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Why Is Sting Singing About Ships?

His hometown inspired his new musical, 'The Last Ship,' and PBS special

By Tad Simons | March 4, 2014

At the age of 62, one could certainly understand if Sting, after 10 years of writer’s block, decided to hang it all up and live the life of a retired rock god. But on his 62nd birthday, he did just the opposite.

Sting went onstage in New York City with a 14-piece band and performed a concert of songs he wrote to accompany his new musical, The Last Ship, due to open on Broadway this fall after premiering in Chicago in June and July. The show is about shipbuilders in the northern England town of Wallsend (near where Sting grew up) and what happens when the shipyard closes. The concert, at The Public Theater, was filmed and broadcast on PBS’s Great Performances earlier this year.

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Unlike many other rock stars of his generation, Sting has continually embraced new creative challenges, reinventing himself time and again to suit his artistic mood.

But he spent much of the early 2000s in a creative drought. No longer interested in rock 'n' roll, and having undertaken several different solo projects, Sting wasn’t feeling very inspired and says in the PBS show that he feared he’d lost his “mojo.”

What shook the cobwebs loose, he says, was the challenge of writing for Broadway — and, more importantly, “not writing about myself,” but instead “telling other people’s stories.”

Behind the Scenes of 'The Last Ship'
 
Sting released the songs for The Last Ship as an album in September, but according to Great Performances Executive Producer David Horn, “before he handed the musical off [Sting will not be performing on Broadway], Sting wanted to perform the songs himself, including some very good ones that, for one reason or another, didn’t make it into the show.”

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The challenge, says Horn, was presenting the songs in a way that didn’t give away too much of the story, but provided the audience a taste of the characters and plot while delivering a satisfying concert experience.

In Sting: The Last Ship, the former Police-man wears a gray T-shirt and presides over the evening with a humility befitting the characters he has created: hard-drinking yard workers, a union rabble-rouser, the town drunk, etc. In the background, on giant video screens, are black-and-white photos of the shipyards — hulking tankers, towers of scaffolding, hundreds of men going to and from work in the yards — all of which, we learn, were the daily backdrop of Sting’s childhood.

In fact, Sting says on Great Performances that even though he is fiercely proud of the men in that shipyard, they “terrified” him, motivating him to do something with his life that would spare him from sharing their fate.

A New Side of Sting
 
As the evening unfolds, so too does the intensely personal nature of the project.

Even Sting’s biggest fans are likely to learn a few things about him they didn’t know before. For instance, he is no stranger to Broadway show tunes. His mother loved them, particularly Rodgers and Hammerstein, and often played them on the piano and phonograph while Sting was growing up.
 
The well of musical styles that Sting draws from in The Last Ship is extremely deep. There are jigs, reels and English drinking songs, as well as country barn-burners and jazzy, contemporary-sounding story songs with complex melodies and smart, thoughtful lyrics. The influence of Rodgers and Hammerstein on several songs is unmistakable. And even though some of showier tunes didn’t make it into the final production, says Horn, “Sting wanted to perform them, because they are great songs.”
 
Broadway has a long history of humbling rock stars, of course, and Sting is currently on a concert tour with one of them: Paul Simon, whose 1998 musical, The Capeman closed after 68 performances and lost more than $11 million. The Last Ship has similar artistic ambitions (it’s no mere jukebox musical) and there are some concerns that its melancholy subject matter might not appeal to the masses.

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Then again, says Horn, “thematically, The Last Ship is a mix between Billy Elliot and Titanic, two of Broadway’s biggest hits. And some of the most popular musicals ever are about poor and working-class people triumphing over long odds.” Three examples: Les Miserables, Rent and Fiddler on the Roof.
 
In the PBS show, audiences will get to hear much of Sting's new music and see at least some of the story. To see how the whole thing goes together, however, you’ll have to wait until September and see The Last Ship in New York. With any luck, it will be harbored there for a long time — or at least until Sting is 63.

Tad Simons is an award-winning journalist whose writing has appeared in Variety, The Washington Post and Mpls.St. Paul Magazine.