Sting’s first musical is already a hit, having been Tony-nominated. A famed musician already, Sting has developed the music and lyrics for the show. I was lucky enough to be given access to an interview with the man himself…
I see this as Fiddler on the Roof with ships
When did The Last Ship project begin?
It goes back seven years, when I seriously started to think of it as a theatrical venture but I’d been writing songs about my town for a long time, since the early 90s, but I didn’t have the courage to take it a step further. Then I met a producer in New York, where I live, and said I have this idea about a musical about my home town. I explained what had happened in Wallsend and he said the best musicals are always about communities under threat. He said, ‘I see this as Fiddler on the Roof with ships’.
How did you find your Geordie voice again to write The Last Ship?
There is a voice in my head and I’m steeped in the folk music of the North-East. It didn’t take much to get back but it was important to go back, like a salmon goes back to the spawning ground. For inspiration you have to say this town, this community, these people made me who I am and I’m grateful for that so there’s a kind of debt to pay especially with my town Wallsend which was mortally wounded by the economic situation. I thought I was ideally placed to tell this story both as a songwriter and someone who was from that community.
How different is writing pop songs to writing a musical?
You have to advance narrative in a musical. Most pop songs are pretty static – I love you, you love me, you left. I love narrative songs anyway, a narrative told over three or four minutes is something I love to achieve. I have done that. The Last Ship is just a longer form of that. But also it’s a very tough medium in that every song, every couplet, every line has to fight for its life and unless it’s advancing the narrative, it’s out. I got used to having my ‘babies’ thrown out the window for the sake of brevity or driving the story forward. I learnt those hard lessons well but I also love it. Writing an original musical is the most challenging, difficult, satisfying, wonderful thing I’ve done, ever.
The Last Ship premiered in the US on Broadway– are you pleased it’s coming home?
It feels great that it’s coming back home. I learnt a great deal on Broadway. The play now is different to what it was on Broadway – it’s more political. It had to be because of where we are. It’s a simpler story, there are less strands in it. We have a great local cast. There’s an authenticity that I think people will relate to. I also feel not just Newcastle but any Northern town will recognise the theme. Your factory closes down, your identity is taken from you along with your esteem as a working man, a working woman. These are serious issues and people will relate to that as a universal theme.
The Last Ship opened at Northern Stage in Newcastle – you actually appeared there early in your career, didn’t you?
It was the theatre where I began my professional musical career. It was called the University Theatre then. It was the very early 70s and I played the bass in the orchestra in the pit for Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat. So my first boss was Andrew Lloyd Webber and now I’ve come back as the gaffer. Quite a turnaround. Andrew saw the show on Broadway and said he really loved it.
How was growing up in Wallsend with a ship at the end of the street?
In hindsight it was a wonderful surreal environment to grow up in as an artist, full of symbolism and dimension and size, but at the time though I just wanted to get the hell out of there. I was terrified because I thought I just didn’t belong here. So I did everything in my power to leave. The irony is to find my creative inspiration I had to go back home and pay a debt back. But it was surreal – at the end of my street growing up was a ship. Now the street is a hole in the ground. Beneath it they found a Roman army camp. So there are lots of layers of history. Of course it’s where the Vikings landed. I took a DNA test and I am 70 per cent Danish apparently. Irish, Scots and Danish going back to the seventh century.
Is there a soundtrack of The Last Ship and what are your recording plans?
There was a cast album in America and I did an album called The Last Ship with Newcastle musicians like Kathryn Tickell. Now I have also made a record with Shaggy. Everyone is surprised by this duo. We’ve made a really interesting, surprising record together. It’s called 44876 and grounded in reggae music which we both obviously have a love for. It’s all about surprise. So I have a lot going on.
All aboard The Last Ship, happening from 25th-30th June at York Theatre Royal. Further information can be found here.