NEWSDAYOctober 01, 1989
The following interview with Tim Page appeared in an October 1989 issue of Newsday...
Sting sat in a dressing room at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, playing 'Yankee Doodle' on the jaw harp. "This is my New Sound," he said between twangs, italicizing the last two words with the studied pomposity of a progressive-rock deejay. "Very American, isn't it? Well, I'm a New Yorker now, so it's fitting."
It was the week before the opening of the New York previews of "The Threepenny Opera," Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weill's acerbic study of money and morals in Weimar Republic Berlin, and the Brooks Atkinson, shuttered since spring, had been engaged to provide temporary rehearsal quarters. The production, now in previews, opens at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater Nov. 5, after a run at the National Theater in Washington, where it opened on Sept. 14 for previews.
Sting is informal, erudite and charming. He was dressed all in black - not rock-and-roll-artiste black, but basic jeans and worn pullover sweater black, bopping-around-the-city black. He seemed relaxed and eager as he prepared for his Broadway debut.
He put down the jaw harp, picked up the largest grapefruit I've ever seen and began to peel. "Enough to feed a family, isn't it?" he said with wry amusement. "I like living in New York. It's a very exciting, very creative atmosphere and most of the musicians I work with live here. It's a little like fiddling while Rome burns, of course. The city is dismantling before our eyes, but it's still fascinating even in its decay. If you're a writer and you live in New York, you're automatically a war correspondent."
The Washington reviews of "Threepenny Opera" (this production is being billed as "3Penny Opera" were not good. "Oh, the Washington critics get mad because people do their tryouts there," Sting said with mild irritation. "You know, it's the capital city so everything it gets should be fully polished. But it's also a very boring town, the capital of conservatism, the capital of bureaucracy. And the critics conveniently forgot that these were only tryouts, that we'd had almost no rehearsal, and that the only way to put together theater is over time, with an audience. It was a work-in-progress, and I don't think works-in-progress are fairly reviewed.
"Noel Coward said a great thing about bad notices," he continued. "They may give you a very unpleasant breakfast, but they should never spoil your lunch. And the criticism wasn't really criticism; it was just carping. You know, 'What is this rock star doing in the theater?' "
Well, just what is this rock star doing in the theater?
Sting, born Gordon Matthew Sumner 38 years ago, gained his unusual nickname early in his career. "I wore outrageous striped yellow-and-black pullovers," he told an interviewer, "and one guy thought I looked like a bee. The name stuck." In 1977, after several years of playing in jazz and rock clubs, Sting helped form a group called the Police; he was lead vocalist and chief songwriter.
The group's sound was a sophisticated combination of new wave and reggae stylings, peppered with jazz inflections. A spartan trio - essentially bass, guitar, drums and vocals - the Police played straightforward but idiosyncratic songs, three or four minutes in length, with a minimum of histrionics. As such, the group stood in marked contrast to the grandiose symphonic and theatrical excesses of such ensembles as Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, and they were often classified with such upstart New York bands as Talking Heads and Television. They were phenomenally successful; by the end of 1985, the Police had sold some 40 million records.
Before the group broke up, Sting had already begun a parallel career in motion pictures: To date, he has appeared in "Quadrophenia," "Artemis '81," "Brimstone and Treacle," "Dune," "The Bride" and "Plenty," among others. His reviews have generally been at least respectful, often enthusiastic. Meanwhile, he has continued to write and perform music, in which his affection for jazz has become ever more apparent.
And now Broadway. "When I agreed to play Mackie in 'Threepenny Opera,' I rather naively assumed that once you learned the words, learned the music, learned the movements, learned where your character stood in the scheme of things, that would be it, and you'd just repeat the exercise night after night," Sting said. "Wrongggggg! Since Washington, the show's gone through drastic directorial changes, all for the better. And the interaction with the other characters is necessarily different every night. Everything changes, an osmosis, really. It's much closer to playing music, much closer to improvisation than I thought it would be.
"I find Weill's music very contemporary," he continued. "It's angular, it's funny, it's bitter, it's not always easy on the ear. He was a serious musician - a student of Schoenberg's, a contemporary of Paul Hindemith's - and he turned to pop music and made his own kind of ersatz jazz. His rhythms aren't really jazz - they're not black music or even the music of anybody who knows a lot about New Orleans or anything. Instead, they're the creation of somebody who has maybe seen jazz written down on paper and then transformed it with his own European sensibilities. Very odd. And I suppose that it is that oddness, that uprooted timelessness, that makes it so contemporary.
"As for Brecht's play, it's about crime and prostitution and morality and poverty. It's also very funny. It is about a disenfranchised minority - disenfranchised economically, politically, socially.
And it asks an important question: How can you get people to obey the rules of society when they don't have a stake in the society? I think these questions have greater urgency in America today than they ever have before.
"Look, if I was nineteen years old, and black, and living in Harlem, and I had a brain, I'd sell crack. I really would. Because there would be nothing else in society for me. And unless you give people a stake in society and show that you care for them, they are not going to obey its rules."
Still, Sting believes that the overall message in "Threepenny Opera" is positive. "There's a light there at the end. My character - Mack the Knife - starts off as this very nihilistic, selfish crook who only thinks of himself, an oppressive, criminal bully. Through the drama of almost being hanged, he grows and becomes a spokesman for the underprivileged. All that anger, all that cynicism is resolved.
"You know, Brecht really wanted to be a Hollywood screenwriter. That was his great ambition. But the United States didn't like his politics and chucked him out. And so he grew very bitter. What a strange man he was - all this Socialist ideology and a fat Swiss bank account at the same time. He ripped off Weill. He ripped off everybody. Very complicated but very talented."
Sting is working with the conductor and former director of the New York City Opera, Julius Rudel, a distinguished musician in his 70s and a man who remembers prewar Europe firsthand. "Julius is very keen to have the music sung as it is written," he said.
"I have this natural tendency to put glissandos, grace notes and other little quirks into my singing. In everyday life I'm rewarded for this tendency. But Julius is not in the least interested in having me express myself that way. He wants what Weill wrote, and rightly so; I'm not used to it yet. Still, I'm learning, and I have a good teacher.
"Fortunately, Julius seems to like my voice," he continued. "I hope that it adds a sort of proletarian edge to the character. It's hard to imagine 'Mack the Knife' being sung by a beautiful voice. It's just not a beautiful song in the traditional sense. It's been this worldwide hit, several times, but people don't listen closely to the lyrics, I guess. They're all about rape and murder but some couple is out there listening, cuddling, digging the tune, saying, 'This is our song.' "
There is a mordant quality to some of Sting's best songs, notably the Police's worldwide hit, "Every Breath You Take." Although this is ostensibly a love song, it has always seemed to this listener that the protagonist is a madman - damaged, obsessed - and that the situation depicted is a sinister one indeed.
"Oh, yes, he's utterly crazy and very dangerous," Sting agreed. "I find that song frightening. I find its success frightening; I recently got a plaque commemorating its millionth play on American radio. And it's really a song about Reagan's America: We love you, we want you watching over us, we want your protection, but what kind of person is this?"
Sting now runs his own record company, which he describes as a "cottage industry." "We have two new releases and they're both doing well on the jazz charts." He strives for a firm but flexible agreement with his own musicians. "I create a structure for a song, but within that structure there should be a lot of room for the musicians to explore," he explained. "I'm open to ideas. My musicians bring a lot more to the music than they take away, and a drummer knows more about the details of drumming then I do, so I let them fill in the details. Of course, sitting behind the control board, I can push a button and they disappear," he added with a laugh.
He expressed concern about what he called the "terribly corporate" aspects of contemporary rock and roll. "The best thing about rock was its lack of rules, its celebration of fresh ideas. Well, nobody is interested in new ideas anymore. Everyone wants to remake the album that was a hit last month. It's like the movie business: Somebody made 'Batman' and so everybody wants to make 'Batman,' and then 'Batman 10' and 'Batman 20' and they'll make twenty-four ersatz 'Batmans' and then realize that they are all stupid and then the next thing will come along and it will be totally different and they'll all try to imitate it.
"Now, if a band does actually get through the door, it's a lot easier for them to become known than it used to be, largely because of the rock video," he continued. "But what young bands don't have anymore is that sort of college where they can go out and tour, do the clubs, learn the terrain - the sort of thing that gives a band a backbone. We toured everywhere, and it was a good while before anybody knew who we were. It was immensely frustrating sometimes but an incredible education."
And now the education of Gordon Matthew Sumner - Sting - continues with "The Threepenny Opera." "I have no idea what the fallout from this is going to be," he said, without apparent worry. "People come up to me and they say, well, you're a man of the theater now. And I say, no I'm not, I'm really not. I'm just exploring other areas a bit. Looking for limits, I suppose."