The decision by Mirvish Productions to bring the British boat-building musical The Last Ship to Toronto for its Canadian premiere was up in the salt air until the theatre producers checked the manifest and saw what they needed to see. Sting, who wrote the music and lyrics, will join the cast for the musical’s limited run at the Princess of Wales Theatre from Feb. 9 to March 24, 2019.
“It was a preference of Mirvish,” says Sting, the former Police frontman, about his on-stage presence in the shipyard musical’s North American rebirth. “I’m so proud of this piece of work. I’d do almost anything to help it.”
It will not be the first time the Englishman in New York singer has hit the boards in support of the musical inspired by his humble Newcastle upbringing. In 2014, with The Last Ship faring poorly in its maiden Broadway run at the Neil Simon Theatre, Sting (who previously appeared on the Great White Way for a production of A Threepenny Opera in 1989) heeded an all-hands-on-deck call. And while Sting’s sub-in appearance on stage bolstered ticket sales, his presence ultimately wasn’t enough to save the show from closing after a disappointing four months.
Since that run (which resulted in two Tony nominations, including best original score), an overhauled version of The Last Ship enjoyed a sell-out run at Newcastle’s Northern Stage, followed by a recently completed 12-week tour of the United Kingdom and Ireland. For that tour and for the Newcastle homecoming, Sting did not appear on stage.
“There’s no doubt that for us, the opportunity to have a major artist in a performance role in a musical he created made it worth bringing the show to Toronto,” said Mirvish’s director of communications John Karastamatis. “It gives the city a cultural attraction that will be ours and ours alone.”
Ambitious and melancholy, The Last Ship replaces Girl From the North Country in the 2018-19 Mirvish subscription season. That musical play, which uses the songs of Bob Dylan, has been rescheduled as the first show of Mirvish’s 2019-20 season.
The Toronto production of The Last Ship will have a new cast and be directed by Lorne Campbell, the artistic director of Northern Stage who rewrote the original book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey.
According to Sting, the general arc of the 1980s-set story (involving a romance and a defiant last stand by workers in a failing shipyard) is the same, with some structural tweaks since Broadway.
“The love story is simpler and the play’s politics are clearer,” Sting said. ”It’s about the social-industrial history of the north of England, and we’re not pulling any punches. Looking back, I think we might have pulled too many on Broadway.”
The musical’s origins stretch back to 1991’s The Soul Cages, a moody, seafaring album inspired by the death of Sting’s father. Both The Soul Cages and the album version of The Last Ship in 2013 came to be after bouts of writer’s block. The Last Ship record was Sting’s first album of fresh material since Sacred Love, released a decade earlier.
Sting isn’t the first pop star to delve into the Broadway world. U2’s Bono and The Edge provided the lyrics to Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, a flop of catastrophic proportions. The performance of Sean Combs in Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun earned the hip hop star raspberries in the press. For American Idiot and Waitress, Billie Joe Armstrong and Sara Bareilles wrote the respective scores and even appeared on stage when a stand-in was required.
Elton John has enjoyed stunning success on the Great White Way, with writing credits attached to The Lion King, Aida, Lestat, Billy Elliot and the upcoming adaptation of the 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada. And Kinky Boots, with music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper, accumulated 13 Tony nominations and earned the She Bop singer a win for best score.
Kinky Boots and Billy Elliot align closest thematically to The Last Ship. All three involve a working-class milieu and an underdog narrative.
“When I was first working on The Last Ship, I was told the best musicals are always about communities under threat,” Sting explained.