There’s an eerie truth to a song on Sting’s new album, “The Last Ship.”
“Dead Man’s Boots” tells the story of a father passing a job to his son that the boy simply doesn’t want. In a way, that story parallels the musician’s life.
Born in the English shipbuilding town of Wallsend, Sting clearly wanted no part of the industry, instead attending university to become a teacher. But that wasn’t enough, so two years later he made an even bolder move: to pursue a career in music.
“There were no clues in my environment that you leave that environment and fare well and be successful. My parents didn’t really understand what my dreams were, they just thought I was crazy, because I had just given up a job with a pension and the security, in their eyes,” he said.
Sitting in a sweater with trademark T-shirt and leather pants, he holds a guitar as he revisits some of those moments.
“My dad really didn’t understand till the end of his days what the hell I was doing. He thought that I should have had a proper job. Maybe he was right,” Sting joked. “I wanted to take a risk and be a star. I don’t know where I got the confidence from. I just got lucky.”
After a successful run with his seminal band, The Police, and the prolific solo career that followed, Sting’s first new recording in nearly a decade may be his most ambitious project. The 62-year-old musician is turning to a medium that some of his musical counterparts have found treacherous: musical theater.
“I want to surprise an audience; I want to surprise the listener. I want to surprise myself. To me the essence of music is surprise, every eight bars you need a surprise, otherwise people fall asleep,” he said.
“The Last Ship” will serve as the backbone of a musical by the same name. It’s tricky territory even for the biggest music stars. Elton John was humbled by the failed “Lestat” before finding success with “Billy Elliot” and “The Lion King.” U2’s Bono and Edge finally got on track with “Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark,” after numerous postponed openings. And Cyndi Lauper won the Tony this year with “Kinky Boots.”
But then there’s “Taboo” by Culture Club frontman Boy George, and “The Capeman” by Paul Simon, regarded as some of Broadway’s biggest flops.
“I didn’t go into the thing completely naïve. I worked in musical theater myself,” he says, citing his role in “Threepenny Opera” and his first paying job, playing bass for the 1970s revival of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
Before coming to Broadway, “The Last Ship” will play an out-of-town engagement in Chicago next June. That will give Sting some time to refine it. Not every song on the album will make it in the show, and some new ones will be added. That’s fine by Sting, especially since he’s learned that not every great song fits well in musical theater.
“A good song can last for three minutes and you’re just expressing one emotion. You can’t have that in the theater. The narrative needs to be advanced as the song is being sung,” Sting admits.
Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winning lyricist Brian Yorkey (“Next to Normal”) and Tony-winner John Logan (“Red”) are writing the book, and Tony-winner Joe Mantello (“Wicked,” ‘’Angels in America”) will direct. Sting says his collaborators have been brutal — and he appreciates it: “If they said everything is great, Sting, I wouldn’t feel good.”
Tony-winning producer Jeffrey Seller is on board, and describes his duties as “part nurturer and part critic.”
“One of my jobs is to express where in the show we need those, and what songs that he’s written that may not be necessary to tell this story,” Seller said.
Seller, who produced “In the Heights,” ‘’Avenue Q” and “Rent,” said when they first met, Sting had not recorded any music for the project but had an idea about an abandoned shipyard where workers were building their own ship.
“When he told me about that story, I immediately fell in love with this odyssey,” he said. “I loved it as much as when Jonathon Larson told me I want to do ‘La Boheme’ in the East Village where instead of suffering from tuberculosis, Mimi suffers from AIDS.”
As an album, “The Last Ship” has a theatrical quality, with multiple recurring characters inspired by Sting’s childhood experiences. While performing the album at a benefit earlier this month, he sang these parts in voices different than we’re used to hearing from the 16-time Grammy-winning artist.
“I used the dialect that I was raised in,” Sting said of the accent that has shades of Scottish and Norwegian. “I only ever use it now when I threaten people or when I get really angry. ... My kids would always know I was serious when I start speaking in the weird voice. They’re like, ‘Uh-oh, he’s speaking in that weird voice, he must mean it.’”
The musician claims he’s never tried to force any of his six children into the family business, yet each of them has found the arts in some way.
“My oldest is 36, he’s a dad, which makes me a grandfather. They’re all out in the world. We have one left, Giacomo is a senior in high school, and he’d be gone next year. We’re kind of in a — we got dogs, me and Trude (wife, Trudie Styler), we’ve got a few dogs,” he said of the emptying nest.
“My kids are very creative. I haven’t encouraged them to get into show business at all. I haven’t discouraged it, but I certainly haven’t helped them or said that is what you should do. My job was to keep them in college and for them to get degrees, which they all did,” he says like a proud father.
He added: “They’re good people. They’re not spoiled. They’re polite, They’re intelligent. They’re the best thing I ever did.”