Sting’s debut musical The Last Ship is coming to Yorkshire starring Jimmy Nail. As tickets go on sale, Catherine Scott meets the megastar who is going back to his roots.
This is the second incarnation of The Last Ship, which premiered in the summer of 2014 in Chicago, before moving to Broadway starring Jimmy Nail, but it lasted just five months.
“It wasn’t a flop,” he says defensively. “I made the musical I wanted to make. We played in New York, Chicago and Salt Lake City and just last week I was in Finland.”
Sting was approached in 2010 by a Broadway producer and asked to make a musical. “There was no way I was going to make a rock opera or a Disney style fairytale. I made the musical I had always wanted to write. I wanted to do something that was different.
“We received a Tony Award. We did it and I feel immensely proud of that. Most musicals don’t make their money back.”
We are sitting in a dressing room at Northern Stage at the Sage in Gateshead just across the water from where the first seeds of The Last Ship were sewn.
“I wanted to make sure that what I was doing had the support of the local shipyard workers it was about,” says Sting. “And so I invited them to some of the workshops at the very beginning of this process seven years ago to ask their permission.”
Approval of the community where he grew up and decided to leave is very important to the megastar who has sold millions of records as frontman of the rock trio The Police with Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers, formed in 1977, and then as a solo artist. Despite having sold 100 million albums and with houses across the world, the 66-year-old says he is drawn back to his roots.
“I was born next to the shipyard and I would see the men going to work every day as I went to school. It was a frightening place, but it was part of my life. I wanted something different and I had to leave to achieve it. But at some point it was important to go back to where I came from, the community I rejected and realise that I owed them a debt of gratitude.
“It’s important to bring it (The Last Ship) back here to its roots.”
Although Gordon Sumner (Sting’s real name) always wanted to be a musician, his day job was that of a teacher. But his life started to change when a member of the band he was playing in at the time, The Phoenix Jazzmen, decided to rename him Sting because of the black and yellow sweater he used to wear.
Then a chance meeting in Newcastle with drummer Stewart Copeland gave him the break he needed and within months Sting had given up his teaching job, moved to London and left the shipyards behind.
The Police were formed with bass guitarist Henry Padovani, who was later replaced by Summers, and went on to have hit after hit around the globe. The trio went their separate ways in 1986 only to surprise many people by reforming in 2007.
After The Police split, Sting’s success did not diminish as a solo performer with album after album confirming his place as one of the best living songwriters.
It’s that same talent which is in evidence again in The Last Ship and while as a stage production it may have been in existence for seven years, for Sting it goes back much further.
The death of both parents in close succession had a profound effect on Sting and led, in 1991, to the introspective album The Soul Cages, which is clearly evident even in just the brief glimpse we saw in rehearsal.
“I always felt that it (The Soul Cages) was quite theatrical,” he says. “Then about eight years ago I saw an article about Polish shipyard workers in Gdansk. The closure of the shipyard had devastated the community, but they had got together to build their own ship.
“I thought if I can include that story to the story of my own and create an allegory than I would be happy. And I have to say the last seven years have been the best of my life.”
The Last Ship centres around Gideon Fletcher who returns home after 17 years at sea. Tensions between the past and the future flare in both his family and his town. The local shipyard is closing and no one knows what will come next, only that a half-built ship towers over the terraces.
Directed by Lorne Campbell, the artistic director of Northern Stage, The Last Ship also stars Jimmy Nail. The Newcastle-born actor and singer came out of retirement to be part of the project seven years ago, although it had never been his intention to be in it.
“When I was 55 I’d had enough and so decided to retire,” says the 63-year-old Auf Wiedersehen, Pet star.
“Then I got a call from Sting, who I have known for more than 30 years since we both played in bands around Newcastle. He said he’d had an idea about a musical and would I go along and work with some of the songs.
“Against my better judgement I went along for a couple of days and I ended up being there for months. It was such a fantastic piece of work. Lyrically it was extraordinary, but I had no interest in being involved in the performance side of things.
“However, then it got to the point where it as clear I was going to play the part. I was never formally asked, it just evolved really.
“I’m like the barnacle on the bottom of the ship; I’ve been with it so long and am the eldest member of the cast,” adds Nail, who worked in the Tyneside shipyard before finding fame on television and as a singer.
Despite his experience, he admits he isn’t that used to theatre and finds it a pretty intense process. Full rehearsals will start in January and Nail knows what’s at stake. When when ticket sales started to dwindle in America, Sting stepped in and replaced his leading man.
“I’m not sure he has ever forgiven me,” says Sting, although given Nail has once again come out of retirement to take on the role of foreman Jackie he appears to have drawn a line under the US production. The pair were even spotted in the stands at St James’s Park watching their team Newcastle United play recently.
The reincarnation of The Last Ship, which premiere’s at Northern Stage on March 12 next year, will be a very different beast from the one seen by the Americans.
“It is more political,” says Campbell. “It is also a collaborative process. Sting listens to everyone involved. We are all so immersed in it and we just want to create something beautiful and meaningful.”
Sting, a father of six, says he will be very hands-on during the rehearsal and performance process, although this self-confessed workaholic has plenty of other things on.
“For me,” he adds, “it is all about having fun.”
Sting’s last ship sets sail
It premieres at Northern Stage, Gateshead, on Monday, March 12 where it will stay for four weeks before going on a national tour until Saturday July 7.
The Last Ship will be at Leeds Grand Theatre from Monday, April 30 to Saturday, May 5, For tickets call the box office on 0844 8482700 or visit the website at leedsgrandtheatre.com
It will be at York Theatre Royal from Monday, June 25 to Saturday, June 30.
For tickets call the box office on 01904 623568 or visit the website at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk
For more on Sting visit www.sting.com.