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Sting's 'Last Ship' Explores His Shipyard Youth

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Long before he was Sting, he was Gordon Sumner, a kid from northern England where the shipyard loomed large over his life and everyone else's.

STING: I was born in the shadow of that shipyard, literally. You look at the pictures of my street and then this huge - looked like an opera set behind - gigantic ships. There's something very theatrical about it.

MARTIN: So a few years ago when Sting went looking for a new kind of inspiration, he found it in his hometown.

Wallsend, England is at the center of a new musical called "The Last Ship," directed by Joe Mantello. Sting wrote the music and the lyrics. And the story of the main character, Gideon Fletcher, echoes parts of Sting's own biography. I spoke recently with Joe Mantello and Sting, and we started our conversation about those parallels.

STING: His father is a shipbuilder. His grandfather was a shipbuilder, just as mine were. And he decides that that is not what he wants to do. He wants to explore the world. And the simplest way to do it, because he can't become a rock star, is to join the Navy. And he goes away and doesn't return for 15 years.

And when he gets back to attend his father's funeral, he has to deal with a lot of ghosts. And he also has responsibilities to live up to. He has to become a part of that community. He has a job to do to save the community. And he becomes their leader.

MARTIN: As you say, the story takes place in the town where you grew up. And you come from a family of shipbuilders. Is that where the parallels stop?

STING: I see bits of me. But it's not important that, you know, people shouldn't be drawing parallels between me. You know, otherwise we'd be making "Jersey Boys" set in Wallsend. You know, it's a different thing altogether.

MARTIN: Is it different? I imagine it is, writing for the Broadway stage. How did you have to learn to write songs in a new way?

STING: It's different from writing a pop song. You have to advance narrative within the song. And even if the song is good, if it's not doing that job then it cannot survive. Every song fights for his life - every character, every line, every verse, every couplet.

MARTIN: There's a rousing number in the musical - a song called "Shipyard." Let me ask you about it, but let's take a listen to a recording of the song from your recent album first.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHIPYARD")

STING: (Singing) Steel in the stockyard, iron in the soul. We'll conjure up a ship where there used to be a hole. And I don't know what we'll do if this yard gets sold. For the only life we've known is in the shipyard.

STING: You know, it was the first thing I actually wrote once I'd got the green light to go ahead with this. I wrote a list of names down of people I knew in my town who worked in the shipyards. They would tell you who they were, what they did, their hopes, their fears for the future.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHIPYARD")

STING: (Singing) Ah, my name is Davy Harrison. I like a drink or two. You could ask me when it started, but I haven't got a clue. I'm never sad or miserable. I'm never ever blue. And I'll still be up tomorrow for the shipyards. I drink meself into a stupor, and I wake up with two heeds. And then the missus starts complaining about all me drunken deeds.

STING: But it didn't - wasn't guaranteed to get in the play until we had a narrative reason for those men to be saying these things. And so we brought in this character, Newlands, who was going to buy the yard and change it into a scrap yard. And this would be the men's cri de coeur that, you know, their chance to say, you know, this is who we are. And this is what we want.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHIPYARD")

THE LAST SHIP ENSEMBLE: (Singing) The only life we've ever known is in the shipyard.

MARTIN: Joe, talk to me a little bit about how this process has been for you. I mean, did you have any apprehensions about working on this project because this is a - obviously this is big star? It's a guy with a lot staked on this project. He's emotionally invested in it because it is at least, in part, based on his own family's experience.

JOE MANTELLO: From our very first meeting, I got a sense of Sting's curiosity and his willingness and openness to the process. And I was saying the other night that one of the best bits of advice that I've ever been given in terms of working on a musical is be careful who you sleep with because that's what the baby is going to look like.

And it's really, really true that you have to make sure that you are in sync with your collaborators. And I feel that every step of the way, all of us have been making the same musical which isn't quite as easy as it sounds. And every one of us has been willing to go back to the drawing board if something wasn't working, which is not really true of most musicals in my experience.

MARTIN: Can you give me an example of something that you had to work through?

MANTELLO: Just the other day, in fact, we cut a little bit of a scene that we'd all been in love with for a very, very long time but that ultimately wasn't serving the story.

MARTIN: Can you tell me which one?

MANTELLO: It's a scene where Gideon goes to visit his father's grave. And there was a beautiful scene, and he had a real emotional breakthrough, break down, Gideon, and then he sang the song. And what we came to realize was then the song became redundant. And so we had to strip away this gorgeous bit of writing to let the song do the work.

MARTIN: I read that you, Sting, are around a lot behind the scenes, onstage, behind the curtains during the performances making changes. Is that true?

STING: I've been to just about every rehearsal, every preview, every discussion. I'm fascinated by the process. I'm really intrigued by how an incremental change, a tiny change in one line, can have a profound effect on the whole play.

MANTELLO: And you love puzzles, you said to me. You love puzzles. And at a certain point, the math of a musical becomes fascinating because, like Sting was just saying, if you cut, if you edit one line, a moment here, the overall shape, the dynamic of a scene can change.

MARTIN: Sting, what did you learn beyond the technical stuff?

STING: Well, the learning was technical, but also there was a catharsis in doing this stuff and other people relating to it so it makes you feel less isolated in the world. And I think that's the business of art, really, to expose things that you consider utterly personal, and find that you share a great deal with the public at large.

MARTIN: The musical is called "The Last Ship." It opens tonight on Broadway. It's directed by Joel Mantello. Joe, Sting, thank you so much for talking with us.

MANTELLO: Thank you.

STING: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LAST SHIP")

STING: (Singing) And whatever you're promised, whatever you've done, and whatever the station in life you've become - in the name of the father, in the name of the son and whatever the weave of this life that you've spun...

MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.