Sting sails to Manchester on The Last Ship

Credit: Nathan Cox

Sting Credit: Nathan Cox - Credit: Archant

Sting’s musical The Last Ship arrives at The Lowry next month as part of its first UK tour. Kate Houghton asked him how it all came about.

The cast of The Last Ship
Credit: Pamela Raith

The cast of The Last Ship Credit: Pamela Raith - Credit: Archant

I was born and raised on Tyneside, literally in the shadow of a ship yard,’ he says. ‘If I turned left out of my front door I would see a giant ship blocking out the sun and I watched thousands of men walking down the hill to the shipyard every morning and watched those same men walk back home at night. One of my biggest fears was that I would end up there. I had other dreams; I dreamt that I would be a writer of songs, a singer of songs, I would travel the world, make extravagant amounts of money and win lots of awards – I must have dreamt that very hard because it actually came true!’

The musical is clearly informed by his own experience of growing up with an expectation that he would follow in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps, and the conflict that resulted from his defiance and decision to pursue his own dreams.

‘It was many years later than I realised that I owed a debt to the community I was brought up in - the shipyard workers who in the 80’s were all made redundant, whole generations of skillsets thrown on the scrapheap. My feelings are that economics don’t exist without community, that community should come first, so the serious core of this play is about community - the importance and the dignity of work - and asks the question: what happens to communities when you take work away from them?’

The musical was actually written and launched in New York, in 2014, which seems an odd place to try to tell such a very British story.

‘My album Soul Cages was the seed of where I started thinking about this story, but I couldn’t really figure it out till about eight years ago, when I decided to take the plunge. I wrote a cycle of songs based on this subject then I took it to a Broadway producer and said “do you think this could be a musical?” and he said “Perfect, this is like Fiddler on the Roof with ships!” I was living in New York and a Broadway producer said “yes, we’ll do it” - and you don’t say no to that!’

The production received two Tony Award nominations in 2015, but didn’t really gain traction with the audiences.

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‘New Yorkers got it,’ Sting says, ‘but the Broadway market is essentially a tourist market and a story about north of England shipyard workers doesn’t exactly draw the people in. I’ve re-fitted it for British waters, because I thought it was important to come back to England where the subject matter takes place.

‘I think that eventually in our lives, like a salmon, you find yourself swimming back to the river that spawned you - I think to make amends, if you like, to try and understand what it is that you rejected, why you rejected what formed you. So for many reasons I think this is a journey that I had to make. There’s a certain survivor’s guilt, there’s a sense of “what if I hadn’t made those decisions, what would my life be like?”

‘I think this is a very surprising musical; it’s not what you expect. When a rock star writes a musical you expect a rock musical; this is not a rock musical. It’s authentic, it’s got a lot of elements of the folk music that is very typical of the region. People react almost invariably emotionally; I have seen a lot of people crying, it’s a serious play, not an evening’s light entertainment.’

The Last Ship plays at The Lowry from 2 – 7 July

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