09.01.89 THE EVENING STANDARD
The following article by Michael Owens appeared in a September 1989 issue of the The Evening Standard newspaper...
Sting and the President's Men.
In his frock coat, wing collar and spats, he looks a bit of an Edwardian Jack the Lad - a handsome, smiling presence with blue-eyes steel underneath. Then, with a swish of his sword-stick, he is into his first song. This is Sting, the millionaire rock star known for his support of good causes, embarking on a new career possibly more dangerous than any exploit into the Brazilian rainforests.
He is preparing his musical theatre debut playing Macheath in the Brécht-Weill musical 'The Threepenny Opera' and heading for Broadway, a jungle where reputation counts for nothing.
And although he has had a rough ride so far he is still smiling. "I didn't take this one because it would be easy. It's not, it's hard. But win or lose, I'm enjoying it."
Sting, a Newcastle lad who does not like to be reminded he was born Gordon Sumner, is in the second week of the show's out-of town run in Washington and John Dexter's production is exactly where it should be at this stage and is still a work in progress. The singer has assembled all the components of a performance but needs to relax into it. He is singing, probably for the first time, un-miked the effort of projection shows, but his charismatic stage presence enhances the playboy villainy of the role and there is an unsuspected humour in his performance.
Just to prove he is acting he has taken a suite in Washington's best hotel under the name of Edmund Kean. He has submitted himself to the sharp tongue of the forthright Mr Dexter - "I just tell him to stop being a silly bugger, stand still and get on with it' - and has been trashed by the Washington critics.
"If we'd got rave reviews at this stage it would have been dangerous. John was pleased as Punch when we got bad notices. It showed us how much work we still have to do."
Despite working a 14-hour day on rehearsal and performance, he was relaxed when we met mid-morning as his open-window policy flooded the room with steamy humidity. "Good for the throat."
The rock star, who has a healthy track record of film acting, was persuaded towards his stage debut by his actress wife Trudie Styler. He recorded 'Mack the Knife' for an album which was heard by film producer Jerome Hellman ('Midnight Cowboy', 'Mosquito Coast') and the two combined to launch their first attack on Broadway. Their first choice for director was John Dexter with his combined experience of opera and modern theatre, but also known for a verbal bluntness bordering on thuggery.
"He does bring a tension to rehearsal," Sting says, "but I think that is essential. He can be acerbic and you have to work really hard to get a compliment out of him but he has a wonderful reservoir of theatrical knowledge which is helping all of us."
The cast is made up of proven young Broadway talent plus Britain's own Georgia Brown as Mrs Peachum and has appointed their star as the show's Equity representative. "Possibly the biggest landmark in my career since I was made milk monitor in the fourth form," he says. "But Ethel Merman was right, show people are the salt of the earth. They realise this was basically my idea and they have been very supportive to me. I don't feel like an interloper.
"It's actually much easier to play to 200,000 people at a concert than 2000 in a theatre. The big event concert creates its own energy, in the theatre you have to work to focus the audience. Singing without a PA system is hard when you have to cover two octaves and it's a very demanding score. It is certainly stretching me as a performer. But I find the subject stimulating and I just hope other people do too."
The first night in Washington, which failed to charm the critics, was also attended by Mr and Mrs George Bush plus 40 suited gentlemen wearing earpieces and speaking into their lapels. The third act was held up while the President engaged in a long conversation with the Soviet Ambassador. One cast member said: "We didn't know if we'd get to the end of the show first or a formal end to the Cold War."
"It was a very strange night," says Sting. "The Secret Service wanted to check my sword-stick, presumably in case I was going to assassinate the Prez. But to play this show about social morality in Washington the most conservative and bureaucratic city in the world where so much is going wrong, does have it's appeal. I guess Brecht is laughing up there in heaven."
© The Evening Standard (London)
Sting's Mack attack: The singer-actor takes on The Threepenny Opera. Bertolt Brecht's own production notes for 'The Three Penny Opera' were imperilled when Sting was cast as the rogue Macheath. The instructions are clear: The actor assuming the role of Mack the Knife should not use sexuality as a starting point for his characterisation, which must have been a major hurdle for one of the world's most strikingly handsome pop stars. Still, some of Brecht's other guidelines were curiously prescient: Macheath is "to be presented as a bourgeois phenomenon... he is already somewhat bald, like a radish, but not without dignity... he has not the least sense of humour..."
Sting and the President's Men: In his frock coat, wing collar and spats, he looks a bit of an Edwardian Jack the Lad - a handsome, smiling presence with blue-eyes steel underneath. Then, with a swish of his sword-stick, he is into his first song. This is Sting, the millionaire rock star known for his support of good causes, embarking on a new career possibly more dangerous than any exploit into the Brazilian rainforests...
Ecological rock: Pop musicians sing out to save the planet. It resembled the historic Live Aid concert of 1985: a global jukebox featuring some of the world's top musicians performing for a cause. And like the original world benefit for African famine relief, the event was broadcast to an audience expected in advance to number one billion viewers in more than 100 countries...
His day job on hold and no new album or concerts planned, Sting has set up a foundation to save the Brazilian rainforest and embarked on a promotional campaign to raise funds and meet international heads of state. A heartfelt crusade or a millionaire's conceit? Watch out. He's off again... "I start getting very dewy-eyed when I talk about the Indians, very idealistic. But that's the way I feel. I think they hold clues as to who we are. I have a theory that we don't really understand the world, we think we do, but we don't. Like I don't know where my shoes came from, I don't know who made them or how they were made. I don't know where most of the things in this house came from. Paul Du Noyer examines the "game plan" of the teacher turned philosopher rock star...
Message beyond music - Sting finds fulfilment as a supporting act. Sting looks drawn and tired, showing the fatigue of a man carrying a lot on his shoulders and more on his mind. He is into the fourth month of a world tour in which the famous rasping voice which once fronted The Police will not hit a note, if you don't count the note of caution his message brings...