No sooner had The Last Ship officially dropped anchor at the Neil Simon Theatre Oct. 26 than its captain and creative force, Sting, emerged from the lower depths of the orchestra pit, microphone in hand, to call the roll and thank a few of the crew.
There was the cast, first and foremost, all of them smiling an unbroken smile of relief behind him. There were director Joe Mantello, book writers John Logan and Brian Yorkey, choreographer Steven Hoggett and set designer David Zinn. Under the stage there were 14 musicians led by maestro Rob Mathes, and behind the stage the stagehands, and in the theatre the ushers and the front-of-the-house staff.
His thanks then went out of the theatre and into the world. "I also want to thank the people in the town I was born and raised, a shipyard town, Wallsend. They built the biggest ships ever constructed on the planet earth, and I'm very proud of them. I hope they're proud of this play. I want to thank my mum and my dad — and, last of all, The Queen of England. I want to thank her because, without her, I wouldn't think I would be here."
"Whenever they would launch a big ship in my town," he explained, "they would invite the royal family to come and make a speech and crash a great big bottle of champagne on the bows and then send her off down the slipway. Everybody got very excited about a member of the royal family coming to town. Even the Communists got excited. But, you know, it wasn't that long ago that members of the royal family were considered to have magical powers — magical heeling powers. Sick children were held up in crowds to try and touch the garment of the king or queen. "So it's a Saturday morning, and they're going to launch a big ship. I'm ten years old, and we're all out in the street leading down to the river, all holding British flags, Union Jacks. At the top of the hill, there's a motorcycle motorcade, and in the middle of it there's a big black Rolls-Royce, and inside The Queen of England. So, I'm waiting. Now, she's moving down the hill at a very stately pace, and, when she gets near my house, I start to wave my flag, and she seems to see me. She smiles at me and waves, so I wave my flag a little more vigorously, and she waves back, and she holds my gaze as she's going by. She's really making contact with me.
"I wasn't cured of anything. No, it was the opposite. I was actually infected. I was infected with an idea. I was infected with the idea that I didn't want to be in the street. I didn't want to live in this house. I didn't want to end up in the shipyard. I wanted to be in that fucking car. I had this idea that I could have a bigger life and a bigger world, so here I am." Then he launched into "The Last Ship" one last time. That was almost all the press heard from Sting all evening. Notoriously not forthcoming, he scrupulously skirts interviews and avoids them whenever he can.
Once, to confirm his identity, I approached him coyly with, "Is there anyone people say you look like?" Without skipping a beat, His Blondness replied, "Lionel Ritchie."
He previously appeared on Broadway in the flesh as Macheath for 65 performances in 1989 in John Dexter's production of Three Penny Opera. Now he is heard but not seen, as a composer, skippering a barge full of Broadway showstompers into New York.
Happily, he has Hoggett doing the stomping, giving blunt, blocky, working-class movement to the music — much as he does in Once. You won't spot any of Jerome Robbins' gracefully gliding Jets or Sharks here. This is a rough-hewn Motley crew, hoof-taping more than toe-tapping through dock ditties and barroom wakes.
When not credited for choreography, Hoggett is listed under "movement." He set the Black Watch to marching and had Laura Wingfield come and go by way of the sofa. Nowadays, he's flashily animating The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
Musically, noted one of the manly ensemble (Colby Foytik), "Any time you have this many guys with this many strong voices, you get this amazing wall of sound."
The hard times here are like Billy Elliot's life under Thatcher, with shipbuilding ports turning into ghost towns. This one seems populated by a chorus line, cast to convince us that these men would pull themselves up by their workboot-straps and put one last communal push into building a ship, their town's former pride and joy.
This scheme is dreamed up by the affably unorthodox local priest, Father O'Brien, who downs pints at his parishioners' bar and smokes in hospitals and confessionals.
Fred Applegate, a reliable character actor long overdue a part like this, really goes to town with the character. "I loved him when I did the reading three and a half years ago, and I wouldn't let anyone else get near this role," he said. "This is a beautiful part. He's just a real guy. He's honest, he's got an edge, he cares deeply about these people — but he doesn't care about their happiness, he cares about their sense of self worth. He cares that they feel their lives are worthless and meaningless. He wants to give self worth back to them, and he'll do whatever he has to to do that."
Executing the priest's work-wish is the shipyard foreman, 6-foot-4 Jimmy Nail in his Broadway debut. "Not just that," he pointed out quickly, "I've never been on a theatrical stage before. Five years ago, Sting called me up and asked me if I'd sing on some guide vocals on some songs he was writing for a musical idea. I had no intention of being in the show, but it happened naturally over those five years."
Would he do it again? "Oh, that's a difficult question..." he said. "It's really too soon to say. I worked on TV in England for the past 30-odd years, but I got disenchanted with it, and I wasn't going to do any more — then this happened. We'll see..."
His stand-by-your-man wife is played by Sally Ann Triplett, in her second Broadway role. "It's amazing, 26 years ago — when I was 26 — I was starring in the theatre across the street from where I am now," she said. "It was called The Virginia. Now, it's The August Wilson. I played Sue, the nice girl, in Carrie — all five performances."
She boarded The Last Ship by accident visiting the Telsey office, green card in hand, about a year and a half ago. "They said, 'Look, while you're here, why don't you audition for something?' I said, 'OK, sure.' I didn't have any songs with me or anything. Anyway, I did the audition, and that day I got a job to do the workshop. I couldn't do the workshop because I was doing a show called Viva Forever!, The Spice Girls musical. But then, about five weeks later, they offered me their gig." Since he has an almost completely unbroken line of dramas behind him (save only for those hard Green Day nights in American Idiot), Michael Esper is a tad surprised to find himself in the star spot of a $14-million musical. He plays Gideon Fletcher, the prodigal son-of-a-riveter who returns home two days after his shipbuilding dad has died. He finds the girl he left behind, a redheaded barmaid called Meg (Rachel Tucker) — plus a grown 15-year-old son he unwittingly left behind (Collin Kelly Sordelet) and a romantic rival who counts them both as family (Aaron Lazar).
Esper equips himself well musically and has been dealt some of the best songs in the show. The exquisite "When We Dance" gets a lovely spin by all three members of the central triangle, and there's a conceptually smart father-and-son talk in three-quarter time titled "The Night the Pugilist Learned How To Dance."
"Ghost Story," another father-and-son duet, and "When We Dance" are, actually, earlier Sting songs that he "readjusted for the show," according to Esper. "He did rewrites in between the Chicago tryouts and tonight. I have a new song for Broadway called 'All This Time' that replaces one I had in Chicago called 'And Yet.'"
Tucker, making an impressive Broadway debut in the leading-lady slot, enjoys Meg's maddening mix of indecision and decisiveness. "Meg makes complex decisions all the way through. Like life, it's not easy. She says what she means, and she means what she says. She knows what she doesn't want so, during the course of the play, she's not quite sure what she does want, but she figures it out by the end. She's fiery, and she's feisty and she's a mother — like me. She wears her heart on her sleeve — it's a massive heart, too — and she's close to my own heart. It's a gorgeous feeling."
The actress auditioned for the role in London and did well enough to be flown to New York for more auditions. "On this day last year, I did my final audition," she beamed. "Now, I'm opening in a Broadway show."
Lazar plays the sound and sensible candidate in the romantic race. Not only is he a smart catch for Meg, he is also a very solid and effective surrogate father for her son. "It's an interesting challenge," Lazar said of the role. "On paper, you've got a guy who's sorta the antagonist — dare I say 'bad guy'? — of the show, but in reality he's sort of a good-bad guy, so you have the fun of that, and there's the father-son subplot, which really hits home for me because I have two little boys at home. To feel the responsibility of telling the story of fathers and sons is important." Logan, one of the two Tony winners who fashioned the musical book here, said the hardest thing about this project was "always the evaluation of music and words — when the book scene stops and the song begins — making sure they're functioning as seamless units. We were good collaborators, working like a well-oiled machine."
Next, visual projects take over his quill. "I'm doing the second season of 'Penny Dreadful' and a movie going in London — and, hopefully, another musical real soon." Director Mantello will take the week off before heading for Chicago to begin at Steppenwolf a new play by Pulitzer Prize finalist Lisa D'Amour, Airline Highway. Manhattan Theatre Club will do it here, in "the Joe Mantello slot" at season's end.
"This," he said, "was a lovely experience from beginning to end. Sting was, and is, an incredible collaborator. He's serious, he's curious, he's thoughtful, he's intelligent. He approached the entire thing with great humility and great dedication. He was at every rehearsal and every preview and was all one could ask for in a collaborator."
For a thorough preproduction atmosphere-soak, he visited Sting's home turf. "We did a week-long workshop with British actors in Newcastle — one of our first developmental workshops — and then we all took a trip to Wallsend, which is about 15 minutes away. What we took back was the feeling of the place. What does it look like? What does the life feel like? What is the weather? How do people dress?"
Mantello's longtime mate, Jon Robin Baitz, himself a Pulitzer Prize finalist (for Other Desert Cities), is following Logan's lead and heading for television, via an eight-part NBC miniseries called "The Slap" and stuffed with stars like Mary-Louise Parker, Peter Sarsgaard, Thandie Newton, Melissa George, Zachary Quinto, Brian Cox, Ron Rifkin, Thomas Sadoski and Jodi Peikoff. Lisa Cholodenko ("The Kids Are All Right") directs.
Gavin Lee, one of the authentic Brits in the audience (he was Mary Poppins' gravity-defying Bert on Broadway), said he's snagged a baddie role for the last season of "White Collar" on the USA Network, which will be starting up Oct. 29. Chelsea Piers, which has seen its share of launchings, was the inevitable after-party site, and its cavernous ballroom was moodily lit with light blubs hanging by ropes. King Sting, with wife Trudie Styler and daughter Fuschia Kate Sumner, milled freely among the pop-rock royalty who turned out (Bruce and Patti Springsteen, Debbie Harry, Paul Simon, Billy Joel and Alexis Roderick) and titans from other fields (Barbara Walters, Robert De Niro, Cabaret's Alan Cumming, Ron Perelman, Queen Noor of Jordan and the currently reigning Belle of Amherst, Joely Richardson).
Also Sarah Paulson, You Can't Take It With You's dancing fool, Annaleigh Ashford ("I'm post-matinee. I'm giving you matinee makeup") and choreographer-director Rob Ashford, fun couple Mario Cantone and Jerry Dixon, Oscar-winning songsmiths Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and Renee Elise Goldsberry, Gayle Rankin, Edie Falco, Liam Neeson, Professor Henry Gates, Fisher Stevens, Grace Hightower, Perez Hilton, a bearded and unrecognizable Ken Olin with wife Patricia Wettig, Tony winner Douglas Hodge, Melanie Griffith, James Lipton, Iva and Ron Rifkin, Rachel York, Leslie Odom, Jr. and Nicolette Robinson Odom, Off-Broadway-bound Bill Pullman, Sherie Rene Scott and John Barrett, Chris Sullivan, Daniel Reichard and Emanuel Azenberg.