Man of Steel - Sting is planning to turn his new album The Last Ship, set in Tyneside's shipyards, into Broadway musical. But why is he reluctant to bring it to Britain?
Sting's memories of his school days aren't exactly fond. The son of a hairdresser and engineer fitter's mate, he passed his 11-plus and was promptly set on the path to greater things. But first he had priests to deal with.
"I got a scholarship to a grammar school," recalls the rock singer, songwriter, actor and, now, dramatist. "So I was kind of sectioned from most of the people I was brought up with and put in this school uniform, and was sent on a train to Newcastle and taught Latin and physics and all that stuff." For a young lad from the streets of Wallsend on Tyneside, the rupture was cataclysmic. The elevation of the boy born Gordon Sumner to a better school five miles away would, ultimately, send him all around the world, with the multiple domiciles to prove it.
"That split was pretty, ah, radical," he says. "[To] people I'd spent time with in school and the streets - suddenly I was this different creature.
"And that was it - I didn't really see those people again. I was cut off." As Sting recently told CNN, St Cuthbert's High School was also the alma mater of another music star, Neil Tennant. But no, Sting doesn't remember the future Pet Shop Boy - at 62, Sting is three years older than Tennant.
And of course he will tut with an "as if" look; you didn't talk to boys in the lower forms.
"It was a pretty rough school, actually. Something like 3,000 boys, taught by priests, basically ruled by violence. They would cane you on a daily basis. I haven't been back," he adds flatly.
In autumn 2013 we find Sting in New York, his current preferred home - one of seven properties he and wife Trudie Styler own worldwide. But the couple's uptownManhattan apartment is close to his current workplace and in situ project - which, in turn, is closer to his heart than any Sting creative endeavour since his 1991 album The Soul Cages, which reflected the death of his parents. He might have a lifelong antipathy to revisiting his alma mater, but Sting's new album-cum-musical-play is, resoundingly and winningly, the sound of him Going Back.
The Last Ship is set in the shadow of the Swan Hunter shipyard of Sting's youth. In its current incarnation it is a folk-influenced song cycle featuring characters drawn from the songwriter's past, and from his imagination. Jackie, the foreman. Jock, the singing welder. Gideon, the kid who fled for the horizon 14 years previously and who, at best, has "an ambiguous" relationship with his home town and, at worst, "he hates the place". Adrian the riveter, the yard's intellectual and agitator, who's gifted "with rhyme and metre". Peggy, the barmaid. Davey, the drunk.
"I don't think I'm romanticising very much what I experienced as a child of that community I was brought up in," states Sting. "It was incredibly hard and dangerous work. Actually most of the men who worked there ----ing hated it. And yet they had this enormous pride about what they built - this palpable example of their handiwork. So there's this constant ambiguity about the shipyards. They were awful, awful places, and yet they produced the biggest ships in the world, and the whole town was proud of those things."
The album is released this month, and features vocals from Sting (showcasing a super-strong Geordie accent), actor/singer Jimmy Nail and AC/DC's Brian Johnson - proud north-east Englishmen all - and folk contributions from uilleann piper and fiddler Kathryn Tickell. The book of the theatrical production is undergoing a typically lengthy writing and rewriting process. Most of the auditions for the stage show have been completed - Nail, for one, plays the key role of Jackie. At time of writing, a movement workshop is under way in New York with Scottish choreographer Steven Hoggett. All of which will culminate in the premiere of The Last Ship in Chicago next summer.
Right now, in the 260-seat Anspacher auditorium in the Public Theater in central Manhattan, we are witness to another pit stop in the lengthy three-years-and-counting process of shepherding Sting's idea from brain to stage: a 10-night run-through of the songs from The Last Ship.
Billed as An Evening with Sting, the performance features the titular Tynesider and 14 backing musicians and vocalists, including Nail, Tickell and a cappella stalwarts the Wilson Family - five singing brothers who also appear on the album and who look like they've stepped from the set of Game of Thrones.
As for "theatricality" or staging, that's confined to large black-and-white photographs of terraced houses and the ocean-going behemoths constructed at the Swan Hunter shipyard, mere yards away. That, and two lengths of rope coiled around the pillars in the middle of the stage. Oh, and Sting plays the spoons and taps a booted heel on a crate.
But that's it. With songs this vivid, nothing else is required. Factor together the irresistible melodic efficacy, the stirring folk musicianship and the narrative power and The Last Ship becomes arguably the best Sting album since the ones he made with the Police. His most recent work, the albums inspired by Elizabethan composer John Dowland (2006's lute-based Songs from the Labyrinth) and by hymns and carols (2009's If on a Winter's Night), feel like the height of abstraction and pretension next to the heartfelt Last Ship.
This sold-out show is a fund-raiser for the Public Theater. But is there another, artistic reason for the 10-night stand? "Well," Sting begins, "I think the ethos of the play, which is really about community, is the ethos of this theatre. It takes theatre out to places that don't have it. Raises money so people can go and watch Shakespeare in [Central] Park, whatever walk of life or whatever class you're from, which is something that I support.
"It's also good for the DNA of the play. The first time we did a workshop was up in Newcastle, at another community theatre, the Live Theatre. It's just important to have that as part of its growth.
"You know," he continues, chin tilted, eyes considering the rafters, "the intention is to go to Broadway - but I think the right route to Broadway, rather than a big razzmatazz thing." We are talking in front-row seats in the small auditorium, an hour before soundcheck on this, the third day of the run. He's been gigging for more than four decades, from Newcastle jazz band Last Exit to the Police and through a lengthy, mazy solo career. Yet he's as up for it - performing - as ever. Buff and sturdy Sting, three years shy of his bus pass, might be the best advertisement for yoga ever, although he does also benefit from daily sessions with his personal trainer.
Swaddled in scarf and jumper, he speaks in a low husk, his speech both clipped and rolling. He seems tired, or perhaps distracted by the demands, only two shows in, of marshalling this two-hour-plus, multi-character, special show. He's stated that this brief residency is the only time he'll ever perform The Last Ship.
Whatever the reason, he barely makes eye contact, preferring to gaze at the stage, or at the 1920 Martin Ditson parlour guitar cradled in his arms. He plays it onstage, too, loving the sound and the compactness of the instrument. Even if he weren't muscle-bound, the undersized guitar would look small in his arms. "I like tucking it under my arm." Lest we need reminding, "I've had a ----ing bass strapped over my shoulder my whole life," he says, smiling.
He says he'd long considered "revisiting" The Soul Cages, "where the demise of the shipyard became a sort of useful metaphor for the demise of my parents. It had a kind of theatrical mood, but there wasn't a narrative - it was just a mood piece." Four years ago he decided to "have a go at trying to make a story out of it. And I read a story about some shipyard workers in Gdansk in Poland who built their own ship. I just loved that. I thought it was a really wacko, Homeric idea. And I thought: ‘I'll weld that idea to my town.' " He wanted to know: "Why was I born in this place? And why am I here?" Because he regards New York as his main residence, he pitched his idea to a Broadway producer, Jeffrey Seller, who had staged the hit musical Rent. Impressed, he introduced Sting to playwright Brian Yorkey.
"He'd just won the Pulitzer Prize for a play called Next to Normal - very unusual musical about manic depressives and drugs. And we just hatched the story out together, the characters, and went on from there." Further creative input came from Skyfall scriptwriter John Logan and Tony Award-winning director Joe Mantello. They weren't shy about telling Sting when his songs weren't good enough for the drama's purposes - something the musician cheerfully admits "was a novel experience for me, but a good one".
Sting also talked "a lot" about the work-in-progress script with Newcastle playwright Lee Hall, creator of Billy Elliot and The Pitmen Painters.
Further research came via Billy Connolly, who began his working life as a Clydeside welder. Over lunch the comedian/actor told Sting how welders, encased in reverb-friendly metal helmets and breathing in fumes, were "all crazy and they all sang. That really tickled me." The resulting song, Jock the Singing Welder, "is actually one of my favourite songs in the show". Other songs were written with Nail in mind - although Sting and the Auf Wiedersehen, Pet star both splutter at the thought that the no-nonsense Nail is anything as highfalutin as the musician's muse.
Before The Last Ship, Sting hadn't written for eight years. He'd been busy enough - the Police's 2007-08 reunion tour, for one thing, grossed more than £210 million, making it the third-highest-grossing tour ever. Yet no new songs came.
"But as soon as I started this thing, they just came out. It was like they'd been bottled up inside me. It was like automatic writing, almost. Ah," he nods with a sigh and a furrowed brow, "very pleasing." He describes the "filter" of adopting other people's voices as "[making] me feel easier with my songwriting ability". But if that eight-year drought was writer's block, what was the reason for it?
"I always say, if you've got nothing to say, don't say anything. I got tired of dredging up stuff from…" He stops. "You know, there's a lot of inward navel-gazing as a singer-songwriter. It's part of the gig. But at some point you get sick of it. And then expecting other people to scrutinise it and observe it and comment on it. I wasn't sure I wanted to do that." We might expect that, given his success and longevity, any critical barbs don't, well, sting Sting. That the lambasting he receives - for his music, his campaigning, his lifestyle - would be, after all this time, water off a duck's back. Sting shakes his head and is roused, momentarily, from his Zen plucking at his tiny guitar.
"Of course it can get to you! But I don't complain. It's part of the job. I understand the position I'm in. It's fine," he says, settling back into airy aloofness. "But at some point you say, well, enough!" he says, chuckling drily. "[You think], ‘I've been in the stocks this week, I don't want to be in them next week.' "
I mention his infamous 2009 Newsnight interview. He was taken to task by Jeremy Paxman for being a rich rock star - with the eco-unfriendly lifestyle to match - campaigning to save Amazonian rainforest. The pre-interview trailer described the Police, on account of their box-office-trumping world tour, as the most polluting rock band on the planet.
"Eugh," Sting grunts. "Ambush. I was here in New York, and I was listening to the film that they showed beforehand, and I thought: ‘I could just leave an empty chair here,' " he laughs again.
"When a BBC producer says, ‘We want you to come on and talk about the dam project you've just visited,' then they lay on some c---- about the Police being the dirtiest band on the planet - I'm not quite sure where they got that information from," he says, teeth almost gritted. "I mean, who can say that? I should have said, ‘What's your research?' " Another shrug, a dry laugh. "It was bull----. It was tabloid journalism. I expected more of the BBC."
To take a similar, you might say snide, line: a multimillionaire rock star writing a play about working-class people and a destroyed industry and community in the city he's spent his whole life escaping - that's a bit rich, surely?
Well, for one thing, the performance of songs from The Last Ship that I saw was very entertaining, emotional and involving. Sting led the ensemble with laughter and brimming passion, regaling the rapt audience with explanations of the Geordie dialect ("haddaway", for example) and with tales from the play's difficult gestation. And the album, especially in its full, 18-track "deluxe" edition, is an immersive treat. Just like a good musical should be.
For another, all of Sting's collaborators are wholeheartedly on board The Last Ship. Nail, 59 and ostensibly retired until old friend Sting asked him to be involved, is in perfect harmony (vocally, too - their voices are great together).
"It's not hard for me to stand out here and sing a line like, ‘When they see that bugger finished on the slipway,' " says Nail, also a former welder, "and I turn around and there's [the image of] that ship being finished on a slipway - I can't tell you the sense of pride I feel at that moment. My grandfathers could have been in that picture. I find it very, very moving at that point."
"We've been singing this music for 35 years," says Tom Wilson of the Wilson Family quintet. "So we know that the reference points he's using are absolutely bang on."
"Yeah, I'd heard bad things," adds brother Chris, in reference to Sting's media profile. "I'd never met the guy before, but I find him an extremely generous man, in terms of the music - he's always wanting to bring everyone in. He knows exactly what he's doing; he's a very, very sensible guy. But he's also a smashing lad."
How much of The Last Ship is autobiographical? Sting could be disillusioned exile Gideon - as Nail points out, "Gideon" and "Gordon" are not dissimilar. And he could be earnest, self-satisfied Adrian, with his "obvious gifts" of rhyming and metre. Sting nods. On the one hand, "It's not social history that I'm writing. It's an allegory." But on the other, "Of course there are bits of me in it. But there are real people there, and people I invented, and composites. But yeah, I'm in a lot of this."
Next is a joint tour in early 2014 with Paul Simon. But beyond that, will he be physically in the play next year, too, when the full musical finally reaches the stage in Chicago?
"I don't think so. I'm enjoying playing those characters [in these shows], but no, I don't want to be in it. I might play a walk-on just for a laugh. But I'm enjoying being the creator. That's a nice feeling, to step back.
"Mind, when it's onstage I might get a little bit…" Sting affects a petted lip. "I might feel redundant. Get postpartum depression," he chuckles. "But no, that was not my intention."
Why not launch The Last Ship at home - if not on Tyneside then at least in Britain? "Ah, well, I live here, and my first meeting with a producer was here. I think there's something exotic about this property here that might seem a bit provincial in England. And I don't want to be provincial. I think this has universal themes that can be understood everywhere. So it was just happenstance, but I also think it's good that's it's not England. I would like to take it to England - but as a success. I think that's a better strategy."
For all his millions, and all his success, Sting is under no illusions. A musical is a big undertaking. The Last Ship could easily sink.
"Oh, it's a valley of death," he says, almost gleefully. "There are so many corpses around. And yet the process is so exciting and so absorbing, you think, ‘Let's just go for it.' Having a hit musical is a long shot. But it's just great fun to do. I can't think of anything else that would engage me as much. I'm having a blast, I really am," Sting says, smiling wholeheartedly at last.
(c) Sunday Telegraph by Craig Mclean