability to try radical solutions.”
The principals continue to tweak, tighten and tinker with Ship until the last possible moment, having jettisoned characters, songs and storylines along the way (“I’m cutting another verse today,” notes Sting proudly). But it’s an ambitious, complicated piece with multiple characters and themes — and a new Broadway production isn’t a sure thing, no matter whose name is on the marquee. (Ticket sales for the first week of previews hovered at about 70 percent of capacity, but dollar grosses were only half of the possible maximum — likely not sufficient to cover costs.) “I don’t think anything worthwhile is devoid of risk,” says Sting. “But what is that risk, really? I could be embarrassed by some bad reviews, but that’s the only risk.”
“I love the musical theater,” he adds, noting that he grew up listening to recordings of Broadway classics. “I wanted to honor the form and also bring something different and unusual. It’s not a remake of some fairy tale or some property that everybody knows. Most musicals are Beverly Hills Cop: The Musical, and you know exactly what happens and how it ends. This fascinated me because it’s different.”
Last Ship isn’t the first time Sting has explored his youth in his work: His 1991 album The Soul Cages and best-selling 2003 memoir Broken Music concentrated on his early years, his family and his community. “I think it’s therapy, and perhaps I’ve done enough therapy about that part of my life,” he says. “A lot of it is painful — I don’t want to dredge it up anymore. Now I’m more interested in looking at a possible third act for a career, for a life. What is it like to be an artist at 63, to go from here to the end, that mortality that’s constantly moving toward you?” He pauses, with a sense he is looking simultaneously at the past and future. “I’ve probably had enough of my adolescence and girlfriends and all that stuff. From now on, I hope it’s only going to get more fascinating.”
This story first appered in the Oct. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.