We always have high hopes when a gifted writer from one field chooses to drop in on another. Scott Fitzgerald tried it (The Vegetable), so did Henry James (Guy Domville). Ernest Hemingway wrote a play for Spencer Tracy (The Fifth Column).
Frank Wildhorn, a pop writer of great reknown, has tried it five or six times (Scarlett Pimpernell, Wonderland, etc. ) Paul Simon and others have found that a score is merely one of the elements that comprise a musical theatre piece (The Capeman). Sometimes a pop writer like Cindi Lauper or Burt Bacharach has a hit first time out (Kinky Boots and Promises, Promises) and then ducks back to more familiar, and more lucrative, territory.
Now along comes Sting, whose popularity as singer and writer of pop music remains strong after more than 30 years in the spotlight. A theatre piece that has been on his mind for some time has finally been finished, and he’s joined a number of collaborators to create The Last Ship, a musical for Broadway for which he wrote the music and lyrics, with a book by John Logan (the playwright of Red,and Brian Yorkey, the author of the book to Next To Normal). Joined by the gifted director Joe Mantello and the usually inventive choreographer Steven Hoggett, their ship has anchored at the Neil Simon Theatre.
Care and concern have been lavished upon it. There is a certain earnestness present all evening long that makes it clear each contributor was committed, devoted, uncompromising. The opening sequence, set on and about a shipyard in northern England, offers exposition via an ambitious number called “Island of Souls” that tells us of the return to his home town of one Gideon Fletcher, who had fled fifteen years earlier, leaving behind Meg Dawson, the woman whom he loved, because he could not go on following in his brutal father’s footsteps as a ship builder. With a promise to return for her, the show now moves to the present, and the story unfolds.
It’s a dark story and it’s clearly one Sting wanted to tell, as much of it is based on his own experiences as a young man who pursued a similar path. In the fifteen years of separation, Meg has had a son, taken up with Arthur Millburn, and when confronted by Gideon on his return, lets him know there is no hope for a renewal of their relationship. When the shipyard is closed by a company that wants to transform it into something else, the ship builders, under the leadership of one of their own, move beyond the imposed barriers, take over the equipment, and fight to complete the building of one last ship to stand as a monument to the profession that has been the mainstay in their lives and in those of their families for generations.
It’s a difficult story to make entertaining, because it’s filled with angry people, with only one song “Mrs. Dees’ Rant” which would be funny if we could more clearly understand its lyrics. There is however a wise and witty priest to calm things down when they boil over, which is frequently.
The pull between Gideon and Arthur for Meg’s heart is at the core of the personal story, and all of it is tied to the parallel story of the storming of the shipyard by the workforce. It also involves Meg’s son Tom but though all the roles are splendidly acted and sung, the writing is one-dimensional and the story is often forced and contrived.
Sting’s work, too, as composer is uneven. There are some lovely melodies, particularly for the softer songs (“What Say You, Meg”, “When We Dance”, “The Night the Pugilist Learned to Dance”), but the lively testosterone filled numbers for the ship builders fill the air with fifteen or so lusty male voices that are usually accompanied by a lot of foot stomping in each of their big numbers, so that by the time we get to the reprise of “We’ve Got Now’t Else” the effect is blunted into non-existence.
So many of the plot points are questionable. I won’t spoil it by mentioning some, but the imbalance of men to women (about 15-4) makes it no wonder these men do so much musical howling. Collin Kelly-Sordelet is making an auspicious Broadway debut as both young Gideon and Tom Dawson. Fred Applegate (who was hilarious in La Cage Aux Folles) makes a marvelous Father O’Brien but almost everyone else plays on just the one note.
When the British shipyards shut down because ships were being built far more inexpensively in other parts of the world, other work was available to the builders in the yard, but only one of them in this story agreed to work elsewhere. It’s difficult to arouse sympathy for these inflexible people and not much fun in cheering them on when they clearly break the law by occupying property that doesn’t belong to them.
Sting has made several TV appearances in recent weeks to promote his show, and he seems to be a charming, intelligent, delightful man. He admits he has become almost obsessed with getting it to a Broadway stage, for it helped him in his own inner life to do so. But I’m sorry to say it would seem to have much more urgency for him than for the rest of us.
The Last Ship is at the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd Street, NYC.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.