Can Sting’s first Broadway musical do for shipbuilding what Billy Elliot did for the coal industry? A new stage show written by the star will tell the story of the decline of the Swan Hunter shipyard during the 80s in the musician’s native Newcastle.
The Last Ship, Sting’s musical theatre debut, is due to open on Broadway next Autumn. The musical play is inspired by The Police frontman’s upbringing in Wallsend, Newcastle, where he used to watch in awe as huge vessels were built and launched from the Swan Hunter shipyard on north bank of the River Tyne.
Like Billy Elliot, successfully adapted for the stage after its cinematic success, Sting’s story is set amid the industrial decline wrought upon the north-east during the Thatcher governments.
The Last Ship follows a group of workers whose shipyard is threatened with closure and decide to build their own ship as a final act of defiance. They turn to Gideon, a young man whose difficult relationship with his father drove him away to sea but who has now returned, to skipper the vessel.
Songs from the musical will be released as an album next month, Sting’s first new record of original material for a decade. Known for his explorations into jazz and classical, Sting incorporates traditional Northumbrian pipes, shanties and reels into a score influenced by Gershwin and Sondheim.
The singer, 61, has gathered local folk musicians, including singing group The Unthanks and smallpipes player Kathryn Tickell for the album, which also features fellow “geordies” Jimmy Nail and Brian Johnson, the AC/DC singer.
Sting, who has been working on the project for three years, co-wrote the musical’s book with Pulitzer prize winning dramatist Brian Yorkey and Skyfall screenwriter John Logan. Joe Mantello (Wicked) has signed up to direct.
The show and the album represent Sting’s most personal work yet. “There was the shipyard at one end of the town and the coal mine at the other,” he told New York magazine. “There wasn’t really much clue about how you would make a living if you didn’t want to join those two industries. I didn’t. Education and music became my escape. And then, in the eighties, everything shut down. I’ve carried survivor’s guilt ever since.”
The idea for the narrative was hatched when Sting read about a group of Polish shipbuilders who planned to occupy their own threatened yard. It is intended as an allegory, rather than a political attack on the Thatcher government. “It’s a crazy idea for a story, really,” Sting said. “A quixotic, even Homeric idea.”
Sting said he wanted the songs “to reflect the traditional music of the north-east of England where I grew up, as well as tipping my hat to the great music of the theatrical tradition – Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Brecht and Weill.”
Working on a musical inspired by his childhood helped the musician, who has won 16 Grammys and sold 100 million albums, overcome a severe case of writer’s block. He recalled “a massive ship at the end of my street, towering over the houses and blotting out the sun. I watched many ships being launched, and there is something terrifying, apocalyptic and haunting about the event that never leaves you.”
Billy Elliot The Musical, set in County Durham during the 1984-5 miners’ strike and which featured songs by Sir Elton John, is still running on Broadway.
But rock stars have not always made a successful transition to the Broadway stage. Paul Simon’s 1998 musical The Capeman, based on the life of a Puerto Rican gang member, opened to negative reviews and closed after just 68 performances.
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