Sometime around 2004, Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner, better known as Sting, a rock star with 16 Grammys and more than 100 million records sold, found himself with a severe case of writer's block. It wasn't that he stopped touring (he didn't), making money (he still made plenty) or even recording (there were albums of other people's songs and a new symphonic treatment of his past material), but he found, to his chagrin, he could not write any new songs.
This went on for some eight years. He was, in the words of writer John Logan, "at an impasse." The title of Sting's intensely personal, strikingly reflective 2003 autobiography, "Broken Music," had proven prophetic.
"I just found myself thinking, 'What's the point?'" a scrunched-up Sting says, softly, matter-of-factly, occupying as little space as possible at the back of a 42nd Street rehearsal studio here one recent afternoon. "I just didn't have the desire or the passion. I was treading water as a writer."
Of course, Sting, born in 1951, also had by that time reached a certain age, tricky for a plaintive balladeer. It's hard for a mature man to keep writing lines like "everything she do just turns me on" or "I won't share you with another boy" without feeling, well, a bit ridiculous eventually. Although Sting had always been far more of a narrative songwriter than most, many of his hit pop songs were still restatements of a needy but sensual emotion - I love you this way, I miss you that way, please do this, I feel that - wherein the listener had to believe in the veracity and vulnerability of the seemingly single and youthful songwriter. That was getting harder to pull off.
And then Sting happened upon a magazine article about a proud shipbuilding community falling apart.
Sting is himself from such a community. Haunted by one, in fact, ever since he got out of the failing English town of his childhood, headed to London and New York and became the leader of a band called The Police, and then a multihyphenate solo artist, an artist who never really went home.
"The ships leaving the river would, in hindsight, become a metaphor for my own wandering life," he wrote in "Broken Music," "never to return."
How could he really, after a certain point? To hang out on those old streets would have been perceived as an act of dilettantism, a rock-star circus. He didn't even attend his parents' funerals in the mid-1980s (they both died young), preferring to say goodbye while they still were alive and fearing that his presence would tempt tabloid coverage (although he wrote in his autobiography that he also was afraid to confront their deaths). During those long, more recent years of writer's block, Sting found himself intensely focused on his childhood.
"Sting," Logan says, "has been grappling with his past since the day he walked away from Newcastle."
Somewhere around 2012, Sting hit on an idea. What if he combined two stories: his unresolved feelings about the lingering personal attachments of his youth and his abandonment of his roots, and the soul-destroying demise of a shipyard and its impact on the workers? He had learned all about augmented and diminished chords by listening to his mother, a pianist, play the work of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. Years before he had performed (as, of course, Macheath) in a 1989 revival of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's "The Threepenny Opera" (then rendered as "3 Penny Opera") on Broadway. So what if he, Sting, wrote his own Broadway musical about a guy who goes back home to try to find some peace and reconciliation after the death of his father? What if the theater were a home for his songs?
What if the show was called "The Last Ship"? What if it was to try out in Chicago, a town that knows postindustrial pain?
Sting was born in a terraced house in Wallsend (as in, the end of Hadrian's Wall) in the North East of England, on the north shore of the River Tyne, close to Newcastle, hard upon Swan Hunter's thriving shipyard, where almost everyone in the town worked in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Swan Hunter built giant, steel, oceangoing vessels and had a long history: Its workers had built the RMS Carpathia, which rescued survivors from the Titanic. Sting got out of Wallsend, of course. But most of his old friends and neighbors - those not blessed with such singular musical talents - got stuck as Swan Hunter went down the toilet, a victim of a changed global economy.
The story was not unfamiliar in postindustrial Britain or so different from what simultaneously happened, say, to the mineworkers of Doncaster (as told in the musical "Billy Elliot") or the steelworkers of Sheffield ("The Full Monty"). There were struggles and ownership changes for Swan Hunter in the 1980s, receivership in the early 1990s and then layoffs and closings. The once-proud workers were fired or merely offered piecemeal work doing salvage or maintenance. A few years ago the famously colossal cranes of Wallsend finally were sold off. Shipbuilding, as Sting and Wallsend had known it pretty much all their lives, was finished for good.
So Sting called a producer, Jeffrey Seller. Seller told Sting that he liked the idea because communities under siege tended to make very good musicals ("Fiddler on the Roof" is one such show). Plus - and Seller did not exactly need to point this out - Sting is Sting. Sting has a lot of fans. Seller said yes to Sting.
The writer's block was over. Characters appeared, based on the people Sting had known in Wallsend. Verses came to him in abundance.
"Once I got that green light," Sting says, "the songs just flooded out of me."
And that is why he is sitting in this New York studio with screenwriter-turned-book writer Logan, director Joe Mantello and an old pal from Newcastle, actor-musician Jimmy Nail. For the past several weeks, Sting and his collaborators (including the red-hot movement man Steven Hoggett) have been wrestling with Sting, Unstuck, trying to turn the songs into a viable Broadway show. Previews for the pre-Broadway tryout of "The Last Ship" begin this week at the Bank of America Theatre in Chicago.
Just a few feet away from Sting, actors are milling around. They've just finished singing one of the stirring anthems in the show, which variously come with a touch of the balladic Weill, a touch of Rodgers and Hammerstein's melodic lushness and a flavor of the working people's songs from the nautically inclined section of the England-Scotland borderlands.
Many of those songs have been recorded or heard publicly. But the songs on "The Last Ship" album, and on the concert performance broadcast by PBS, may or may not be in the show.
"I've just got into the mode of cutting," Sting says. "Once you start killing off your children, it's quite exhilarating."
The last line of the book for "The Last Ship," which was first drafted by Brian Yorkey before Yorkey left the project (his co-writer credit intact) and Logan took over, now reads as follows:
"And the ship sails."
That's the kind of line that keeps a designer up at night (although it's worth noting that "The Last Ship" is not intended to be a massive spectacle). But, really, it sums up the aim, especially if you think of Sting as the docked ship, ready to confront the past, and the pervasive metaphor of the entire enterprise.
The project is not without danger for all concerned. Given that Sting is not in the show, will audiences care that this is his story? Will they further care about the gritty English characters mourning their shipyard and their dignity? This past season on Broadway, pretty much all of the new serious musicals with original ideas were killed off, with most critics preferring pastiches ("A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder"), revues ("After Midnight") or self-aware spectacles ("Aladdin"). That is not what is being teed up with "The Last Ship." And it's also worth noting that Sting, like most big, long-lived stars, has his snarky detractors. On his HBO show last week, satirist John Oliver observed that "net neutrality" was made up of "the only two words in the English language promising more boredom than 'featuring Sting.'"
That is some of the cargo that will be carried by "The Last Ship."
Logan says it's a question of having eyes wide open.
"We are trying to create a great piece of theater for audiences who know nothing about shipbuilding and, believe it or not, have never heard of Sting," he says in a New York cafe before a run-through of the show. "We are doing so passionately and emotionally. There is not an ironic bone in our show. We don't wink at anything. We tell a straight story. There is nothing arch or clever about us. Nothing."
Logan, incidentally, is descended from a family of Irish shipbuilders. That's partly why he took time off from writing James Bond movies to do this gig, his first book for a Broadway musical.
Over lunch at a Broadway deli, Mantello says much the same thing: This is a frank, serious musical, take it or leave it, replete with an original Sting score and no movie pedigree, no snark, no jukeboxes. It's rooted in one famous rock star's life, sure, but also in symbol.
"This is an intimate story that exists within an allegorical world," Mantello says. "The guy who comes back (home) in our show isn't a rock star and he isn't famous. He isn't Sting. He's a metaphor for returning to your roots. I know, if you describe the plot, it sounds dreary. But I think it is as if Sting had written a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. It is a poetic show about community. It is very emotional; a male weepie, if you like. Fathers and sons. … The audience in Chicago will sit down and know absolutely nothing. It will be fascinating to see if and how they are engaged. But by the time we went into rehearsal, know that every single line, lyric, every note of music had already argued for its life."
Engaging or not, the bifurcated plot of "The Last Ship" is partly a love triangle, wherein a successful young man named Gideon (a touch o' Sting, resonance of Sting, but not Sting in all his fullness) comes back to Wallsend to settle his parents' estate and reignites his romance with a young woman with whom he has a child. That young woman has a new romance with a man who has been taking care of her as Gideon (played by Michael Esper) has been off gallivanting in the world at large. In Sting's initial conception, that new love was a man of around 60 years old.
"The pathos of an older man falling for a younger woman appealed to me," Sting says, a tad wistfully, a slight smile creeping over his lips. "I identified with the character."
But Logan, a savvy writer with a widely acknowledged sense of what audiences need, convinced Sting that his idea wouldn't work because no one would perceive it as a real contest for the woman's heart, given the age of the antagonist. So Arthur became a young man, roughly of Gideon's age.
"I resisted," Sting says. "But I told myself, get out of the way, love."
So that's the romance part. The workers' part involves what Sting describes as a "quixotic Homeric act."
It's early in the afternoon the day of the run-through. Sting is fiddling affectionately with the costume of veteran Broadway actor Fred Applegate. Applegate is playing a priest, a man of the cloth with a big charge for his flock. Even as the shipyard closes, the priest suggests in song, the workers should build one last ship, if only as a means of restoring their self-worth. Such a ship might sail the seas in tribute not just to Wallsend but past all of the other fallen shipyards of the industrial world: Aberdeen, Gdansk, Belfast. It would be a sailing metaphor for proud workers. Build this ship, Applegate's priest tells the men in pain.
Applegate forgets a line. Before the stage manager can intervene, he is prompted by a lean man from the back of the room.
"Thank you, er, Sting," says Applegate, taking his prompt from a high-priced prompter as the rehearsal room collapses into laughter.
It's a telling moment. There are a few cautionary tales when it comes to rock stars turned Broadway songwriters. Rock stars usually write a song and then leave it alone, and they tend to surround themselves with people on their on payroll who are very good at flattery. Broadway musicals not only demand that the songs therein be, in Mantello's words, little one-act plays, but they require the rock star to subject him or herself to the collaborative and mutative art of new Broadway musicals. As Glen Berger claims in his book, "Song of Spider-Man," Bono and The Edge were too busy solving problems of global import to actually pen a new song when their show badly needed one after changes were made during rehearsal. On the other hand, Cyndi Lauper, whose score for "Kinky Boots" was widely admired, wrote new songs during the Chicago tryout, pretty much in her hotel room, as the Broadway myth demands.
So which is Sting? As you might expect, Logan and Mantello can't say enough about his humility.
"He is an incredible collaborator," Mantello says. "Thoughtful, intelligent, smart, cares. In this business you have to be careful who you sleep with because that is what your baby is going to look like."
"Sting is ubiquitous," Logan says. "He has been there, will be there, every second. He's deeply engaged and he takes an assignment well. This is his baby."
One such assignment, which the actors happen to be rehearsing, is a number called "What Say You Meg," written by Sting after Logan said he needed a new love song at a certain spot in the story. It is a beautiful song.
But when handed a softball question about whether he likes collaborating with others and not being the center of attention and letting go of his story and letting the actors shine, yada, yada, Sting doesn't trot out the expected bromide. Rather, there's a long pause.
"Actually," he says, "it's very difficult for me not to be the performer. And, as you say, I am indeed someone who gets their own way most of the time. But I think I've been well-behaved. This is the most collaborative thing I've ever done. I am learning."
Asked directly, he says he'll be in his hotel in Chicago cranking out new songs, should that be necessary.
"I am here to troubleshoot to fit the narrative. I'm prepared to scrap songs if they are not advancing the narrative."
That narrative will, of course, have to stand without Sting on the stage, even as it comes from somewhere deep within him. Many stars, such as Gloria Estefan and Berry Gordy, create Broadway vehicles for themselves, controlled by themselves and revolving around their greatest hits. Sting has not done anything like that. He gutsily has thrown his bread upon the seas, for better or worse. He is a big star. It will be closely watched.
"No artistic enterprise," he says, "comes without risk."
So will Sting's ship make sale? Maybe that's not the main point of the voyage.
"I've never really had an ambition to do well," Sting says. "But this is the one story I felt compelled to tell. For my town has been gutted. The shipyard is in the ground. Nothing has replaced it."
He stretches his lean frame. Sting is 62. For the record, still looks very, very good.
"There is, I think, irony in my finding inspiration now in the place I worked so hard to leave."
(c) The Chicago Tribune by Chris Jones