His second musical may have had only 105 performances on Broadway — barely enough time for it to get going much less recoup its producers’ investment. But for superstar singer, songwriter, actor and composer Sting, “The Last Ship” tells too meaningful and resonant a story for it not to have a thrilling post-Broadway life, including next spring at the Ordway Center.
The Grammy-winning superstar will headline a select “Last Ship” tour on the road. He charmed folks with his wit and charisma Sunday as he previewed songs from the show in an intimate 40-minute set in St. Paul for 150 people — mostly natty Ordway high rollers and some shabby members of the press.
Based on his hometown of Wallsend, “The Last Ship” tells of the shuttering of a shipyard that was the lifeline of a small town.
“It’s a metaphor for the end” of things, he said in a post-performance interview. “I wrote the first songs after the death of my father. The closing of the shipyard seemed to be a suitable metaphor for that closure, if you like. It is an elegy.”
Sting wrote character songs from the perspective of the workers he knew in his hometown — songs about work, life and love. And he added new lyrics to the passel of songs that he performed from the show. But don’t call it a revision.
“I hear a lot of people in theater say the play is locked, [but] in my world, nothing’s locked,” Sting said. “It’s constantly evolving. … I find something new in them every night — something incremental that maybe the audience didn’t hear at all. I do. And so it’s a living, breathing organism.”
In fact, Sting was in a mode to redefine things. After its Broadway run, “Last Ship” was nominated for a couple of Tonys, including best score, but he doesn’t think of it as a musical.
“ ‘Musical’ for me has a kind of frivolous attitude,” he said. “And this is a serious play, even though it’s fun. There’s a lot of laughs in it, but it’s a very serious subject. And I think there’s room for that in the theater. So, I say it’s a play with songs.”
Ask Sting a question, and he tells you a story. It seems like he and theater should be a fit, but he never intended to perform in the show.
When it started losing audience on Broadway, the producers approached him.
“‘You’ve gotta go in the play,’” he recalled them saying.
“I said, ‘Well, who am I going to play?’ ‘Well, you take Jimmy’s part.’ Jimmy [Nail] was the person I wrote this part for, my friend. I said, ‘I can’t throw Jimmy under the bus for the play.’ He says, ‘Broadway, kid, you gotta do it.’ I said, ‘You tell, Jimmy.’ And Jimmy’s 6-foot-5. Jimmy agreed. He said, ‘OK, I get it. It will keep everybody in work for a little while longer. I’ll be your understudy, and I will give you notes every night,’ which he did.”
Confluence of grief
“Last Ship” emerged out of a confluence of personal and communal grief, Sting explained. His parents both died in 1989. A year later, he started to write about the closing of the shipyard that was the main economic engine of Wallsend.
“I was writing an elegy for them, and it just coincided with the closure of the shipyard,” he said. “That was a metaphor.”
Musical theater is not entirely new to Sting, born Gordon Sumner. He wrote music for “Rock ’N Roll! The First 5,000 Years,” which had nine performances in 1982. He acted in “Threepenny Opera” in fall 1989. And in his pop songs, he sometimes tells quick stories. The album “The Soul Cages” has theatrical inflections.
Still, the idea for “Last Ship” was something different. He was going to tell the stories of a community in distress. That’s how it sounded to an unnamed Broadway producer that he mentioned it to, he recalled.
“And he said, ‘Oh, that sounds great,’ ” Sting recalled, saying that the producer added that ‘The best musicals always happen when a community is under stress. ... This is “Fiddler on the Roof” with ships!’ OK, I wish.”
The musical is part of a career of pushing beyond small-town expectations, Sting said. In a concert interlude, he shared a story about the Queen Mother, who visited Wallsend when he was 8 or 9. At the time, he, like all the boys in the town, was expected to grow up to have a career at the shipyard.
But then the Queen Mother came to town with all her pomp and pageantry and her big chauffeured limo. She was stately in her car. Sting was outside of it, waving his flag with all the other children when the Queen Mother made eye contact with him. She could have looked at him only for a second or two, but for Sting, the moment was momentous.
“It seemed like an eternity,” he said dramatically. “I had never been seen before.”
That gave him dreams. He wanted to be the one in that car, to be rich and powerful and famous.
As he held his audience rapt at the Ordway on Sunday, there was a big SUV limo idling outside the stage door ready to whisk him to the airport. Now a sophisticated Englishman, Sting himself was cutting quite the stately figure.