ON THE RECORD: A Surprising Trip on Sting's Last Ship

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: A Surprising Trip on Sting's Last Ship
 
This week we listen to the cast recording of Sting's short-lived Broadway musical The Last Ship.
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The Last Ship [Universal Music Classics]
I set aside the original cast album of Sting's The Last Ship when it turned up in December. What purpose, thought I, of kicking yet more negatively critical sand in the face of an enterprise that was already foundering, like the Costa Concordia off the coast of Tuscany, en route to inevitable sinking and total loss? The producers were still bravely trying to hold on, the dedicated cast was working their collective hearts out eight shows a week, why would I send another jab in their defenseless direction?

And so it wasn't until the morning following the last performance of The Last Ship that I at last put on the recording. My reaction, upon the first hearing, was: well, these songs sure sound better than they did when I saw the show at a final preview. On second hearing, I thought: actually, many of these songs are quite good. On third hearing, I transferred the album to my iPhone.

This leaves me wondering: Are the songs really that good? Yes, I think so. Sting has written a score filled with moody, introspective, theatrical songs which illustrate the desires and emotions of his characters — which is what we look for in musical theatre, isn't it? Rich, varied, and usually interesting ways of expressing character and motivation in songs. There are 17 selections on the cast album from Universal, not including reprises, and by that third hearing I was surprised that just about every single one held my interest.

Rachel Tucker and Michael Esper
Rachel Tucker and Michael Esper Photo by Joan Marcus

But not in the theatre. Sitting in the Neil Simon, I — and, apparently, much of the audience — was quickly lulled into disinterest. The show started out on its worst foot, if you will. The story was a combination of familiar plots. The rebellious young hero, refusing to stay in his waterfront town, runs off to sea; by so doing, he alienates his father and deserts his girlfriend, who is (of course) pregnant, although he is (of course) until now unaware of said offspring. This makes the show feel like something of a British equivalent of Marcel Pagnol's "Marius" trilogy and the American musical version, Fanny. The show is set against a dying shipyard, struggling under the same Thatcher-era malaise that we've seen again and again on stage and screen. Shipyard, coal mine, shoe factory; it's all the same. Should the poor, neglected workers fight to try to salvage the way of life that sustained their fathers and grandfathers? Or should they give in and let go, facing the inevitable — at least in musicals situated in Thatcher-era England? Unfortunately for Sting and his cohorts, the Broadway production of The Last Ship began in a manner so gray and ponderous that many playgoers never seemed to catch a spark. If you don't grab your audience in the first 15 or 20 minutes, it can be mighty difficult to recover — especially when you keep piling on more of the same. I don't recall at what point in the proceedings I more or less gave up on The Last Ship. I do recall, though, that none of the songs — which I now realize to be quite good — got through to me on that night in October.

Based on one viewing — I had no interest in returning — I can't say just what the problem with The Last Ship was. he cast even then seemed quite good, as demonstrated on the recording. All seven of the featured players stand out, namely Michael Esper, Rachel Tucker, Jimmy Nail, Aaron Lazar, Sally Ann Triplett, Collin Kelly-Sordelet and Fred Applegate. Sting sings a bonus track, reprising one of the strongest songs, "What Say You, Meg?" The recording also reveals the suitable and sensitive orchestrations and arrangements by Rob Mathes, who also served as musical director.

The company
The company Photo by Joan Marcus

The book, even then, seemed to be the weakest link in the evening. But the staging by director Joe Mantello and choreographer Steven Hoggett was effective, with an impressive physical production from set/costume designer David Zinn and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind. Effective and impressive, yes; but perhaps the wrong staging and design for this particular show.

Would The Last Ship have worked better in a smaller, friendlier production without all that darkness and those strong-voiced shipyard workers blanketing us in malaise? It's hard to know, although I suppose it's only a matter of time before some enterprising director somewhere or other does a chamber version of the show. I expect that many cast album listeners — those who didn't have the opportunity to see the production at the Simon — will be eager to see such a production. Me, too. I've just learned that most of the original cast will reunite on March 2 at 54 Below to perform the songs. After discovering The Last Ship original cast recording, I think this might turn out to be a very special evening.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations"; "Second Act Trouble," the "Opening Night on Broadway" books, and "The Book of Mormon: The Testament of a Broadway Musical." He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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