With the musical 'The Last Ship,' Sting joins a long list of rock stars attracted to Broadway; 'Not a straightforward transfer of talents'...
Just before the first public performance of the musical "The Last Ship" in Chicago, the production's star composer and lyricist was hiding under a mixing console at the back of the theater. Hunkered down by the feet of the sound man, Sting kept out of sight of the ticket holders filing in.
After the curtain went up and the prologue began, the singer emerged and stood in the dark aisle, quietly snapping his fingers with the music. Sitting a few feet away, a fan-club member from Italy did a double take and whispered to her friend, "Sting!"
He kept his eyes on the stage.
"The Last Ship" is a musical about love and labor in a community linked to a defunct shipyard in northern England. After two weeks of preview performances in Chicago, the production opens Wednesday at the Bank of America Theatre, where it will run for three weeks in preparation for a splashy debut on Broadway this fall.
The $14 million production, Sting's first as a Broadway songwriter, is navigating treacherous waters. As the former frontman for the Police and a successful solo artist, he has deftly used his star power to promote the project. He recorded the songs for an album released last fall, and since then has been performing the music on various stages. But now, as the show launches, Sting has to step out of the spotlight because (to the dismay of some fans and ticket sellers) he doesn't appear in the musical itself. Meanwhile, the thing that made the project most artistically rewarding for Sting - creating a brand new show with original characters and music - will require a leap of faith from audiences accustomed to Broadway revivals, movie adaptations, and jukebox musicals loaded with familiar singalong hits.
Once upon a time, show tunes and pop tunes were one in the same. Through the 1950s, mainstream music culture was permeated by the works of Broadway teams like Rodgers and Hammerstein, and hits from shows such as "Oklahoma!" and "The Sound of Music." Show tunes help form the spine of the Great American Songbook and even topped the pop charts on occasion: Louis Armstrong's recording of "Hello Dolly!" hit No. 1 in 1964, ending the three-month reign of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand."
The Beatles, however, and the explosion of guitar-driven rock 'n' roll opened a gap that was seldomly bridged by crossover shows such as "Hair." Now, for a generation of stars aging out of the pop game or in need of a next act, Broadway is an increasingly attractive destination. Nevertheless, many virtuosic pros at writing radio hooks struggle to learn the art of advancing a narrative in a musical with every line of every verse.
"It's not a straightforward transfer of talents, in the same way that Stephen Sondheim is not going to be able to write a Top-40 radio hit," says Joe Mantello, the director of "The Last Ship."
Sting acknowledges the mixed baggage that rock stars bring to Broadway. The industry has championed Cyndi Lauper for her recent work (under the tutelage of Harvey Fierstein) on the Tony-winning "Kinky Boots." But before her, U2's Bono and the Edge got targeted as symbols of the excesses weighing down "Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark." For every rocker-helmed hit ("American Idiot," from Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong), there is a flop ("Hands on a Hardbody," scored by Phish frontman Trey Anastasio). Elton John has examples of both on his résumé, including the doomed "Lestat" and the likely eternal "Lion King."
The cautionary tale that will always be invoked is "The Capeman." Paul Simon innovated with his Latin score and stars, but he also alienated the industry by suggesting that theater was a fusty medium in need of reinvention. Sting, who recently toured with Mr. Simon, was in the audience on opening night of "The Capeman" in 1998. Immediately after, the negative reviews rolled in and the show closed after 68 performances. Mr. Simon warned his Broadway-bound friend not to become the sole focus of attention: "He said, 'Be careful you don't get tied to the front of the train,'" Sting recalls, adding, "I know that. But there's no hiding." (Indeed, his own Broadway debut as a performer, in a 1989 production of "Threepenny Opera," met with some stinging reviews.)
To date, Sting has sold more than 100 million albums and has earned 10 Grammy Awards (for a total of 16 including the 6 received with The Police), a Golden Globe, an Emmy and three Oscar nominations. He is a member of the Rock 'n' roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Broadway is one of the few remaining career fields where the 62-year-old songwriter can break new musical ground. His reunion with the Police resulted in the most lucrative North American concert tour of 2007 with gross ticket sales of $133.2 million. He hooked up with the Royal Philharmonic to re-render his hits for an album and tour. His recent releases include an album of Elizabethan tunes for the lute and a collection of songs on the theme of winter. While he's an enduring sex symbol to fans, he's also a grandfather who feels estranged from pop music, he says. "It's no good, me putting out a Top 40 album. I can't do it. I don't want to do it. So where's the home for your songs?"
The theater in Chicago was a cool, dark hive of murmuring crew and cast members on the day before previews began earlier this month. In the aisles and on the stage, the creative team of Broadway heavy hitters - including Mr. Mantello ("Wicked"), book writer John Logan ("Red"), choreographer Steven Hoggett ("Once") - paired up for discussions or passing jokes.
Sting, drinking tea and wearing his uniform of jeans and a plain T-shirt that managed to look tailored with sleeves ending above his biceps, moved among the various departments. He stepped down into the orchestra pit to huddle with musical director Rob Mathes over the piano. He walked backward up the aisle as he listened to the cast sing. When lead actor Michael Esper sang a tune, "Ghost Story," Sting stepped to the stage edge to quietly correct him. "He sang 'birds' instead of 'geese.' And 'did not' instead of 'didn't,' which is more colloquial," Sting said later with a shrug. "He's got a lot to think about without the composer pestering him. At the same time, I wanted him to sing 'geese' and not 'birds.'"
The show's investor-producers include music-industry legends Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, the founders of the A&M record label, which released most of Sting's records. Of the $14 million that the production needs to recoup, the bulk is being used to pay its 100 staff members, from the musicians to the shipbuilding consultant. Apart from one climactic stage effect, there is little in the way of high-tech spectacle in the musical. "You could do five of these for the price of one 'Spider-Man,'" producer Jeffrey Seller says.
When the show starts previews Sept. 29 at the 1,400-seat Neil Simon Theatre (opening night is Oct. 26), revenues will have to exceed weekly operating expenses of "less than $600,000," the producer says. (Last week, the hit "Kinky Boots" grossed $1.4 million, while the soon-to-close musical "After Midnight" brought in $650,000.)
It took about five years to bring "The Last Ship" to the stage. That pace is normal for new musicals, but it is glacial by rock 'n' roll standards - the Police's entire discography only spanned five years.
The process behind the "The Last Ship" began in 2009, when Mr. Seller, a producer of "Rent," "Avenue Q" and "In the Heights," met Sting through the rock star's longtime manager, Kathryn Schenker. Sting had been considering a theater project based on his 1991 album "The Soul Cages," inspired by the singer's relationship with his father and his childhood near a once-booming shipyard new Newcastle, England. Then he found inspiration for a story line in a newspaper article about a Catholic priest in Poland who led a group of homeless shipbuilders to construct a vessel of their own. The first song Sting sent to Mr. Seller was "Shipyard," which introduces the key members of the community, including a rabble-rousing priest, the proud foreman of the yard and his fiery wife. "Shipyard," which gave Mr. Seller confidence that Sting could pull it off, remains (in much-edited form) an anchor for "The Last Ship."
Harmonizing with Sting on that initial demo recording was the first person the songwriter recruited for help: Jimmy Nail, a well-known singer, actor and producer in the U.K., whose father was a foreman in a plant that built scientific instruments, now plays foreman Jackie White in "The Last Ship." He grew up about 2 miles from the home of young Sting (nee Gordon Sumner) and played in a rock band called the King Crabs in the '70s. But it wasn't until a decade later that the two men became friends.
"He was good-looking, talented and going places, so I tried to avoid him at all costs," Mr. Nail jokes, the only person who calls Sting by his given name.
Sting started developing the characters and narrative with Brian Yorkey, the writer of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Next to Normal." They worked on songs with Mr. Mathes, an accomplished music producer, during stints at Sting's estates in Italy and England. After Mr. Yorkey began juggling a different project (the musical "If/Then"), he was replaced by Mr. Logan. ("I just needed a little more exclusivity," Sting explains, "because I was a novice.") The team tried and discarded various character combos before settling on a love triangle: Gideon comes home after 15 years at sea to settle his dead father's affairs and court his childhood love, Meg (Rachel Tucker). But she is settled in with a man, Arthur (Aaron Lazar), who works for the new owner of the shipyard.
There are about 20 new songs in the musical, almost the same number of Sting's tunes that didn't make it into the show. (The composer gave some of the castoffs to the actors to serve as back stories for their characters.) The intense and nonstop collaboration is a far cry from what Sting has been accustomed to as a songwriter, including in the Police, which "wasn't a democracy," he recalls.
Sting's flood of writing for the musical ended an eight-year stretch in which he kept busy but was unable to write new material.
"I think it was a darker period for people around him than it was for him, such as the record company [Universal] and some fans, who wanted pop songs," says Ms. Schenker, who has worked with Sting - first in public relations, later as his manager - since his first U.S. gig in 1978, with the Police at CBGB.
Sting has been prodigious in promoting "The Last Ship." There were 10 performances at the intimate Public Theater in New York, where Sting surrounded himself with musicians from the region that gives the music its Northumbrian folk sound. The benefit concerts at the Public Theater were expensive (costing almost $250,000 alone to bring in the musicians), but the show was useful in helping people understand what the coming musical was about. The concert was licensed for television by PBS, BBC and other broadcasters. Sting also repurposed the show, including stage patter about the influence of show tunes on his music style ("If you scratch me, I'll start singing 'Carousel'") for a TED Talk and other forums.
At the recent Tony Awards, Sting's first, he received an initiation of sorts when performer Neil Patrick Harris gave him a (preplanned) lap dance during the telecast. When Sting performed his musical's title song, a shanty with lyrical references to the Resurrection and a "mountain of steel" making its way to the sea, it came across as a stirring respite from the award show's frenetic song-and-dance assault—or a dirge-like bore, depending on your perspective.
"It's not lights-up and sparkle-dazzle," says Mr. Mantello, the director, describing the shifts from scene to song in "The Last Ship." The chorus consists of bearded men in boots who hoist ropes and do kick-step dances. There are laughs, but the themes are weighty - the limits of loyalty, the tensions between fathers and sons, the ghosts of a dying industry.
Mr. Logan, the book writer, says, "It's a very unironic show. It doesn't try to be clever and it certainly doesn't wink at its characters. We will rise or fall on the basis of that sincerity."
When asked if some Sting fans might be buying tickets under the mistaken notion that he's starring in the musical, Mr. Seller says, "I assure you they're not because my advance sales are not gigantic." Neither the producer nor Sting ever considered him as a potential cast member. "Bringing a rock star to Broadway is no insurance policy against failure. A star will help you for the months that he's in it, but not beyond that," Mr. Seller says.
Still, Sting's manager is "totally convinced" that he won't be able to resist making a Broadway cameo, stepping in as Jackie White the first time Mr. Nail takes a break.
On the first night in Chicago, the audience got its glimpse of the rock star during intermission. As soon as the lights went up, a fan asked Sting to pose for a photo, but he demurred, saying, "I'm in disguise." But then the rocker lingered by the mixing board to huddle with the production staff, next to the theater exits. Soon the area was surrounded by people, including fan-club members wearing striped scarves custom-made for the occasion, who snapped photos of the composer with their camera phones.
(c) Wall Street Journal by John Jurgensen