The following interview with Jeff Greenfield appeared in the November 1989 issue of GQ magazine...
As the sexy, sinister Macheath in Broadway's 'The Threepenny Opera', Sting is taking the greatest gamble of his gaudy career.
This is not his turf. We are strolling west on 46th Street on a midsummer day in midtown Manhattan, and even in tank top and cotton pants, even with a dashing moustache adorning his face, it is unmistakably Sting, a man who has spent the past decade as one of the most famous men in the world.
Nearly two years ago, travelling with him in Brazil, I saw him mobbed on the streets of Porto Alegre; besieged for autographs in Sao Paulo on a five-minute walk from his hotel to lunch; interrupted a dozen times or more in a secluded restaurant by patrons, by the owner's daughter, by the owner's daughter's friends. And at night, 80,000; 100,000; 200,000 people would pack into soccer stadiums to cheer his music and his energy, often singing in unison the words they did not understand.
In a Montreal hotel during the world-wide Amnesty International tour, I watched as a quiet chat with a few friends and colleagues in the lobby turned into a near circus; in tribute, one fan tried to give Sting an enormous wooden piece of "art." When you have sold 50 million records; when you have been the key member of one of the biggest rock bands in the world; when you have then established yourself as a solo performer who can make $15 million in a year; when your blond hair, chiselled face and sculpted body have made you the sexual fantasy of countless women, this is what happens to you.
But not here, not in the heart of New York's theatre district. Passers by do not stop and stare; indeed, the middle-aged matinee-theatre crowd scarcely gives him a glance. No, this is decidedly not Sting's turf which is exactly why he is here, taking the biggest risk of his career. "For me, I'm jumping out of an airplane, and I'm not sure there's a parachute there; I'm not sure I can do this."
It has all the audacity of Rickey Henderson's putting aside his bat and glove for a shot at a place on the 1992 Olympic diving team. Sting, who penned and performed some of the more memorable popular songs of the past decade - 'Roxanne', 'King of Pain', 'Every Breath You Take' - who went solo in the mid-1980s and produced 'Russians', 'Set Them Free' and a striking fusion of rock and jazz, is making his stage debut as Macheath, the outlaw hero/villain in 'The Threepenny Opera', by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill.
In a world where performers love to claim "It's a stretch for me" if their latest car chase employs bias radial tires, Sting is putting a hefty stash of time and reputation on this roll of the dice: playing the lead in a dark, cynical portrayal of London's netherworld, where beggars, whores, corrupt police, thieves and murderers "survive by doing wrong."
He is surrounded by the best in the field: His director is John Dexter, who produced something close to magic with 'M. Butterfly', the story of sexual obsession and confusion; his co-stars include Maureen McGovern and Georgia Brown, as the women he woos and betrays; Julius Rudel is the musical director who is guiding Sting through this theatrical thicket. But it is Sting's face that adorns the posters and the TV ads, Sting's pulling power that produced five months' of advance sales before the first previews and Sting's status as a Certified-World-Class Star that provides such a splendid target of opportunity for the critics.
"I have a certain relationship to this play," Sting points out. "I studied Brecht while I was in college, I've done some of the music before, and I also feel Macheath is a little like me, that he's from the gutter; he has all the airs and grace of civilisation, he's smart, but basically, he's from the street, he's a tyke - do you have that word in America? He's got his gang, he's got the criminal world at his feet, and throughout the play he becomes more and more dislodged, and at the end, he's about to be hung."
By taking this role, Sting, at 38, has dislodged himself utterly from the arena in which he has reigned as a pop monarch for more than a decade. He has reigned as a pop monarch for more than a decade. He has dislodged himself from the artistic freedom he won five years ago when he went solo, and has put himself in the hands of strangers to whom his fame and status in the rock world mean nothing. And, in a critical sense at least, Sting could find himself on opening night dangling at the end of the rope.
I wish I was a tennis player. All you have to do is groove the ground stroke, groove the volley, groove the serve. Every time I do something I have to reinvent the game. You have to get them to say 'What a great new game you invented,' not 'What a great ground stroke.' I wanted a little holiday from that. I want to do that repetitive ground stroke, the discipline. So that's what I'm doing, and I'm relishing it.
"I've been rewarded in the past for singing in my own way, singing in my own words, dancing and behaving as I am. The people who are running this show aren't interested in the least in how I do that. They have it written down: They have the words I have to say, they have something in their head about the way they're said, the angle of my chin. The musical director has very specific ideas about the way I sing, which has nothing whatever to do with me.
"Now, perverse as this sounds, I'm actually enjoying it. It's a discipline, wearing a straitjacket for awhile, and it's a discipline I will learn from. It's also a terrifying experience."
Maybe it just goes to prove that no one is exempt from the consequences of detecting the first, faint sounds of time's winged chariot. Most of us can understand the mid-life crisis of a thirtysomething lawyer, gazing out of his corner office, adding up the assets and liabilities of his life, wondering if the co-op, the country house, the money-market fund and the high-priced suits are worth the dreariness of day following day.
But can you feel that sense if you have come from a working-class family in Newcastle (father a milkman turned small-business man), done stints as a bus conductor, ditchdigger, small-time civil servant and schoolteacher, lived on the dole while trying to get a band started, then found yourself making millions as the centrepiece of a rock-and-roll supergroup?
And can you feel that sense if you have already had your personal and professional "mid-life crisis" - if you have left a marriage that produced two children to live, for the past seven years, with a striking, witty and no-nonsense actress, Trudie Styler (mother of the last two of Sting's four children). If you have walked away from the Police, formed a new band by reaching into the ranks of topflight jazz musicians (Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland), terrified many in your entourage by moving into financially uncharted waters, and succeeded critically and commercially? If you have broken new ground by writing increasingly complex melodies and by writing lyrics about dispossessed coal miners We Work the Black Seam and the mothers, daughters and wives of Latin American torture victims 'They Dance Alone'. If you have moved so far beyond the slots the critics pegged you for, can you still wake up with the question "Is that all there is?"
Look at all the bands that have come out of the woodwork this year - the Stones, the Who. They're really the only bands who can play the big stadiums; it's kind of historic, it's their setting. I find that limiting. I'm not saying that it's a particularly good thing that stadium rock stays alive. I don't particularly like it. I'm sure it's good, but I don't think it will surprise anybody. This is about nostalgia. I'm not saying it's a bad thing either. I'll go see the Stones, and I'm sure I'll have a great time. I've been a fan since I was 15.
"I think a Police reunion could fill a big stadium. I don't want to do that; I'm looking for more flexibility in the way you do your thing. It's great to fill a stadium up. I'm saying that's not all there is. That's not the goal. The goal is - what is the goal? To keep your humanity. The great thing about small theatres is that people can see you spitting, they can see you breathing, they can see you... I don't know. I want the choices there in my life. I want to say, 'Well, I'm bored with that, that's that."'
It is a function of the manipulation industry to convince journalists that the subjects of their inquiries are exceptionally intelligent, deeply fascinating human beings - to assure the sceptical inquisitor that the Great Man is terrific with kids, essentially warm beneath the gruff exterior, does a lot of charity work nobody hears much about and is altogether splendid.
It is the function of a journalist examining the life of a celebrity to break through that curtain, to demonstrate the demons that dwell within the Great Man, to suggest that the gap between what is said and what is meant is more in the nature of a chasm. Sting seems to me far removed from this arena. He has earned the right to be taken at his word. Consider his involvement in concerns beyond the world of rock.
He is a political animal, from the Left but not of it; he spends his time working not for political parties but for causes that he has stayed with. He performed his first concert for Amnesty International almost a decade ago, at London's 'Secret Policeman's Other Ball'. He was the key to Amnesty's 1986 nation-wide 'Conspiracy of Hope' tour that featured U2 and Peter Gabriel, and spent six weeks on Amnesty's world-wide 'Human Rights Now' tour (along with Bruce Springsteen, Gabriel, Tracy Chapman and Youssou N'Dour) last year.
When I first met him two years ago in Brazil, he had just returned from a visit to the Amazon rain forest, where rapacious timber interests were threatening the survival of the forest and of the Indian cultures that had thriven there for centuries. He and Trudie Styler had participated in an Indian ritual, had had their bodies painted with ceremonial markings and had endured a nocturnal visit from a highly poisonous snake.
Now, with the help of his money, and Trudie's energy, there is a foundation in place to carry on the work of preservation, and Sting spent weeks this past spring on a six-continent media blitz to draw attention to the issue. If the expenditure of this kind of time, and the millions of dollars in lost concert fees, is the work of a dilettante, it is the best acting Sting will ever do.
There is also, for one who is so often accused by critics of pretension, an admirable lack of affectation in his involvement's. Sting knows full well that a Manhattan press conference/party to publicise the plight of the rainforest is not jammed with such people as Diane Sawyer, Mike Nichols and Candice Bergen because of a sudden surge of environmental consciousness. He is the draw, and he is prepared to spend the currency of celebrity if it gets publicity for the campaign.
He is also prepared to listen to challenges. Indeed, it explains how he came to be playing Macheath. After his world tour ended, Sting and Trudie were in Malibu when she prodded him to try his hand at the stage, telling him, "You'd make a perfect Macheath, but you have to play him before you get too old." As it happened, the couple's neighbour at the time was producer Jerry Hellman, and the idea became reality.
I trust women's intuition about many things, particularly creative things," Sting says. "I also thought that I'd done about a dozen films - sometimes fair to middling, sometimes well - but no one can call himself an actor unless they've stood on the boards and said the words out loud so they can hear you up at the top."
There is, however, one aspect of this experience that stands the standard mid-life crisis on its head. For most of us, the dream of something new means a break with routine; the same route from home to work and back again, the same rooms and walls, come to symbolise the repetition of days. For Sting, working on Broadway means he will - more or less - be grounded in one place for some time.
"I think New York is dismantling itself all around you," Sting notes with a dose of irony. "I think it's an interesting place for an artist to be. The alternative is for me to rent a house in Hollywood with a swimming pool. And what would I write about? At least here you're on the street; even if I do have a Central Park West apartment (purchased from singer Billy Joel for some $4 million), I can see drug deals out of my window anytime I want to."
At one point, Sting was planning to bring Trudie and their two children (Mickey, 6, and Jake, 4) to Manhattan. But those plans have changed. Instead, the family will remain in London. "I just felt it was less disruptive," Sting says. "Trudie can't work here; she doesn't have a green card. So the way I view it is, 'Daddy goes to work and then he comes back after a few months.' I don't want to move my family. That's the one thing that's kept me sane, that my family is somewhere; I don't want to put them through gypsyhood."
Solitude, in turn, opens up a sense of creative possibilities. Two years on the road drained Sting of an enormous amount of energy; nine months in New York, he thinks, just may fill the tank again. "One of the great advantages to being in New York for a while is the great reservoir of talent. Musicians, clubs, beautiful women - it's all here." So, he thinks, is the opportunity for a new burst of songwriting. But can he come home after a gruelling performance in Threepenny Opera and start to write new songs?
"My most creative period of songwriting was when I was a schoolteacher," he says, "when I was working an eight-hour day and then would come home and write." It's not that he owes an album to his record company - "I'm not in the feudal system in that regard" - as much as he sees Manhattan as a source of ideas, both heady and depressing.
"You know, the one thing that does scare me about New York is what's happening in the drug culture...people who are disenfranchised economically, and in every sense, and it's getting worse. And I think one of the core messages of the play is that you can't impose white Anglo-Saxon morality on these people. You can't say, 'This is wrong.' They say, 'Hey, this is capitalism, you gotta make some money.' Short-sighted as that is, they're right.
"Brecht has always attracted me in that sense of angry, angular, cynical, yet funny, entertaining side. I think Threepenny Opera is an entertainment, first and foremost. It's not one of his most overtly political works. But it does have a core."
It is the entertainment that is proving the must daunting challenge this autumn. The "perverse enjoyment" Sting feels at being forced to perform to the dictates of others can be as frustrating as it is exhilarating, as he playfully mocks the Teutonic orders of music director Julius Rudel ("'It izz an eighth note. You cannot sing zis vay!' I'm loving it. I mean, he might get a dagger in his back one night, my character might take over").
And the unmistakable fact is that Sting is still feeling his way around the stage, in a production that as late as out-of-town previews was far from ready for Broadway. On mid-September's opening night at Washington, D.C.'s National Theatre, before a black-tie audience that included the president of the United States, the production lumbered down the runway without ever taking off. And, for someone who has seen Sting time after time take to the stage and mesmerise an audience, the unfamiliarity of the territory was apparent.
Instead of radiating magnetism, sexual energy, Sting moved uneasily, danced as if counting the steps in his head and - most astonishingly - sang (without benefit of amplification) in a strained voice.
Only briefly did the play take flight, and that was as much a product of circumstance as anything else. At the second act curtain, when the ensemble sang Brecht's central message - "First comes the feeding, then the moral code" - many on-stage seemed to be looking directly up into the presidential box at the First Family. The irony of the juxtaposition, combined with the very real beggars who were outside the theatre a moment later during the intermission, made the message come disturbingly alive.
It was, however, not enough to save the night. "A Wizard stripped of his curtain," The Washington Post's review said. "The leading man is still struggling visibly to find his stage legs." The Washington Times, duly noting Sting's courage in plunging into unfamiliar waters, added, "That said, you also have to notice that he is drowning."
Among Sting's entourage that opening night there was a palpable sense of worry. Would all the rime and effort, all the lucrative offers passed up for this year-long commitment, would it all add up to a highly visible failure?
Even before the first public performance Sting had reflected on this possibility. "In a way," he said, "no one wants you to succeed in more than one field. It would be too much to bear. And, yes, I think I'm an easy target, so I don't think anybody's going going to pick up points for hitting me. I mean," he added with a laugh, "if I listened to the critics, I'd be off in a little room somewhere, cowering in a corner. Yes, they can shoot me down, but for me, failure's no disgrace. My life has not been a total success, certain things have failed, one of my marriages failed, some films have been disastrous, but I don't think they've been disgraceful. I've learned from them; I have no regrets about them."
Later, from his dressing room in Washington, Sting talked optimistically about the process of getting this production into shape. "I wasn't that disappointed in the reviews. This is the start of the process, not the end; we're here to get it together. I also remember what Noel Coward said: 'A bad notice can give you a very unpleasant breakfast, but it shouldn't spoil your lunch.'"
Was it possible, I asked him, that the audience had brought too much of a sense of Sting the rock star to the theatre, expecting him to dominate what is essentially an ensemble piece, or that Sting's striking good looks played against going sense of Macheath as a physically unprepossessing character?
"That baggage is their problem, not my problem," he said emphatically. "As far as I am concerned, I am Macheath. I can't fit anyone's idea of the character, even Brecht's."
He acknowledged the immense effort required to change the pacing, the delivery, the rhythm of a show that he thought would be locked in place once the performances began. "I thought once you learned your lines and your moves, that was it. It's really much more like jazz, with an enormous variety of nuance. These days, we're rehearsing from 1 to 6p.m., then going on-stage at 8 trying to remember what we've done that afternoon. It's enormous work to realise after you've learned it one way that you've got to go out and do it another."
But he was fully aware of the concern among his colleagues, which was much like the reaction of the supporters of a candidate who has gotten some bad news in a poll. "If I'm not frightened," he said, "why should they be?"
(By the time of Threepenny's first New York preview, Sting's optimism had proved well-grounded. With a stripped-down script, modified sets and a much-harder- edged staging, the production clicked from the beginning and, his voice buttressed by a wireless microphone, Sting was in command from the moment he stepped on the stage. At the curtain, the perfunctory applause of Washington's opening night was replaced by a genuine, enthusiastic cheer. Even given the voracious appetite of Broadway critics for fresh meat, Sting had a fighting chance not simply to survive, but to prevail.)
While Sting was grappling with Macheath, facing the risk of the much-heralded Broadway opening to come in early November, I thought back to a conversation, a disagreement really, about the link between hard work and innate talent. Sting seemed to say that hard work, discipline, was the key to mastering a craft. I suggested that inborn ability still imposed a limit on what could be accomplished. For instance, I said, no matter how long and hard I practised, I could never play the guitar like Eric Clapton or Robbie Robertson - or Sting; nor could Sting ever play tennis as well as Ivan Lendl or John McEnroe, or act as well as Olivier.
"You miss the point," he said. "The point is, your own potential is every bit as interesting as Olivier's. Your potential as a tennis player is every bit as worthwhile as John McEnroe's. Perhaps I'm not a natural actor. But that doesn't affect the journey I'm making. And I'm working very hard to make it as good as I can, and even if I fail, I've done the best I could. I'm not the best singer in the world, not the best songwriter, not the best guitarist. But the combination of my effort and my idiosyncrasies makes for an interesting journey. "I think it's a terrible disaster if people say, 'I'll never be as good as that fellow, so why try?"'
It is, of course, a lot easier to try if you know that there is a firm life-line to a world of riches and fame behind you if the new venture fails; it is not as though Sting has resigned his executive position, sold his worldly goods and moved his family into a geodesic dome in Vermont.
But there is something else behind Sting's venture: a sense that risk can be its own reward. Life does not teach all of us that lesson, because it is not true for all of us; sometimes a risk is taken at great cost. But what would have happened if that schoolteacher from Newcastle had not thrown in his lot with a new band, or if the pop star had not tried to re-create himself?
In wondering where Sting found that sense of optimism, I remembered a night in Porto Alegre when the singer and his band were preparing to perform before some 80,000 fans who had waited for hours to pack into the arena. Everything had gone wrong: The local workers hadn't the least idea of how to put the stage and the lighting together and Sting's road crew had to hold a sit-down strike before the work could go on. Sting's right arm was in a cast, the result of a freak accident getting off an airplane on his way back from the rainforest; and he and Trudie were both recovering from bad cases of intestinal jungle bug.
As the evening turned to night, rain began pelting the stadium and a wind sprang up, rocking the jerry-built light frame back and forth. The concert was delayed an hour, two hours, three. At one point, Sting's manager and road crew walked on-stage, surveyed the weather and the super-structure and decided that between the risk of electrocution and collapse, it was simply too dangerous to go on. Sting would come out on-stage by himself, sing one acoustic number and announce that the concert would be postponed for a night. What would happen should 80,000 drenched fans object? What would happen to those of us on-stage without benefit of the massive security presence guarding Sting and his band?
We never got to find out. Suddenly, as if a hand had waved across the sky, the wind died down, the rain, stopped, and Sting bounded out to perform his first number, 'The Lazarus Heart'. Its upbeat refrain echoed throughout the stadium and on into the night air: "Every day another miracle."
© GQ magazine