One night at the Public Theater last September, Sting arrived onstage to perform some songs he had written for the upcoming musical The Last Ship. As the applause died down, an overenthusiastic, possibly soused fan in the audience yelled out, “You rock!”
“I did,” Sting instantly rejoined. “I did rock.”
But the implicit shush wasn’t enough, and as the dark, contemplative numbers rolled out — song after song about the hardscrabble lives of unemployed shipbuilders in northeast England — the man kept hooting and shouting as if each were “Roxanne.” “We’re in a theater now,” Sting warned gently. “Different rules.”
The man was ejected at intermission, but Sting sailed on; a year later, his musical has arrived on Broadway with the basic issue he raised at the Public still in the air. What rules apply? Writing for an arena tour and writing for the stage are, after all, as different as the behavior expected from their audiences, and that’s not the only set of contrasts Sting and his collaborators, in their ambition, have sought to negotiate. Can a song cycle be theatrical? Can a vast epic and an intimate drama coexist? Unfortunately, though The Last Ship is a serious and thoughtful work, with much that’s beautiful in the telling, it fails to resolve these questions, and is thus left generally becalmed.
It’s hard not to want to like it, though. Most of the pop songwriters who have tried writing musicals have sensibly gone with pop stories, bright or lurid as the case may be, from Kinky Boots to Spider-Man. Sting set out to tell a grittier and more realistic tale, about the kind of people he grew up among in the failing industrial town of Wallsend. As further developed with the book writers John Logan and Brian Yorkey, and the director Joe Mantello, the idea grew both larger and smaller. Larger in that the local unrest brought on by the closing of the shipyard becomes the springboard for an allegory about the dignity of all human labor. Spurred by the local foul-mouthed priest, the men take over the facility in a kind of Occupy Wallsend and build a ship for themselves. This stab at Homeric grandeur is thrilling at first, and like most of the musical is staged gorgeously, as Mantello marshals all the opportunities offered by David Zinn’s sets, Christopher Akerlind’s lights, and Stephen Hoggett’s choreography to create an overwhelming sense of the disparities of scale that occur when little men make something very big.
The revolution quickly grows confusing, though: Is the daft project for real or a metaphor? If real, many details are unconvincing or lacking, and if a metaphor, it sits uncomfortably in its context. For the rest of the action concerns itself with something very kitchen-sink: a prodigal son of the town, named Gideon, returning to face the memory of his disapproving father and the legacy of his 15-year disappearance. This part of the musical is terribly generic; stories about English boys betraying their working-class fathers (see also Billy Elliot) were already sufficiently clichéd by 1969 to produce the classic Monty Python spoof “Northern Playwright.” (“There’s now’t wrong with gala luncheons, lad!”) If that weren’t enough, there’s also a love triangle, though a plot device this lame barely deserves the geometric compliment. For who would believe that the barely likable Gideon would now prove lovable to Meg, the woman he abandoned, or that she would drop her handsome, thoughtful boyfriend, Arthur, who has helped raise her teenage son, the minute the salty reprobate shows up at the local pub?
Of course, Gideon’s love for Meg redeems him somehow; disdainful of the shipyard and its denizens upon arrival, he goes from saying “They’re not my people” to saying “These here are my people” in six pages of script. The obscurity of motivation is a pervasive book problem: The characters’ transformations are not developed, just referred to post facto. But it’s also a score problem because, in musicals, songs are supposed to show us how people get themselves from A to B. As it turns out, it’s actually surpassingly difficult to musicalize such things. Sting’s songs (most new, but a few borrowed from earlier albums) are lovely, somewhat varied within a small palette, and always enjoyable to listen to. They are more theatrical than you might expect from a composer whose strongest effects are generally hypnotic and circular. We get vivid call-and-response barnburners (“We’ve Got Now’t Else”) and dramatic anthems like the title number, and even a conventional six-eight love song for Arthur (“What Say You, Meg?”), with a key change at the second verse and a classic Rodgers passing tone in the melody. It’s beautifully sung and acted by Aaron Lazar.
The problem with the songs is the lyrics, which almost all feature a generic point of view and “poetic” language that arises not from the characters but, in the pop style, from the songwriter’s conversation with himself. Especially in the lifted numbers, like “All This Time,” they describe action when what you want is the action itself:
All this time the river flowed
In the falling light of a northern sun
Well I had my way, I took a boat from the river
Cos men go crazy in congregations
They only get better one by one.
Characters thus become their own narrators; everyone is living in the past tense. This is fine in ensemble numbers, which are vigorous, in a stompy sort of way, but unsatisfying dramatically in solos, particularly the big numbers that are meant to mark decisive moments. Everything from the lighting to the musical arrangement to the actors’ tension tells you they are meaningful — everything except the words. There is nothing the talented Michael Esper can do to make Gideon’s eleven o’clock number (“Ghost Story”) play as drama; it’s entirely retrospective. (It’s as if “Defying Gravity” were called “I Recently Defied Gravity.”) The result, with one big exception, is that the principals’ performances fall into a kind of gooey pit from which little very interesting, or even comprehensible, emerges.
The exception is more remarkable for being completely unlikely. In précis, The Last Ship is a very manly tale and is cast and staged as such. No pretty boys here. It would completely fail the Bechdel test: The women have nothing on their minds except the menfolk. But because the allegorical superstructure basically collapses, and because both Gideon and Arthur are little more than talking points, The Last Ship surprisingly turns out to be a woman’s story, and the Belfast-born* actress Rachel Tucker (a West End Elphaba) can sell it as such. Even though she must sustain the flimsy premise of her choice for what feels like years, she maintains credible doubt by sheer force of will and ingenuity. She’s excellent.
All that said, Sting’s first Broadway score is more promising than most pop songwriters’ legit-theater debuts, even those that may turn out to be more commercially successful. And I hope he writes more for the stage. On the other hand, he shouldn’t feel Broadway is some sort of esthetic Everest he must climb because it’s there. Is not a pop pearl like “Roxanne” enough? As the angry young coal miner in that Monty Python sketch told his toff playwright dad, “One day you’ll learn there’s more to life than culture.”
The Last Ship is at the Neil Simon Theatre.
*This post has been corrected. Tucker is from Northern Ireland.