Interview: THE LOS ANGELES TIMES (1989)

November 01, 1989

The following article by Robert Hilburn appeared in a November 1989 issue of the The Los Angeles Times newspaper...

Sting not stung by poor '3 Penny' reviews.

I feel like I'm going inside to view the body... you know, like in a wake," Janis Margolin said, giggling nervously as she stood in line outside the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on 46th Street.

The Long Island receptionist had been looking forward for weeks to seeing rock singer Sting make his Broadway debut in a new production of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's biting musical '3 Penny Opera', but she and her three friends were now apprehensive.

"If the show is as bad as the reviewers said it was in Washington, I'm almost embarrassed to go inside... It seems kind of ghoulish, if you know what I mean," continued Margolin, 32, a fan since Sting's days as leader of the rock trio the Police.

Others in line for the second New York preview of the show also mentioned the reviews from Washington where the show premiered Sept. 14 and did a shakedown four weeks at the historic National Theatre in preparation for its Broadway opening Sunday.

Washington Post critic David Richards had called the production "small change," adding, "The very qualities that made the piece such a sensation in 1928 its bristling humour, its accusatory anger, its sullen impudence remain pretty much locked up inside this lumbering production.

''Its raison d'etre at least in terms of box office is rock star Sting... (who is) striking to behold... (but) his acting has little resonance and his voice is surprisingly thin."

More sharply, Hap Erstein, writing in the Washington Times, declared the "'3 Penny Opera' at this point at least to not be worth 2 cents."

There were lots of glum faces in Washington the day those reviews came out especially among some of Sting's friends and associates who had flown in to join President and Barbara Bush at the premiere.

But the alarm did not extend to Sting.

Sitting on the balcony of his suite at the Watergate Hotel shortly after noon, he seemed merely impatient to get back to the theatre and to work.

''I haven't read the papers, but I know what they said. I could have virtually written them myself," he said matter-of-factly. "The reason I am doing this is to learn, to challenge myself. Critical failure is no disgrace as far as I am concerned as long as there is a noble attempt. Come see how we are doing in four weeks."

Four weeks later in New York, things had changed. Scenes had been rearranged, an afterword had been added and body mikes given to Sting and other performers so that they could be heard more easily.

Some of the preview audience may have been anxious as they entered the theatre, but various members of Sting's entourage were in good spirits at the Lunt-Fontanne. Sting had gained authority in the role.

Yet his mood seemed unchanged. The singer-actor, 38, appeared as calm as if he were back in the lodge after a day of skiing (a favourite relaxation) as he lounged in his dressing room later that night.

''We've made progress, but we're still not finished," he said. "The reason I wanted to do this was to learn, to challenge myself. I knew it was a risk, but I'm not afraid of risks. To me, the only failure is in refusing to take risks." Sting, whose real name is Gordon Matthew Sumner, is just so good-looking that it seems to bother a lot of people. They find it hard to believe anyone who is blessed with such marvellously sculptured cheekbones and seductive hazel eyes wouldn't just be satisfied with riches and fame something that he had plenty of with the Police.

After all, he is a critically admired, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter who is in excellent health, has a lovely companion (actress Trudie Styler), homes or condos in London, New York and Malibu, Calif., and four children (two from a first marriage and two with Styler).

It's understandable that he wants to be an actor, but why a "serious" actor? Sounds pretty pretentious to some.

It's not hard to see why he would want to leave the Police for a solo career, but why start working with such jazz musicians as ace saxophonist Branford Marsalis and writing songs about social injustice in South America? Sounds pretty vain to some.

It's kind of vogue-ish these days to get involved in social causes, such as the Amnesty International tours and the campaign to save the Brazilian rain forests. Sounds pretty trendy to some.

Why tackle Brecht on Broadway? Sting as Mack the Knife? Sounds like an ego out of control to some.

That is a lot of suspicion and some people's latent mistrust was only fuelled a few years ago when Stewart Copeland, the founder and drummer of the Police, gave this assessment of his former Police-mate:

''He gives you what he wants to give. Everything about him (that) you can see is part of his art form, and he really gets uptight if you try to get behind it."

Sting said that he doesn't flinch when words like "arrogance" and "ego" are attached to his name. He accepts that he is a big target.

''At some point, you even twist it around and think of it as sort of confirming," he said. "Criticising me these days is like hitting a bull elephant with a shotgun. You don't get any medals for that. But the fact that you are a big target means you are doing something that is getting through to a lot of people."

When you have two choices and one seems logical and safe, according to Sting, you should take the opposite one.

That's the rule he applied the day he left the Police.

''I just knew I didn't want to fall into that trap of being predictable," he said, recalling that surprise 1984 decision. "I think it's a link to the creative process. For me, the creative process is where you take other choices or you open yourself to things that aren't logical because if you limit yourself to logic, the right thing, you never can be creative."

One complaint about Sting offered by someone who has worked with him over the years (and who asked not to be identified) is Sting's obsessiveness with his work, not an uncommon complaint levelled at pop stars. The long-time observer pointed out Sting didn't even attend his own mother's funeral because he was working on '...Nothing Like the Sun'.

Sting doesn't flinch when the obsessiveness or funeral matters are raised. ''I feel a lot of musicians, probably because they are rewarded so readily, through commercial success or whatever, tend to sit back and say, 'I'll just keep writing songs with four chords and some rhyming couplets and that's all I have to do.' I know a lot of people do that and I despise the idea. I want to get better. You have to justify your life somehow and work is a way of doing it. I think work is very important in making someone feel fulfilled."

But Sting denied that he skipped his mother's funeral in 1987 just to finish an album.

''I don't know...," he said, trying to explain such a personal, delicate decision. He seemed uncertain how deeply to go into his feelings. "My mother died during the recording of the (last) album and I just decided to stay and work..."

He paused briefly, then continued. "I think grief is a very private matter, not a public show. Funerals are for the public and I didn't feel I wanted to do that. I wanted to work through it and I am glad I did.

''My family understood that. Besides, I think my presence would have attracted the wrong kind of attention, sort of mawkish curiosity... press and tabloids. As it was, it was a quiet ceremony."

Sting paused and again stared at the river below.

Then, he looked up and as if trying to recall the conversation before his mother's funeral was mentioned.

''We were talking about work, right?"

The audience response at the Lunt-Fontanne, where the show had generated a strong $5 million advance sale, was better than at the premiere in Washington. But there were still danger signs. Some playgoers grumbled at the first intermission that he was too "nice" as the nasty Macheath. Others found the pace still too slow. But there was still some time to fine-tune before the official opening night.

Sting has been involved in '3 Penny Opera' now since August, a long time to be rooted for a man who is a self-confessed nomad.

''I'm still enjoying the process, the way the play keeps changing," he said, sitting behind the makeup table, his feet propped against a nearby piano. (Sting, who plays bass on his own albums, said he tries to find an hour or two a day to play the piano. "I have no aptitude for it at all, but I have this need to drag myself through Mozart and Beethoven. It's humbling and inspiring at the same time.")

© The Los Angeles Times


Oct 1, 1989

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...

Sep 1, 1989

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...