Sting talks about songwriting, his childhood and bringing his new musical THE LAST SHIP to the UK
It’s fair to say that Sting has had a varied career. Initially working as a bus conductor, a building labourer, a tax officer and a teacher, the award-winning artist, born Gordon Sumner, left his hometown of Wallsend to pursue his dream of being a musician, forming one of biggest rock groups in the world, THE POLICE. A successful solo career followed in 1985, as well acting roles in films such as QUADROPHENIA (1979), PLENTY (1985), JULIA AND JULIA (1987), DUNE (1984) and more recently, THE GROTESQUE (1995). We haven’t even mentioned his roles in human rights, animal rights and environmental issues. Yes, this man has his fingers in many pies.
Sting’s latest project comes in the form of a new musical THE LAST SHIP. Inspired by his 1991 album THE SOUL CAGES and his own childhood experiences, THE LAST SHIP is an epic account of a family, a community and a great act of defiance. The play is a deeply personal project for the famous singer/songwriter who left his shipbuilding hometown of Wallsend when he was just 18 years old.
“This play is very personal to me because of where I come from” explains Sting at the media launch for THE LAST SHIP at Manchester’s historical Victoria Warehouse.
“I wanted to give the community where I was born in a voice, to tell a narrative in this form, because it’s a story that hasn’t been told. In a way, it’s a kind of debt that I feel I owe, an emotional debt. I abandoned my town, I didn’t want to work there, I didn’t want to be a part of it, so now at my age I want to go back there and say thank you for what you gave me. You formed me, you formed my ambition. The engine of my ambition was to leave but I owe you the honour of trying to tell your story.”
Sting has always been honest about his desire to leave his hometown. The 66 year old openly admits he hated growing up in the region and spent his youth ‘plotting to escape’ before eventually leaving at age 18 to pursue his dream of becoming a writer.
“One of my biggest fears was that I’d end up there and it was the last thing I wanted to do” – Sting
“There wasn’t much else in the town and one of my biggest fears was that I’d end up there and it was the last thing I wanted to do” explains Sting.
“The shipyard to me was a dark, dangerous place with a terrible health and safety record. I had other dreams. I dreamt that I would be a writer or singer of sorts. I’d travel the world and sing songs, I’d become famous and get paid extravagant amounts of money and I’d win lot of awards. I must have dreamt that very hard because actually came to pass *laughs*. Many years later after having a lot of success, I realised that I owed a debt to the community that I was brought up in.”
That debt comes in form of his new play, THE LAST SHIP, a musical which tells the story of a community in Wallsend, Tyne and Wear amid the demise of the shipbuilding industry. The town’s local shipyard is closing and no-one knows what will come next, only that a half-built ship towers over the terraces.
“I was born and raised on Tyneside literally in the shadow of the shipyard, a shipyard where they built some of the largest ships at the constructed. If I turned left out of my front door I would see a giant ship at the end of the street blocking out the sun most of the year. I’d watch thousands of men walk down the hill to the shipyard every morning and I’d watch the same men walk back home at night.”
“The shipyard workers in the 80s were all made redundant. Whole generations of skill sets were thrown on the scrap heap for very abstract, economic reasons. My feeling then and my feeling now, is that economics does not exist without community and community should come first. This play is about community, the importance of community, the importance of work and the dignity of work. It asks the question what happens to communities when you take work away from them. When you take people’s dignity away from them, what is left? That’s the serious core of it. It’s also a love story and there’s a lot of fun in it, a lot of joy.”
When creating the concept for the musical, Sting look an early draft back to his home city to perform some of the songs for ex-shipyard workers to see what they thought.
“One of the first things I did was take the early workshop to Newcastle and I invited a lot of ex-ship workers to sit in the audience. Most of them have never been in the theatre ever, and they sat down with their pints and they watched this thing. I said, “Well, shall I carry on with this?” and they said “Aye”. Having their wish gave me the courage to carry on.”
And carry on he did, putting together the story and the songs for THE LAST SHIP which made its debut in Chicago in June 2014 before transferring to Broadway in the Autumn. Before THE LAST SHIP, Sting hadn’t written any new material for eight years, his biggest hiatus from song writing since the start of his career in the 70s.
I was starting to get anxious about having writers block, as soon as I started this project, the songs came out of me so quickly – Sting
“It was surprising. Even though I hadn’t written a song in a good while and I was starting to get anxious about having writers block, as soon as I started this project, the songs came out of me so quickly, almost like projectile vomiting. Song after song, character after character, rhyming couplets, it was like something deep inside me was waiting to be released. It was extraordinary how many songs I wrote in a very, very short time. I needed to do this, this was a necessary compulsion for me and I still feel that. I’ve never been so passionate about anything I’ve ever done.”
Perhaps one of the reasons Sting is so passionate about the project is because, in many ways, the play is autobiographical, even if it was never intended to be.
“The story was never meant to be autobiographical, I wasn’t a shipyard worker and I never went to sea, although I was a musician on a cruise ship. Elements from my own life just crept in subconsciously and I identify them now, after the fact. Love affairs that were sad and unrequited. There are a lot of ghosts in this story.”
One of the main characters in the play is a man called Gideon Fletcher who returns home after seventeen years at sea. As tensions between the past and future begin to flare, the relationship between father and son takes centre focus, most notably in the song DEAD MAN BOOTS.
“I always think of my dad when I sing that song” explains Sting.
Sometimes a son’s ambitions, like mine, can seem to be a pie in the sky fantasy in the eye of the father and sometimes a father’s love can be misconstrued as being controlling or overbearing.”
“He [Sting’s Father] never quite understood my ambition. When I was a kid, I won a scholarship to go to Grammar school where they were teaching Latin and he wanted me to have a technical education. He said why the hell do you want to speak Latin? He wasn’t wrong *laughs* but happily I proved him wrong.”
Yet despite its TONY-nominated original score, THE LAST SHIP hasn’t all been plain sailing for Sting. Just three months after launching on Broadway, the musical closed, marking a difficult time for the composer and lyricist.
“I knew and I know now how difficult it is to write a musical and especially one that is an original story. I think most musicals are based on a movie, a fairytale or a cartoon that everybody knows so to bring a brand new story to musical theatre is hard. They say it’s the hardest thing to do and I’m the sort of stoic kind of person who would want to take on that challenge.”
The past seven years have been the most challenging, the most difficult, the most fun, the most absorbing of my entire creative life – Sting
“The past seven years have been the most challenging, the most difficult, the most fun, the most absorbing of my entire creative life. I’ve loved every minute of it, the successes, the disappointments, the problems, the problem solving. It’s very much like the ship, there are so many moving parts to make this one machine – actors, musicians, directors, creative people, carpenters, joiners, sea members, union members – you find yourself as the captain of the ship trying to get everything in lock step so the ship can be launched and then move in one direction. Hugely challenging but so much fun.”
Despite its shortened run on Broadway, the experience hasn’t put Sting off from touring the production in the UK. In fact, the artist has continued to work on the project, making some subtle changes to the score and the story.
“Broadway was a learning process. I loved being on Broadway but I knew that if I was to bring the ship into British waters, I needed to refit it somehow. I think the play is more political than it was on Broadway, it’s a story about the struggle of the men to maintain their jobs. On Broadway, the love story took president. Now it’s the struggle with the men, it’s a more political story and I think it’s important for Britain to have it. The play is adjusting all the time, it’s an organic living thing, it’s never finished and I’m constantly rewriting songs. I find it a fascinating art form, it really is never finished.”
The musical has also inspired Sting to start writing again. The 66 year old is in the process of making a brand new album whilst overseeing the UK production of THE LAST SHIP when rehearsals start next month.
“I’m driven by curiosity, in music and in my own career. I never just want to keep pushing the same button to be successful. Creativity is a very lucid animal and if you’re hunting creativity, you have to constantly change your point of view, constantly change your method, push yourself out of your comfort zone and find something new. Doing a musical is me out of my comfort zone and I’m here to learn. I’m very driven to succeed.”
THE LAST SHIP makes it UK premiere in Newcastle on 12 March 2018 before embarking on a major UK and Ireland tour. The production will tour to The Lowry, Salford from Tuesday 3 to Saturday 7 July 2018.
Donna is the Founder and Editor of Frankly, My Dear UK. By day, she works as a digital marketing specialist, by night she reviews film, theatre and music for a wide range of publications including WhatsonStage and The Reviews Hub. Loves Formula 1, prosecco and life.