The following article appeared in a February 2019 issue of the Toronto Star...
Sting brings The Last Ship, a musical about his hometown of Newcastle, to a place where he’s always felt at home: Toronto...
This is not the winter of Sting’s discontent.
In fact, the singer was likely the only person actually looking forward to this week’s snowstorm, even though he had to trudge through it to get to work just like the rest of us.
The incredibly youthful-looking 67-year-old had settled into Toronto for preview performances of The Last Ship, the musical he wrote and is starring in at the Princess of Wales Theatre for the next six weeks.
Many in the media — including this reporter — have asked a variation of why on Earth he would want to be in Toronto in February and his answer, like the man, is broody and charming.
“I hear we are getting a big snowstorm and I’m looking forward to it. It’s a novelty. For me, the winter is a very interesting, reflective season. I’m from northern climes, we’re from the same latitude as Newfoundland, and so I know about dark winter nights and dark mornings. The winter is a helpful time for me, I do a lot of thinking, and I’m looking forward to six weeks of the Toronto winter.”
This Englishman who lives in New York says he was happy to be onstage here on Sunday night, even while his friend and collaborator Shaggy was in Los Angeles picking up their Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album for last year’s 44/876.
“I was in the restaurant after a performance, and I got a call and it was Shaggy, and he was so happy. Then I watched his speech and it was a lovely moment for the two of us,” Sting says.
It’s the 18th time he’s won one of those particular statues. “But who’s counting?” he jokes.
His focus is here, putting the finishing touches on this production of The Last Ship, which ran on Broadway in 2014 and has been performed around the world.
Asked to compare working in the theatre to his usual office — a stadium filled with thousands of fans — he says it is the former that is more difficult.
“This is a more complex phenomenon. This has more people onstage, more things can go wrong. This is a very technical show and it is a state of the art production,” he says.
“There are so many things that will go wrong and right up until that first preview; everything is going wrong and, suddenly, you get 2,000 people in the auditorium and it just locks in. It’s an inexplicable miracle. It’s extraordinary and every time you do it, it gets a little tighter. It gets a little better, so I think we’re in very good shape.”
The Last Ship is Sting telling the story of his hometown of Newcastle, England, and what happened when the shipbuilding industry moved on. Sting admits that when he was living there he wanted nothing to do with it — his artistic ambitions made him flee — but he also wanted to reconcile his feelings about where he’s from.
“Am I the only person who could tell this story? No. But I am ideally suited, too,” he says. “I’m telling it to the best of my abilities, but I think it was a gift that I was given that I never appreciated, coming from a community and living in this kind of surreal, symbolic atmosphere of heavy industry. Literally, you know, on my doorstep, I’d look out my front door and there was a giant ship blocking out the sun. It’s hugely powerful as an image that I’ve never forgotten. “
I ask if the show is his attempt at a homecoming of sorts.
“You know, a salmon always heads back to its spawning ground to figure himself out. Part of my psychological journey is to accept where I come from, and honour where I come from and give thanks. Because I’m proud of where I come from, even though I exiled myself. “
Industry is an important theme in the play and the similarities with what is occurring at the GM plant in Oshawa are not lost on him, which is why he and the rest of the cast planned to perform for GM workers on Thursday.
Despite those heavy issues, Sting reassures that the play also works as what it is meant to be: a good night out.
“I get drawn into talking about the serious issues of the play, but it’s very entertaining, with beautiful songs by not a bad songwriter. There’s a love story, dancing, amazing production, but fundamentally about serious issues. It’s not some bullsh-- fairy story.”
Sting says it makes sense to bring his show to Toronto because he feels the city connected with him from the very beginning. I ask him if he remembers the Police Picnics, legendary concerts featuring a who’s who of acts that ran in Toronto and environs from 1981 to ’83.
“We became a bit of a staple here in Toronto. Toronto had adopted us as their band and I’m never quite sure why, but we always felt at home here, from the first moment that we arrived,” he says.
“We played the Edge. We played the Horseshoe, then Massey Hall and Maple Leaf Gardens and all the rest of it. And then we had the Police Picnics. The Toronto audience always got us, from Day 1. I was so keen to come back here with this play because I thought, ‘I think they get me here.’ We’ll see.”
At this stage of his career, the question becomes: What still drives him? And are there any mountains left to climb after such a long and diverse run?
“Writing is always difficult, but at this stage of my life you have to make the transition between success and significance. Success can be flash in the pan, an ephemeral thing, but you want to be significant, you want to be useful. To tell stories that people resonate with and find useful.”
As for what’s next, he definitely wants to keep creating.
“Oh, it’s always about surprise. I want to surprise people, but the first thing is I want to surprise myself, so I haven’t a clue what’s next,” he says.
“I want to take this play a little further, we’ve have had some interesting offers … I’m making a film later on this year and I’ll be back on tour. And because Shaggy and I won a Grammy last night, we’re going to do a few dates in England.”
(c) The Toronto Star by Taja Mudhar