IT’S THURSDAY NOON, four days after Sting’s semi-autobiographical Broadway musical The Last Ship has opened at last. The famous English rock star, now 63, with the body of a 21-year-old, is loping around his Central Park West aerie mostly grinning.
On Sunday morning, Sting tells me, he felt a strange dread he couldn’t shake. For months he’d been spooked by nightmares of Ben Brantley coming in and killing his labor of love. Then it was announced that theater critic Charles Isherwood would be dispatched instead. “I always knew we’d come to that day, and everything would turn to shit,” he says.
Meanwhile, his score has been widely praised. Ticket sales have ticked up consistently since the reviews. Mr. Isherwood writing in The New York Times has called Sting’s soaring melodic Rodgers and Hammerstein influenced music “a seductive score that ranks among the best composed by a rock or pop figure for Broadway.” Rex Reed, right here in the Observer, could not have lavished more praise on the show, which was five years in gestation. USA Today called it “poignant” and “exuberant.”
Still, it’s not easy.
There was relief for some but not for the composer, who is not used to clenching teeth. I’ve waited with him in the wings before huge rock shows—Live 8, Live Earth, Rainforest Foundation—where he’s simply sipped a cup of steeping tea, picked up a guitar and played. Just like yesterday. Not so on opening night of The Last Ship, a romantic musical loosely based on his childhood in Newcastle, northern England, and his elegiac 1991 album The Soul Cages.
“I felt like I put my head in a noose,” he tells me now of the big night. “I’ve had my head in a noose for a while but this was really like tightening. There’s no turning back. Critics would destroy you. But I thought, ‘What I am really risking here? A bit of embarrassment, humiliation?’ But I can deal with that.”
On the day after opening night, Sting slept all day, he says. He and Trudie went to see Birdman that night. “I’m so happy we didn’t see it before the opening,” he says, laughing.
The last time Sting, a natural-born risk taker, was on Broadway was 1989. He starred in John Dexter’s production of The Threepenny Opera as Macheath. Frank Rich didn’t approve. Mr. Rich called him “stiff,” which doesn’t seem possible considering Sting’s nimble athleticism on stage in rock concerts for the 25 years before and after that episode. The show lasted only 65 performances.
To some degree, The Last Ship is about settling a score. Now Sting’s revenge is performing with The Last Ship cast on stage after the show, or, even better, outside on the sidewalk, where they’ve spontaneously serenaded Saturday night crowds with his hits. On opening night he jumped on stage, thanked everyone involved, told an apocryphal story about when the Queen Mum visited Newcastle, and sang the title song with the cast. On Halloween, he tells me later, “The ham in me couldn’t resist taking a bow with the cast as a devil with horns.”
THE ROAD TO The Last Ship began about five years ago, in 2009. Sting was in the middle of a kind of writer’s block that began after his seventh album, Sacred Love, came out in 2003. It had a hit—“Whenever I Say Your Name,” with Mary J. Blige, which also won a Grammy. But Sting was getting bored. You could feel it. He famously took up the lute, learned it more than adequately and made an album based on the 16th century composer John Dowland. There was a reunion tour of The Police which left everyone with no doubt that the group could earn lots of money. But the side effects were too deleterious.
There was also a Christmas album, as well as a tour called “Symphonicities” (in which his hits seemed to adapt organically to symphony orchestra) and a 25-year box set. There were lots of tours, all sold out, around the world, to every corner. But nothing new pop or rock wise.
Some close to him reminded Sting he was a rock star. How about a new rock album? “But I’m not a rock singer,” he replied. “I’m a musician who sometimes plays rock music.” And then The Last Ship came into view. In 2003 he’d published a beautifully written memoir, Broken Music. It detailed his almost Dickensian childhood in Newcastle, the waning capital of shipbuilding, his parents’ brittle marriage, and how jazz saved him.
'I’ve had my head in a noose for a while but this was really like tightening. There’s no turning back. Critics would destroy you. But I thought, ‘What I am really risking here? A bit of embarrassment, humiliation?’ But I can deal with that.'
The Last Ship was a natural extension of the book. Following the idea that you write what you know, Sting imagined Wallsend, his hometown, as the shipyard was being closed down, and the builders rallied to construct one last beautiful tribute to their craft. Sting’s longtime manager Kathy Schenker brought in hot producer Jeffrey Seller. In-demand director Joe Mantello followed, along with Steven Hoggett, the man who’d made Once come alive. Sting himself suggested Jimmy Nail, a Newcastle performer who’s become the authentic heart of The Last Ship.
He says: “I had the shape of this thing. A shipyard town, put out of work, they decide to make their own ship. I knew there had to be a love story. A triangular story. I took [Brian to Newcastle],” said Sting, referring to Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Brian Yorkey. “We filled a pub with denizens of that romantic place—folk singers, poets, writers, people who’d worked in the shipyard. He fell in love with it.” Mr. Yorkey got Sting’s vision. “Where I came from,” says the songwriter, “was this surreal industrial landscape that I always thought was theatrical.”
Gordon Matthew Sumner grew up in the ’50s and ’60s on a street of row houses that led to the sea. And more often than not a huge commercial freighter was being constructed at the end of it. The ships towered over the houses ominously until they were launched. The creative mind that gave us “Roxanne,” “King of Pain” and “Fields of Gold” was really always fixated on this memory.
In The Last Ship, the main character Gideon returns to Wallsend—a Newcastle neighborhood—after 15 years at around 30 years old. He left because of fights with his father over following his life’s path into the yard. Gideon’s mother is only alluded to as having died. Young Gideon also left behind Meg, a pretty girl he said he’d come back for. She’s since moved on with the stable, and likable, Arthur. It’s a simple story that much awarded writer John Logan, who took over for Mr. Yorkey, had to amplify.
Says Mr. Mantello: “Because so much of the project was what Sting knew, and it originated with him, he was heavily invested in what it would become.”
The character of Gideon is not really Sting. The singer has been back to Newcastle many times since becoming famous. He’s put on concerts there. For his 60th birthday he flew in family and friends from New York for the celebration. He remains close to friends who were fellow educators there during his short pre-Police stint as an English teacher. But there are strong father-son parallels. And the mother issue remains. In Broken Music he revealed that as a young lad he discovered his mother was having an affair. It went on for 30 years, with his mother finally divorcing his father and marrying her lover.
“In many ways, Meg is my mom, torn between two men, it’s totally unconscious. It’s just after the fact. But the show is really about fathers and sons,” Sting says. “I don’t think it’s a story that’s unique to me. My whole family is up there.” But, he reminds me, it’s not his exact story. “This isn’t Jersey Boys.”
Meantime, Sting mapped out the story in complete songs. He released an album of them, then performed them at the Public Theater a year ago in 10 shows. A year later, five of the songs are gone, including the one he thought was the single, “Practical Arrangement.” It just didn’t fit anymore. The process was a new one for a songwriter who was used to writing 10 or 12 songs for an album, recording them, and no one questioned him.
“The first thing John Logan said to me was, ‘You’ve got to lose “Practical Arrangement.” I went white,” Sting recalls. He promises the song will turn up somewhere else one day. “If something isn’t used I will repurpose it. Nothing is ever wasted. And PA will find a home,” he assures me.
Mr. Mantello tells me: “He did something that was incredibly difficult to pull off. He retained his own voice and yet he wrote theater songs that moved the story forward.”
Sting made his own practical arrangement when he was young. A gifted student, he won a scholarship to a grammar school—or a private high school—in Newcastle. That changed everything. Prior to that, all he’d seen of the world in Wallsend was “thousands of men going to work every day. I thought that’s what men do.” When he got to the school a world opened up to him. “A lot of the people I went to school with, their fathers were lawyers and doctors. I’d go to their homes and see books and gardens … I wanted the life of the mind. I wanted books and ideas.”
I remind him he described himself in the memoir then as a budding “intellectual snob.”
“I still am!” he laughs.
The opening night tension didn’t come from nowhere. “I’m still naturally anxious. I put on a very brave face but I’m naturally cautious and watchful. My strategy as a child was to imagine every terrible scenario that could happen. So if my parents went out I had to imagine they’d be killed in car crash or a fire. I supposed this was a facet of OCD. I had to imagine all the bad things so they wouldn’t happen. I grew out of that to a certain extent. But it’s there in the structure of my mind.”
He met Trudie after he’d had two children with first wife, the actress Frances Tomelty, around 1980. Ms. Styler and her boyfriend were their next-door neighbors in a basement flat in Bayswater, London. “I went next door to talk to the guy and this creature walked through the door.”
It was a messy transition, chronicled endlessly at the time. But Sting had met his match, intellectually and otherwise. “Yeah … I was married and conflicted … it was palpable … everyone knew we were in love … Pheromones were flying …”
“How did you go back to your place?” I asked.
“Confused,” he answered.
Ms. Styler had had a troubled upbringing that included a disfiguring car accident at age 4.
“She had a tough life,” Sting says quietly.
But like Sting, Ms. Styler rose above it. She also won a scholarship to a grammar school.
“Trudie and I both became estranged from our parents [because of the schools]. They had no idea what we were doing.”
We are interrupted for a moment by Ms. Styler, who pops in to say hello and goodbye on her way to a meeting at the Public Theater. A mother of four, she is a multi-hyphenate: actor-producer-activist. While the Rainforest Foundation still commands her attention (including bi-annual benefit concerts at Carnegie Hall), Ms. Styler produces films through her Maven Pictures. She also acts, most recently at the Culture Project downtown in a well-reviewed version of The Cherry Orchard. She swings through the room like Twiggy on Carnaby Street in a trim gray Celine coat looking maybe 40 instead of 60. She is the ravishing combination of seductive and smart.
“Do I look alright?” she asks, fishing a little for a compliment and half pulling his leg. She has never not looked alright.
Sting replies, “You look absolutely fuckable.” They’ve been together for over 30 years. When she leaves, Sting says, “I’m obsessed with her.”
I ask Sting if he realizes he’s going to be quoted saying his wife looks “fuckable,” and he replies, “Make sure it says very fuckable.”
The Rainforest thing—yes, they’ve raised over $25 million in 25 years, all of which has gone to education and preservation. As a couple they are also known, thanks to their own wry sense of humor, for tantric sex. Ms. Styler has released yoga instruction videos, and the couple has been devout in their study of the Downward Dog. But they’re not as New Age as you might think. For example, they are not vegetarians.
And it’s only recently that Sting has attempted meditation. He’s not very good at it.
“It’s very hard for me to shut my brain down,” he says. “I try and do 20 minutes in the morning, 20 minutes in the afternoon. I did right before you arrived.”
“You seem very calm,” I offer.
“I slept actually,” he admits.
“Do you sleep sitting up with legs crossed?”
He shakes his head. “I fall back, drooling. It’s very endearing, actually.”
Eventually he will move on from The Last Ship. It won’t be for another Police reunion. Neither of his bandmates, Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers, have seen the show. He doubts they will. They are like estranged relatives. “We achieved something wonderful,” he says. “But it’s like a teenage gang. Do you want to be defined by a teenage gang all your life? No. I think it’s hard to develop a singularity in a band.”
He had no trouble leaving in 1983, after “Every Breath You Take” and the album Synchronicity locked them in as all-time classics. When Sting took the stage for his first solo album at The Ritz (now Webster Hall) in 1985, it was clear to this reporter (I was there, in the balcony) this was a Rock Star.
“It seemed very natural to me. I had the momentum from the band. I was incredibly grateful. But I needed to paint with a wider brush. I was a songwriter. I wanted to write songs for different formats. The Police was potent because it had its limitations. Art thrives on limitation. But not forever. It had its moment. And it was combustible. But at some point it became a prison. I was fortunate, and lucky because I had a hit right away. First you get lucky and then you get smart.”
Nowadays, he’s bemused by the various Police knockoffs that have blossomed on the radio. There was Bruno Mars’ “Locked Out of Heaven,” Maroon 5 had “Maps,” and now Nico & Vinz has appropriated The Police’s sound for a Top 10 song called “Am I Wrong.” Is he aware of a Police sound? “People keep telling me that but I’m not aware of it,” he says. Will he do anything about it? “It’s fine … what am I going to do? So what? There’s nothing original under the sun.”
Right now, Elvis has not yet left the building. While director Mr. Mantello has moved on to new projects and everyone else involved, save the cast, is turning to the future, Sting is still at the Neil Simon Theatre on most nights. He used to sit through the show from start to finish. Now he often comes in at the end and greets guests and fans, buoys the actors, and so on. He won’t be able to do it much longer. After the holidays he’ll start a world tour with Paul Simon. But for now, the roar of the audience is his lure.
“I love it,” he tells me on his expansive terrace just above the tree line with a jaw-dropping view of the Park and Fifth Avenue. “Even if the show closed tomorrow, I had a great time.”
At a charity dinner, I run into Disney theatrical mastermind Tom Schumacher. I tell him I have to leave early so I can meet Sting at the Neil Simon. “He’s still there?” Mr. Schumacher asks incredulously. “By now the composer should be gone. He’s got to wean himself away.”
Not everyone agrees. “We will really miss him when he does leave,” Broadway vet Fred Applegate, who plays the ribald local priest, tells me. “I always miss everyone not being around after a show opens,” says Michael Esper, the breakout leading man who plays Gideon. “It means a lot, obviously, that he and Trudie are still around. Having him want to be there is such a huge, huge thing.” Mr. Mantello says: “He’s completely committed to the Broadway life. And if you do it right, you can have a great, great time.”
Sting says: “I’ve had an interesting experience. Being in the audience, hidden, hearing the audience respond to my work is a wonderful thing. To watch them react to certain things … It was not something I’d anticipated. That’s why I go every night. I get a fix even though I’m not in the spotlight.”