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Sting: ‘It’s probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever tackled’

In this Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2014,  photo, Sting appears at the curtain call following his debut performance in Broadway’s “The Last Ship,” in New York. (Charles Sykes / Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
In this Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2014, photo, Sting appears at the curtain call following his debut performance in Broadway’s “The Last Ship,” in New York. (Charles Sykes / Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
By Jim Harrington The Mercury News

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Sting has recorded massive albums, mounted major tours and starred in big-budget movies.

And all of that was a piece of cake compared to the effort it took to create “The Last Ship,” Sting’s original musical that has its Northern California premiere, Feb. 20-March 22, at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco.

“It’s probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever tackled,” Sting said during an in-person interview. “And people of experience would say that the most difficult thing is to do an original musical.

“Most musicals are based on a known thing — a fairytale, a cartoon, a movie. To do a completely original story is a big ask.”

Yet, the 17-time Grammy winner was up for the challenge – which included writing both the music and lyrics for the play. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, who was enshrined as a member of the Police in 2003, also stars as shipyard foreman “Jackie White” and will perform at every performance in San Francisco.

“I’ve never been known for falling off the lowest rung of any ladder,” Sting says. “I’m quite ambitious. I didn’t really know how difficult it was when I started. But it’s been a wonderful journey — a fantastic adventure.”

The adventure actually began, in a sense, when he was growing up in North England and first developed a love for Broadway music.

“I had never seen a play or a musical of any description until I was much older,” Sting says. “But my mother was a show tunes fanatic. We had all the albums in the house – ‘South Pacific,’ the entire Rodgers and Hammerstein cannon, ‘West Side Story,’ ‘My Fair Lady.’ So, I would listen to these records and love them.”

Now, these songs are just part of his DNA.

“Scratch me and I will start singing ‘Carousel,’” he says.

But well before the vocalist-bassist would co-found the heavily influential rock act The Police with drummer Stewart Copeland and guitarist Henry Padovani (who was later replaced by Andy Summers) in London in 1977, Sting found work in musical theater.

“So, I knew a lot about musical theater before I ever imagined I’d ever have any part of it,” he says. “Then in my late teens, I got a job as a professional musician. My first professional job was in the theater in Newcastle, where I come from, and I was in the pit playing the bass for ‘Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat.’”

And then, just like that, he seems to be transported right back to the pit.

“We were in the dark, I had a mic stand, a little light, the music in front of me,” he recalls. “I could see the conductor and the actors clattering above me on the stage. But I sort of liked it. I liked the vibe in the theater. Then I did a few more like that, never ever imagining that I would actually ever do something (like this).

“But I think the story that we are telling now is the one I am supposed to tell, because I am from that community. And I also left it, so I have an objectivity about it that, perhaps if I stayed, I wouldn’t have had.”

“The Last Ship” is set in Tyne and Wear, in the North East region of England, and tells of a community facing tough times as its shipbuilding industry collapses. It draws inspiration from Sting’s 1991 album, “The Soul Cages,” as well as the artist’s own childhood.

The play follows a sailor named Gideon Fletcher, who is back home after 17 years at sea, as he’s caught in the tensions involving the closing of the shipyard that had long supported the region.

“It’s a story that hasn’t been told,” Sting says. “And it’s a story of the importance of work and what happens when you rob a community of its identity – which is its work.”

Although the setting is Tyne and Wear, Stings says “The Last Ship” is actually a “universal story.”

“It’s tragic what happens,” he says. “And it’s happening all over the West. It’s happening in the so-called Rust Belt in the United States. It’s happening all over Europe.

“And even though the play is set in the ’80s, in my town, that phenomena is carrying on. It’s basically abstract economics excising the value of community from the equation. When you do that, I think it’s untenable. It doesn’t work long term.”

The play definitely has resonated with many people who are experiencing similar situations to that addressed in “The Last Ship.”

“We did a six-week run in Toronto and the GM plant is closing in the next town over, because they can move the whole factory and pay Mexican workers $2 an hour,” Sting says. “So, they are completely selling out and leaving this town, which has built cars for GM for generations. That’s immoral. It’s just not right.

“So, I took the cast along to meet the workers and it was electric, because, first of all, (the workers) heard their story being told – albeit, about shipyard workers, but it’s the same story – and the cast saw the reality of the story they are portraying onstage. So, it was an incredible symbiosis.

“After that, the performances were electric. So, it does have a real resonance with what is going on in the world now. It’s not some fairytale or some, you know, cartoon Disney thing — this is real.”

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