A MUSICAL INSPIRED BY THE ARTIST'S CHILDHOOD
“Tea break!” yells a voice from the back of the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. The 18-member, all-British cast begins to disperse. A slim-framed man with tousled hair, clad in jeans and a black, long-sleeved shirt, disappears behind the curtain. Onstage he plays the role of Jackie White, a shipyard foreman.
In real life, he goes by the name of Sting.
With 17 Grammy Awards, a Golden Globe, an Emmy and 100 million albums sold from his combined work with The Police and as a solo artist, Sting doesn’t need to take on a role of a foreman to pad his professional résumé. In fact, he didn’t need to get involved with theater at all. Only, The Last Ship is his story—his childhood, his town and the community and industry that shaped him, but that he ultimately left behind.
If you ever wanted insight into Sting when he was simply Gordon Sumner growing up in a town called Wallsend in the northeast of England, this provides it—with song and dance, no less.
“I was brought up in a surreal industrial environment, literally within spitting distance of a shipyard,” says Sting, wrapping his fingers around a warm mug of tea in his dressing room. “My family worked in the shipyard, and I watched thousands of men walk to work every day. I would wonder as a kid if that would be my destiny. So I did everything in my power to avoid that. I had a dream to be a musician, which was an unlikely thing to happen, but I got a scholarship to a school where I got a classical education, not the technical education my father wanted me to have. And I escaped.”
With time, distance and much success, however, came an appreciation of the place and the community he fought so hard to leave. As a small boy, Sting would look to the end of his street and see ships towering over his neighbors’ homes. The awe-inspiring vessels were a testament to the men and women who worked in the shipyard and left him with a belief that with determination, even the seemingly mythical could be made possible. In many ways, this play is Sting’s ship, built on memory and used as a means to sail back to his hometown with a wisdom and appreciation he lacked in his youth.
The Last Ship, inspired by the artist’s 1991 album, The Soul Cages, opened on Broadway in 2014, ran for 105 performances, plus 29 previews, and earned two Tony Award nominations. Music and lyrics were written by Sting, with a book written by Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning writers John Logan and Brian Yorkey. The production that runs through March 20 at Golden Gate Theatre has since been reimagined with a new book and direction by Lorne Campbell, though the overall arc and message remain the same.
The musical tells the story of a community grappling with the demise of the shipbuilding industry in England’s county of Tyne and Wear. At the center of the story is Gideon, who returns home after 17 years at sea to find that the local shipyard that defined his town is closing and Meg, the love he left behind, has moved on. Though Sting, now 68, says his avatar is played by a female character who longs to leave and become a musician, there appears to be a part of him in every character—the prodigal son returning, the shipyard workers and the person left behind, any of whom, if not for fortune, could have been him.
Before moving forward on any of it, however, Sting went back to the town of Wallsend to get the community’s approval.
“One of the first things I did after we had a rough idea of what the play was was give a workshop in the town for people who had worked in the shipyards,” he says. “As you can imagine, they’re not people given to blowing smoke up my ass. If they didn’t like something, they’d say it. Their reaction was very positive and that the proportion of pride and of being put upon by hard work was right, and that I was honoring them. That was my intention.”
Despite the Tony nominations that followed, it wasn’t an easy sell for Broadway.
“Any experienced theater person will tell you the hardest thing to do is an original musical. Probably the easiest is a jukebox musical, but that wasn’t something I was interested in doing, so I chose the hardest path. That’s been my modus. There’s no point in falling off the lowest rung of any ladder. You’ve got to aim for the top. I’ve always felt San Francisco was a sophisticated audience, and so I think they’ll get it—or they’ll tell me.”
Not that Sting went into this with reviews or awards in mind. This production, he says, is meant to honor the ethic, dignity and sense of identity that are gained through labor. He grows philosophical when he speaks of the role society plays in economies.
“I saw the community destroyed by economic theories that in retrospect now seem very abstract because they remove from the economic equation the value of community,” he says. “I studied economics, actually, and for me the basic economics is community: ‘I’ll make this, you buy that.’ That’s community. If you take that very basic idea out of the equation, then you end up with something very cruel and ultimately untenable. And what happened in my town in the ’80s has happened all over the industrialized West and around the world—the so-called Rust Belt here in America happened in my town decades before. It’s a universal story.”
So universal and relevant, in fact, that when General Motors made the decision to move its Oshawa Plant facility from Toronto—where The Last Ship played in 2019—to Mexico, the Canadian labor union Unifor reached out and asked Sting to perform songs from the musical for the GM workers in a show of support. He agreed.
“I exposed my cast to the story that they were portraying, I exposed the GM workers to their own story, and it went down really well. GM came back to the table, and they’re still under negotiations in terms of the future of the facility. I was told we definitely had an impact there.”
For Sting, the production and theater as a whole have been just as impactful on him. He speaks of the darkness of a theater and the stillness of its audience, creating the perfect atmosphere for people to truly appreciate music—something he seems to long for and lament.
“People don’t really listen to songs with any great attention anymore, you know? It tends to be background, it’s a commodity like coffee almost, and you just turn it on, you download it, or whatever. In the theater that’s the one place where people will sit in the dark and listen intently to what you’ve done. I like that. Because I take the work seriously, and I think it has a story to tell and has a mission. So I don’t think of music as a commodity.
“It’s a currency, but not a commodity.”
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What’s the difference between this production and the original Broadway version?
In this production the agency of women is incredibly important, more so than in the original production. There’s a tendency to think it’s the men who work in the shipyard, but it was the entire community. The women are the heroes of the piece.
What do you hope people walk away with after watching?
I find it a very emotional piece. I’ve watched it from the audience when I’m not in it, I’ve watched it from the stage, and to see grown men crying in the dark for many reasons is actually very therapeutic. Men don’t often cry publicly, so the darkness is helpful and that said something to me.
What did you hope you would get out of doing this show?
I think songwriting is a form of therapy, self-therapy. You have to dig up stuff that is important to you for your growth, spiritual growth, psychological growth, and hope that will resonate with other people so that they see something in it.
Were you tempted to add more of your hits to make it more familiar to the audiences?
Only when I thought the original song was inspired by the subject, for example, this one song called ‘All This Time.’ It’s quite an old song that was written about my town and so it seemed highly appropriate. The other one is ‘When We Dance’ fitted with the love story within the play, so I think there are only two from my old canon.
Photography by: Matthew Murphy