TORONTO – Drawing Canadian theatregoers to a politically charged musical about an English shipbuilding town won’t be easy — but Sting hopes audiences give his play “The Last Ship” a chance.
The production opens at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre in February with the “Fields of Gold” singer playing one of the characters. He also wrote the music and lyrics based on his own experiences growing up around the shipyards.
While it’s been described as rousing by some critics, Sting recognizes that a play steeped in the economic politics of the working class might not be considered a typical fun night at the theatre.
“It is a tough sell, but I knew that going in,” the 66-year-old singer says on a phone call from Germany while on tour with Shaggy.
“I didn’t want to do something frivolous.”
Lightweight musicals are a sticking point for the former leader of the Police who appears disillusioned by the recent spate of Hollywood films turned Broadway productions.
“Musicals aren’t usually about anything that’s important,” he says.
“They’re usually a fairy tale or something that somebody’s already seen in a movie. Beverly Hills Cop: The Musical, or whatever, but this is a real story about real people. It’s an unusual musical, but it’s exactly what I want to make.”
“The Last Ship” was inspired by Sting’s 1991 album “The Soul Cages,” a fictionalized retelling of his experiences growing up in a shipbuilding town.
“I was born and raised within spitting distance of the shipyard we’re portraying,” he said of the play.
“As a kid I would think, ‘Is that my destiny? Because there’s not much else in the town in the way of work.’ And of course I was terrified of that prospect. It was a dark, dangerous and noisy place. I had dreams, I wanted to be a musician, a songwriter. I was a dreamer.”
After taking up music and pursuing a university education, Sting left his working-class upbringing, though he says he never forgot his roots.
“I realized that I’d been gifted a story, as a songwriter,” he says.
“I knew what life in the shipyard was like… I needed to pay a debt, so this is my attempt.”
Sting argues in many ways “The Last Ship,” which made its debut in Chicago four years ago, is more potent than it’s ever been, layered with thematic elements about a community under siege by economic policies introduced by Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s prime minister from 1979 to 1990.
“What they took out was the value of community,” he said of the Thatcher era. “They were constantly looking at the bottom line.”
“The Last Ship” had a troubled run on Broadway where the singer joined the cast shortly before it closed as an effort to drum up ticket sales. Sting says the production has been rejigged in some respects, emphasizing a left-wing perspective that doesn’t mince words on “the damage that Thatcher’s policies did to… working people.”
He found the play struck the emotional core of some audience members when he brought it back to his hometown earlier this year.
“There were grown men weeping in the darkness,” he says. “Which is lovely.”
“The Last Ship” replaces “Girl From The North Country,” which is being postponed by Mirvish until the 2018/2019 season due to “scheduling conflicts with the show’s author and director.”
Sting says bringing his original concept to the stage has been a standout experience.
“The whole process I’ve enjoyed probably more than anything in my entire career,” he says.
“It’s absorbing, it’s difficult, it’s problem-solving on a daily basis. It’s a puzzle and you never quite get to the end of it.”
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