Great Performances Presents ’Sting: The Last Ship,’ Feb 21 on PBS
On Oct. 2, 2013 -- his 62nd birthday -- Sting performed at New York’s Public Theater. The concert showcased songs the former Police frontman had written for an upcoming play, "The Last Ship," a production not so much autobiographical as commemorative of a culture and a way of life.
As a child in Wallsend, a major shipbuilding city in England, Sting saw massive ships being constructed and launched. Sting never worked in the shipyards himself; he became a teacher, but left that career behind when his music career took off. Even so, Sting says in a voice-over introduction, he regards the venerable shipbuilding culture as belonging to his own roots. "The Last Ship" deals solidly with the shipbuilding community, and tells the stories of a young man returned returned from home after years at sea, the woman he left behind, and a cast of workers left in a crisis when the shipyard where their families have worked for generations is sold.
The show features many of the songs from last fall’s CD of the same name, including standouts such as "Dead Man’s Boots," the balladic "August Winds," the yearning pop gem "And Yet," and the rollicking "What Have We Got?" There are also a clutch of songs you’d only have heard as extra tracks on the Super Deluxe version of the CD, such as "Shipyard," "Jock the Singing Welder," "Show Some Respect," and "Sky Hooks and Tartan Paint."
Just as enjoyable as the music are Sting’s anecdotes about the process of collaborating with writers and producers to create the musical production. In one instance, a love song ("A Practical Arrangement") had to be cut because, Sting reveals, his collaborators wanted more emphasis on a "young and virile" suitor (rather than on the character Arthur, whom Sting had envisioned as being about his own age; "I know," the songwriter, still a portrait of vitality, says as the audience titters). In response, Sting wrote a replacement song, "What Say you, Meg?" The two numbers appear here side-by-side.
At another point, Sting explains how the song "So to Speak" came to be written -- as a musical sweetener for a scene originally conceived as straight-on drama. (He also explains some elements of the plot, which I won’t spoil here.) Archival footage of ships being built and launched pepper the broadcast version of the concert, giving the songs (and Sting’ reminiscences) context.
Sharing the stage with Sting is leading man and singer Jimmy Nail, a number of musicians, and vocalist Jo Lowry. Sting and Nail take the male parts (main protagonist Gideon, an elderly priest, a man of late middle years named Arthur, and others), while Lowry sings the parts of the play’s female characters.
It’s anyone’s guess how the play will turn out, but Sting proves his chops as a showman once again, pulling off a performance here that’s as theatrical as it is musical. The CD has a theatrical gloss while remaining very much a Sting creation; ditto this concert, minimal in production and intimate in feel.
"The Last Ship" premieres on WNET Thirteen’s "Great Performances" on PBS Friday, Feb. 21, at 9 p.m. ET.