Interview: ASSOCIATED PRESS (1989)

November 01, 1989

The following article appeared in November 1989 issue on the Associated Press...

Sting makes his Broadway debut...

The sound of classical music drifts from a large upstairs dressing room at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre one hour before an evening dress rehearsal. Gordon Matthew Sumner is playing Mozart.

"I think it helps to concentrate on something else for a minute or two," says Sumner, better known as rock superstar Sting, as he gets up from the piano. "Otherwise, you end up worrying."

What occupies most of his time these days is '3 Penny Opera', a revival of the Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill musical about the underworld of Victorian England. In it, Sting plays Macheath, a rakish brigand nicknamed Mack the Knife. Macheath is a cut-throat criminal, not to mention a devilishly handsome bounder and a ladies man.

The 38-year-old former bass player and singer for the Police certainly looks the part. The golden locks have been cut and slicked back. A moustache slashes the upper lip. But the eyes are as blue and as mesmerising as when he first filled stadiums and arenas across the country singing such hits as 'Roxanne' and 'Every Breath You Take'.

'3 Penny Opera' opened Nov. 5 on Broadway after a bumpy out-of-town tryout. Reviews in Washington were unfavourable, especially for its star. "If you're going to see Sting, prepare to be stung," sniffed one critic. "Slow and turgid stuff," said another. Cast members reportedly were seen in New York auditioning for jobs in other upcoming musicals. But director John Dexter and his company have worked furiously on the show, and word of mouth, particularly during the New York previews, has improved.

"I've learned an awful lot," Sting says. "I know the character is more convincing now than he was when I started rehearsals in August. There's more of me in Mackie. You start with a mask and you inject it with bits of yourself. I'm not saying you become a murderer or a particularly bad person, but there are moments in your life when you could be that person."

What has surprised the man who is making his Broadway debut in the musical?

"I thought I would be less involved creatively. I thought I would learn the lines, learn the blocking and just do it the same way every night. It doesn't happen that way. The show is different every night. Everybody's changing slightly. So the changes you do have a domino effect."

Dexter, who won a Tony award in 1988 for directing 'M. Butterfly',' has a reputation as a tough taskmaster.

"He's very demanding, but I find working with him very refreshing because he is very honest," Sting says. "If you're being rotten, he'll tell you. A good director holds a mirror up to you and says: 'This is good or bad. And it's your fault.' So I know he's telling the truth."

'3 Penny Opera' is not Sting's first venture into the music of Kurt Weill. Three years ago, he recorded 'The Ballad of Mack the Knife' and later performed Weill's music with the Hamburg State Orchestra in West Germany.

"It's very strange music to sing," Sting says. "Weill was a student of Schoenberg, a very serious music man, and yet he basically wrote pop music at the end of his career. He moved toward pop music. That's an interesting point for me because I'm a pop musician and I'm going the other way. His music is demanding. It has its roots in European music but it also is very influenced by jazz."

'3 Penny Opera' was a quick flop when it was first done on Broadway in 1933, but an off-Broadway revival in the mid-1950s (starring Weill's widow, Lotte Lenya) ran for more than 2,600 performances.

The odd spelling of the title, instead of the more traditional 'Threepenny Opera', was done to signify that this is a new translation, done by Michael Feingold. The new stage production was the brainchild of producer Jerome Hellman, best known as the man behind such movies as 'Midnight Cowboy' and 'Coming Home'. Hellman and Sting are neighbours in Malibu, Calif., and he persuaded the rock star to try the stage.

Sting, whose father was a milkman in the working-class town of Newcastle, England, studied English in college where he prepared to be teacher. But he left teaching behind when he moved to London.

"I wanted to be a musician," he says. And he did, primarily in jazz, before the Police was formed in 1977. He's had the name "Sting" since he was 18, when he wore black and yellow sweaters that made him look, according to a friend, like a bee.

Sting has been seriously studying singing for the last 10 years - "'to try and get out of my bad habits." '3 Penny Opera' wasn't miked in Washington, but complaints about the sound - or lack of it - brought out the microphones. "But it's very subtle," Sting says. "They don't make your ears bleed like ours do when we play concerts."

The rock star has worked on his speaking voice, too, trying to make it as resonant as his singing voice, and even has taken tap-dancing lessons.

"Not because there's any tap dancing in the show," he says. "I thought if I was going to learn dancing, I would try to learn some of the most demanding dancing there is. It's brainwork, more than anything else, trying to remember to tap so many steps to the left and so many to right."

Sting's commitment to '3 Penny Opera' is for nine months, the longest he has been in one place in 15 years. A new album, a concert tour and a new movie will have to wait until the show closes.

"It's demanding because of the process of adding, subtracting and changing," he said. "I'll probably go crazy, but I won't be bored. Definitely not bored."

But that's the reason he did the show in the first place.

"I don't know what the fallout from this thing will be - positive or negative," he says. "I have no way of predicting it. That's one of the exciting things about it. The important thing is that I'm learning something. I think that's how I genuinely value success or failure now."

© The Associated Press


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