Musicals, Geordies and coming home: Northern Soul meets Sting
It always helps an interview along when you discover a family connection to the global mega-star sitting in front you. Alas, the branches of my ancestral tree aren’t much entangled with Sting’s as far as I’m aware, but the editor of Northern Soul did furnish me with details of her own familial cross-pollination on the day I met the unfeasibly successful, unfeasibly trim singer and songwriter.
“Sting’s dad was my Nana’s milkman,” she told me. Unfortunately, this information was revealed several hours after Sting and I parted company, so his own recollections of those distant pinta-fuelled hijinks can form no further part of this tale.
Instead, this is a story about lost industry and about Sting’s ex-Broadway musical, The Last Ship, and its journey across the Atlantic. Having enjoyed a three-month run at the Neil Simon Theater in New York back in 2014, the show will embark on a UK tour in 2018, setting sail from Newcastle’s Northern Stage in March and calling at venues including Liverpool Playhouse, Leeds Grand Theatre and York Theatre Royal before it drops anchor at The Lowry in Salford in July.
Sting himself needs little introduction, having come a long way in the four decades since his band, The Police, were gigging round the clubs and dives of Britain in the slipstream of punk. There have been Grammy awards, an appearance at Live Aid, and star-studded benefit concerts galore. And let’s not forget the acting career, which has seen him appear in productions as varied as Quadrophenia, a BBC radio production of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (in which he gazed into the face of Vinnie Jones and lived to tell the tale).
The Last Ship, on the other hand, needs a little more introduction, hence its whirlwind press tour with Sting in attendance. Northern Soul went along when the tour made landfall at the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool’s Albert Dock.
So, what is The Last Ship about?
“I was born and raised within spitting distance of a ship yard,” says Sting. “It was a ship yard where they constructed some of the biggest ships ever built. If I looked south down the road from my front door, I could often see a mountain of steel blotting out the sun.”
At the heart of this remembered community is a love story, as Sting explains: “The lead character is called Gideon. He leaves the town, he abandons his community, and goes to sea. He comes back 15 years later to find the woman he’s never managed to forget. She’s called Meg. A lot of the play involves him trying to woo her when she’s having none of it.”
But as with all our lives, economic and political realities shape the world in which we live, laugh and love, and Sting’s own memories of the Wallsend he left – and which later faced economic catastrophe – weld the story to Britain’s wider industrial decline. When Gideon returns, he finds the ages-old ship building community in chaos as the yard faces closure.
“The show is now more political than it was on Broadway,” says Sting. “They wanted more of the love story and less about the crisis of the men. But now we’ve gone to the left politically.”
In his own words, the production team “have had to refit the ship for British waters” although he is clearly proud of the show’s Broadway origins.
“I live in New York, and I had this song cycle I was writing. I took it to a Broadway producer who I just happened to know, and I played him the songs and said, ‘do you think this could be a musical?’ He said, ‘Absolutely it’s a musical. It’s about a community under threat and that always makes for the best drama.’ He said it was Fiddler on the Roof with ships. He said, ‘I’ll get you a professional playwright, you’ll work together, and you’ll build this into a viable thing.’ Normally people in the provinces write plays and think maybe one day they’ll get to Broadway. But we started on Broadway.”
“It’s very important for me to come back here, to Britain, especially to the North of England. I think there’ll be a resonance here that was perhaps missing in New York. When plays resonate, their energy seems to grow. Liverpool has its own ship-building history here and we want to pay homage to that, because the themes are ones you will recognise.”
Although there is no doubt that Sting has established his songwriting credentials over the years, was it a challenge to work within the conventions of musical theatre after a career in pop?
“I think a song for a pop album has a different function to a song in a musical,” he says. “In a musical, your song has to advance the narrative. The scene has to have moved on during those three minutes. It can’t be static otherwise the song has to be thrown out. Whereas a pop song is just, ‘I love you, you love me, you’ve left me, blah blah blah’. Here the story has to move on within the song, and that’s a difficult discipline which I went into with my eyes open. But I like telling narrative songs, I really enjoy that. It’s a dying art really.”
Stylistically, the songs in The Last Ship draw on a range of traditions, with jazz elements nuzzling against folk. The works of musical theatre’s great masters don’t go unpilfered either.
“It’s based a lot on the folk music of Tyneside. There’s a Northumbrian folk tradition and there’s a huge Scots Irish population on Tyneside that’s been there for centuries, so there’s a Celtic tradition of music. So, I’ve used that, it’s very authentic to the region. But I’m also a great lover and respecter of musical theatre. My mother was a piano player and played Rodgers and Hammerstein in the house every day. We could never afford to go to see a play, but I know Carousel back to front, Oklahoma, South Pacific, Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady, West Side Story. These are all part of my musical education as well as rock and roll.
“What I’ve done in this thing is I’ve stolen as many ideas as I can from Richard Rodgers, because we steal from the best. That’s what musicians do. So, it’s a traditional musical in many ways but it’s also unusual in that the orchestra will not be in the pit. The band will be on stage, and people will be singing in the same voices they speak in.”
Although Sting appeared in some performances of the The Last Ship in the US, the UK tour will star the actor and singer Jimmy Nail who reprises his original role.
“Jimmy’s been my dear friend for many years,” says Sting. “We both met in exile as successful Geordies and realised we had a lot in common. His dad was a ship yard foreman. So when I started to write this thing, Jimmy was my muse.
“He’s been a mentor to me throughout the project, a great support to me. He’s difficult, I’ll give you that, but he really is that character and, for me, he is a true Geordie icon, much more than I am. I’m glad he’s been on this journey with me.”
Like Nail, Sting left the North East to pursue bigger dreams, a symbolic turning of the back which felt essential at the time but about which he now feels more ambivalent.
“My grandfather had been a shipwright, my father had built turbines, and I wondered if that would be my destiny too. It was not something I wanted at all. I had bigger dreams.
“But I then realised that having left my town, abandoned the community I was brought up in, I had a debt to pay in many ways. An emotional debt. That was the community that formed me, and like a salmon that needs to go back to its spawning ground I was constantly led back to my home town. Even though you escaped, and you hated the place, eventually you go back and say ‘I’m grateful for this, I’m grateful for these people’. That’s my abiding emotion now and it has been for a number of years. I’m grateful for everything, because I’ve been extremely fortunate.”
I don’t say so, but listening to Sting speak, it seems stranger than ever that The Last Ship originated in America, because the greatest of those benign leviathans were born in the ship yards of the Mersey, the Lagan, the Clyde and, of course, the Tyne. There will be universal themes, no doubt, but the show’s specifics may connect more powerfully in the UK than has previously been the case.
At the very least, it will be fascinating to see the production as it finally berths in the heart of communities who know its story best of all, where everyone can potentially hear its echoes, and where family trees really will intertwine with the characters who appear on stage.
The UK tour of The Last Ship premieres at Newcastle’s Northern Stage (12 March-7 April 2018), with other Northern dates at Liverpool Playhouse (9-14 April), Leeds Grand Theatre (30 April-5 May), York Theatre Royal (25-30 June) and The Lowry, Salford (2-7 July).
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Supported by funding from @HeritageFundUK, Betty’s Back! will explore James’s life and works in the context of the 1920s, when the portrait was painted, and will also reveal artwork by Betty Durden Green for the first time.