“Broadway is a really long way from Wallsend,” says Sting, laughing about his hometown, a renowned English shipbuilding stronghold that has undergone a painful economic decline. Wallsend provides the evocative setting for The Last Ship, the musical Sting began working on more than four years ago. The show opened on Broadway on October 26th.
Rather than taking the more conventional route of constructing a jukebox musical based on his lengthy catalog of hits, Sting wrote original songs (and repurposed three tunes from his solo career: “When We Dance,” “Island of Souls,” “All This Time”) in order to tell the story of Gideon Fletcher, a young man desperate to escape the hardscrabble life his father led as a shipbuilder. In part, it’s Sting’s own story. “I spent all my energy as a young person trying to escape that place,” he says. “So it’s ironic that I’ve volunteered to go back and dredge up a lot of stuff that might have been painful. But in many ways, it’s been cathartic.”
As a buzz saw whirs and workers hammer at the show’s industrial set, Sting and Michael Esper, who plays the role of Gideon, discuss the play while seated in a stairwell at the Neil Simon Theatre in midtown Manhattan. “It’s a miracle that we’ve gotten this far,” Sting says. “It began as a whim of mine, and now we’re actually on Broadway, which is amazing. I’m thrilled. It’s been the most challenging thing I’ve ever attempted, but in many ways the most personally rewarding.”
“Sting has been an extraordinary collaborator – specific and supportive,” Esper says. “For me, as an actor, I want to be seen and challenged, and that’s what he does.”
A crucial part of Esper’s job is to sing the songs Sting wrote while making the audience forget about the songwriter and think about his character. For his part, Sting has to let the songs take on new life in Esper’s hands. “I know where the bodies are buried in these songs,” Sting says. “But he can bring something to them that I can’t, so you have to acquiesce. I think I’ve been well-behaved!”
Of course, like any musical, The Last Ship is about much more than a composer, however famous, and a star. The show has undergone dramatic transformations in its journey from Sting’s mind to the stage.
“I’ve enjoyed being challenged by people at the top of their game,” Sting says. “All of us want to put on an entertaining, meaningful show. It’s a group effort. It’s not just my play, it’s our play.”