When Sting was a little boy growing up in Wallsend, England, a shipbuilding town, his mother dressed him up, put a Union Jack in his hand, and led him down to the docks. Celebrities didn’t visit his small town, recalls the pop star, but royalty did since among their duties was to christen the huge ships built on the sweat of his family’s working-class friends and neighbors. As the massive Rolls Royce of the Queen Mother rode its stately way through the narrow streets, Sting, then known as Gordon Sumner, waved to her. And she waved back.
Making that eye contact, Sting has said, left an impact. “I was infected with something. I was infected with this idea: ‘I don’t want to be on the street. I don’t want to end up in that shipyard. I want to be in that car.”
Sting, of course, went on to make pop music history but throughout his success, he was haunted by the tough and seasoned men that he left behind, the memories of the unfinished hulls rising in the North England sky. Now he’s recaptured those memories in his latest album, “The Last Ship,” a cycle of songs that has formed the basis of a musical, which arrives on Broadway this fall after a Chicago summer tryout. A preview of the story and its inspirations is being offered on February 21 in a concert version aired as a part of Channel 13’s “Great Performances,” performed by Sting and a 14-piece band.
The show was taped last fall at the Public Theater, where it has been in development for the past several years in collaboration with the Tony-winning team of director Joe Mantello (“Wicked”) and book writers John Logan (“Red”) and Brian Yorkey (“Next to Normal”). The concert of the “The Last Ship” stirred a lot of buzz as an intimate romance that unflinchingly looks at the hard lives forged in the blistering heat and noisy roar of the shipyard furnaces. As Sting himself tells it in the TV special — during which he described the aforementioned eureka with the Queen Mum — the show centers on Gideon, a charismatic, cynical, and combative man who fled the town in his youth and has come back for some unfinished business that apparently includes an ex-wife and her husband, a rich industrialist.
“It’s not easy,” he said of writing a musical. “Every song fights for its life… and the landscape is strewn with the bleached corpses.” An apt enough analogy, as the songs themselves are vivid with the infectious reels that he must have had heard as a little boy as well as the nostalgia for a lost time of men ennobled by their craft and frustrated by their limited means of expression. Think, perhaps, of “Once” meeting “On the Waterfront.” If the album is any indication, the show smells like a big fat hit. By the way, you should download the special edition version of the album. You wouldn’t want to miss “Show Some Respect,” one of the best songs ever written for the theater. Unsurprisingly, it is in the whiskey-sodden, balls-out tradition of Kurt Weill (“The Alabama Song”), since Sting’s last Broadway outing was performing as Mackie Messer in the 1989 revival of “The Threepenny Opera,” which also featured Cyndi Lauper, another Broadway newbie (“Kinky Boots”).
Sting’s songs have much more heart and affection in them, however, than the Poet of the Weimar Germany. Once you hear “Show Some Respect,” you’ll be hard-pressed to get it out of your head. And you wouldn’t want to:
“These bonds we’ve spliced together, will face all kinds of weather,
Considered altogether, and sailing Hell for leather,
We’ll quit this quay,
And we’ll cast this net of souls upon the sea.
Where will you be,
When we cast this net of souls upon the sea?”