It was announced last week that Sting’s Broadway musical The Last Ship will close early, three months after it opened on Broadway. I now feel all the more fortunate that I was able to see it, with Sting himself in a starring role, no less!
Sting fans will know that the rock icon was born in the shipbuilding town of Wallsend, and that he has explored his Northern roots musically. First there was Soul Cages (1991), a poetic and sorrowful album set in a Northern shipbuilding community, which Sting wrote to help him deal with his father’s death. Then came the concept album The Last Ship (2013) which, although it followed more than twenty years later, shares a setting and themes with Soul Cages and feels in many ways like its sequel.
And from this concept album now emerges a fully-fledged original musical that plays tribute to the shipbuilders of Northern England and deals with fraught relationships between fathers and sons. The Last Ship is part parable and part gritty realism, a melancholy musical with a dark colour pallet.
The vaguely autobiographical plot centres on prodigal son Sting Gideon, who is returning to his hometown of Wallsend after a fifteen-year absence. Gideon (Michael Esper) refused to become a shipbuilder like his father and left home to become a rock star sailor. Returning just too late to attend his father’s funeral, he tries to find his place in the community, and more specifically where he stands with Meg (Rachel Tucker), the teenage girlfriend he left behind. The wise and spirited Meg is now with the safe and steady Arthur (Aaron Lazar), and so the show presents a love triangle. Who will she choose?
Gideon arrives just as the shipyard is closing and we are asked to consider the fate of men who have been deprived of the dignity of work. The gang of testosterone-fuelled shipbuilders are led by their foreman, the tough and salty Jackie White. The role was originated by Jimmy Nail (of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet fame), but in the performance I saw was portrayed by Sting, in an ultimately doomed last-ditch effort to boost ticket sales. Local priest Father O’Brian (Fred Applegate) encourages the men to build one final ship which they themselves will sail; this mission will once more endow them with a sense of purpose and pride.
What makes this show a joy is Sting’s evocative, English folk-inspired music. Let it be known that The Last Ship is not one of those contemporary musicals with only one or two good songs; from moving love songs to rousing sea shanties, every number is breathtaking. Though I was already a fan of most of the songs through listening to the concept album, I was stuck by how wonderfully they transferred to musical theatre style. Since seeing the show, the cast recording has been playing almost non-stop in our house.
The performances are also terrific. Rachel Tucker, as Meg, was a standout. Sting, unsurprisingly, sings phenomenally, though as an actor, he lacks stage presence. As thrilling as it was to see Sting, part of me wishes we’d seen the originally-cast Jimmy Nail, who sounds incredibly charismatic on the cast recording.
Unfortunately, the script, by John Logan and Brian Yorkey, lets the show down. For a start, it’s cliché ridden. There is a salt-of-the earth matron, a women’s number dedicated to the fecklessness of men, even a character on his deathbed with cancer with final wisdom to share. I also struggled with the strange mix of parable and realism. Clearly, the ‘last ship’ the men are building symbolizes salvation. Yet the show is set in a real community whose men are out of work. I was left wondering whether they’d look for jobs when they got back to shore. Another problem is that the character of Gideon lacks depth. Even after fifteen years of sailing, he seems so immature and angry that it’s hard to see him as a viable suitor to Meg.
Still, the beautiful score makes it all worthwhile, and I think the show deserves more success than it has had. Here’s hoping it comes to the West End with a script rewrite.