Sting would be glad to live in a world ruled by women. He says there are few trials women aren’t strong enough to endure, and few troubles they can’t summon the will to fix.
That’s why when faced with retooling his first Broadway musical, “The Last Ship,” Sting chose to make women the backbone of the new book.
“My avatar is now a girl who wants to be a musician and escape,” the singer says while sitting in his dressing room backstage at the Ahmanson Theatre, where this musical — inspired by Sting’s childhood, spent in the shadow of a northeastern England shipyard — opens Wednesday and begins the show’s first national tour.
Only a handful of stars go by one name, and Sting is in full possession of the confidence to make the move. Self-assured, relaxed, his head cocked slightly to the side, his voice gently hoarse from a winter cold, the former Police frontman and later solo star displays no anxiety over whether audiences will like his reimagined musical.
“The Last Ship” faced unexpected challenges when it opened to mixed reviews on Broadway in 2014. The story, about the struggles of a blue-collar town during the painful decline of the shipbuilding industry, did not originally feature Sting in the cast. His score was roundly praised (he received a Tony nomination for it), but the book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey was criticized for being unfocused and having an overly busy plot.
Producers persuaded Sting to join the cast, and ticket sales picked up, but not enough to prevent the musical’s closure after four months.
The postmortem discussions included whether American audiences were capable of appreciating a comparatively dark musical about an industry they have little familiarity with; why it was so difficult to create a successful original musical on Broadway; and if the show should have been marketed differently. In the end, Sting, who had devoted himself to the musical’s creation since 2011, was not interested in giving up.
“There’s no point in falling off the bottom rung of any ladder. You might as well go for your dream,” he says. “You do it and you learn from it. … I have no regrets about it.”
No regrets, but plenty of thoughts about how to rebuild. As a songwriter, Sting says his work is never finished. For that reason it was perfectly natural to keep going after Broadway. He brought in a Newcastle-based director, Lorne Campbell, to write a new book, and he penned a few songs and tweaked others to mesh with the new script.
Campbell recalls how surreal it was to meet Sting for the first time at his Tuscan villa. The singer took out his guitar and played the score from top to bottom, and Campbell knew that in order to rewrite the book, he needed to steep himself in the complex, heartrending stories that those songs laid out.
“I read the original book, but as far as possible I was trying to regrow the thing from the music rather than from the existing script,” Campbell says. “We started from the ground up.”
A key character has been eliminated, and a new female-first story line has emerged based on Sting’s thoughts that men are at their best when they embrace the female aspects of their personalities, rather than being guided by macho impulses.
The new “Last Ship” that toured Ireland and Britain in 2018 and played in Toronto in 2019 is a vastly different production, one that Campbell and Sting say is more tightly focused and pointedly political than the original iteration.
It is also a visual feast. During a recent tech rehearsal at the Ahamanson, Sting sat in the wings of the stage watching a series of stunning projections transform the space from a brick tenement building bristling with filthy chimneys to an abandoned shipyard capped by drifting gray clouds that part for a lonesome lighthouse in the distance.
This winsome landscape is dominated by women like the ones Sting grew up with and Campbell came to know while living and working in post-industrial Newcastle.
“These communities are held together and driven by their women,” Campbell says.
Frances McNamee plays Meg, the mother of Ellen (Sting’s avatar) and the former lover of the show’s male protagonist, Gideon. The moment opportunity arises, Gideon leaves the town, and Meg, in his rearview mirror.
McNamee, who was raised 20 minutes outside of Newcastle, says Meg possesses a dignity, grace and ferocity that she admires.
“A lot of the women in this show are like that,” she says. “They’re tough because they have to be. And growing up in this part of the world, I’ve been raised by a lot of women like that. They’ll do anything for you, but cross them at your peril. I think we do them justice in this show.”
Much has been said of the musical’s inherent melancholy, of the broken hearts, bodies and minds left in the wreckage of a once-thriving industry. The themes might resonate with modern workers who feel like they are drowning in the rising waters of a digital world. But Sting wants to add another message: This is also a joyful and soaring production.
“The Last Ship,” he says, is about the triumph of community over the indifference of corporate domination. It is about the strength of the human heart and the transcendence wrought by art, music, books and education.
The score speaks to that with bittersweet songs that are lyrically direct and musically diffuse, drawing from influences including Celtic, Irish, Scottish and Northumbrian folk music, and the Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals that Sting grew up listening to at the behest of his mother when he was a child.
“We never saw a show, but we had the records and I ate them up,” Sting says, recalling a difficult childhood marked by an intense longing to escape the stifling town and the shipbuilder life.
His mother was 18 when she had him, and he says she and his father had little idea how to raise him. He found relief in music and literature, both of which helped him to secure final passage away from the path he was expected to follow. His father died young, but not before he glimpsed the success that would make Sting one of the world’s biggest rock stars.
“He didn’t quite understand it,” Sting says of his father. “I couldn’t really articulate why I wanted this bigger life. My father wanted me to have a technical education. He’d been an engineer and he wanted me to do something he understood.”
The complex dynamic between father and son is explored in “The Last Ship,” but Sting is careful to point out that the show is not a straight autobiography. Allusions to him and his life are veiled in metaphors. His role is that of the shipyard foreman, and in it he is content to be a member of the ensemble, rather than the star of the show.
“We have to start talking less and listening more, all of us, particularly men,” he says, laughing at himself for continuing to talk.
He pauses, nods his head for a moment, and smiles with closed lips.
“I’m gonna shut up now.”
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays; through Feb. 16
Tickets: $35-$199 (subject to change)
Info: (213) 972-0711, www.centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (including one intermission)
Please support our coverage of local theater. Become a digital subscriber.