Sting looks tired. It's understandable, considering it's the hour before the final run-through of the first Broadway musical he's written (and, in true theatre tradition, re-written). The auditorium of the Neil Simon Theatre is crowded with tables and cables, the room dominated by dozens of tech people the audience never sees. It's refreshing that a 16-time Grammy winning superstar looks like a sleep-deprived theatre person, rather than one of those aging rockers who now resemble their wax figures at Madame Tussaud's.
"It's an out-of-body experience," Sting says, rubbing his eyes. "You relinquish a lot of control, but all of these people bring something to the process I can't."
The move from front-man to behind-the-scenes was crucial to the creation of The Last Ship, which was inspired by Sting's childhood. Born Gordon Sumner, Sting grew up in the shadows of the shipyards of Wallsend, a town in England's industrial north best known for building the Carpathia, the ship that rescued the survivors of the Titanic.
"I did everything in my power to leave," he says, and finally "exiled" himself at the age of 15. Soon he was playing the bass in jazz clubs, where the older players nicknamed him Sting because of a yellow and black sweater a girlfriend knit him. But throughout his rise to rock stardom, first with the Police, then as a solo artist, memories of an unhappy childhood in Wallsend haunted him. "It was the landscape I dreamt in," he says, "trying to put right what went wrong in the past."
In 1987, his parents died within five months of one another, both from cancer in their fifties. The experience left Sting unable to write for two years. Finally, he released the highly personal album "Soul Cages," which he dedicated to the memory of his father. But the specter of the life he left behind still haunted him, particularly as the last shipyard in Wallsend closed.
Sting's 2003 memoir, "Broken Music," focused exclusively on his youth. Yet the book coincided with another period of not being able to write music, this one lasting eight years. During that time, Sting toured and recorded albums of other people's music. But he "didn't have the mojo anymore, the energy or the reason to write."
The idea of crafting a play, of expressing through voices other than his own, liberated the songwriter from his inertia. Sting refers to the creative outpouring that followed as "projectile vomiting."
"It was if the characters were inside me," he says, "wrestling to get out."
Sting shared his progress with Tony Award-winning producer Jeffrey Seller, who, citing Fiddler on the Roof as his favorite musical, instantly saw the potential for drama in a community under siege, as he had for both Rent and In the Heights. Seller paired Sting with Brian Yorkey, the Pulitzer Prize-winning bookwriter of Next to Normal, a show Sting much admired.
As a regular Broadway theatregoer himself (he and his wife Trudie Styler have raised their children on Manhattan's Central Park West), Sting also knew the work of the actor Yorkey recommended for the lead: Michael Esper, who co-starred in American Idiot. In addition to working with Green Day's Billy Joe Armstrong, Esper has a long track record with cultural heavyweights. His parents founded the Esper Acting Studio (with such alums as Kathy Bates, Jeff Goldblum and Sam Rockwell) and Esper starred in the New York premiere of Tony Kushner's The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures as well as held his own opposite Linda Lavin in The Lyons.
Meeting Sting, however, "brought a fresh anxiety," says the actor. As a child, Esper was "obsessed" by Sting's album "Dream of Blue Turtles." "I felt possessed by it imaginatively," he says. Like Sting, he rebelled against the family business (acting) to become a musician. "I tried so hard to not be an actor," he says. "The whole business filled me with self-consciousness and dread." A stint at Oberlin studying music proved a "disaster," and a return to the Esper studio ignited his passion. From there, Esper reports, "I just knew I was screwed."
When Yorkey jumped Ship to launch If/Then (currently on Broadway with Idina Menzel), Tony award-winning director Joe Mantello suggested John Logan, whose play I'll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers) Mantello directed last season, starring Bette Midler. What no one knew was that the California-born Logan was the son of an Irish shipyard worker.
The British industrial setting easily invites comparisons to The Full Monty, Billy Elliot and Kinky Boots, but this original musical drama hews closer to plays like Death of a Salesman and The Glass Menagerie, cathartic, autobiographically-inspired stories about dislocated people railing against failure as they face tough choices. "I needed to pay a debt to my community," Sting says, "and this play is a way of doing that."
Much as the Carpathia rescued survivors in life boats, The Last Ship pays tribute to the lost men of the Industrial Age, a reclamation of dignity for those who have seen their manufacturing jobs disappear overseas.
"It's emotional," Sting says. "And not just for me. I've seen grown men cry."
Still, reflecting on the small town that has haunted his dreams, a town where his siblings still live, Sting wonders whether putting the shipyard onstage will finally put the story to rest.
"Maybe it's over now," he says, a lilt in his tone. "Maybe I've exorcised all the ghosts."