The following interview with Richard Harrington appeared in a September 1989 issue of The Washington Post newspaper...
Sting's Mack attack: The singer-actor takes on The Threepenny Opera.
Bertolt Brecht's own production notes for 'The Three Penny Opera' were imperilled when Sting was cast as the rogue Macheath. The instructions are clear: The actor assuming the role of Mack the Knife should not use sexuality as a starting point for his characterisation, which must have been a major hurdle for one of the world's most strikingly handsome pop stars. Still, some of Brecht's other guidelines were curiously prescient: Macheath is "to be presented as a bourgeois phenomenon... he is already somewhat bald, like a radish, but not without dignity... he has not the least sense of humour..."
Sting does not seem fond of any implied comparison - "this sounds like Brecht more than anyone else," he says. Sitting in his dressing room at the National Theatre, where the Brecht-Kurt Weill play has begun a four-week run, he's comfortably natty, in baggy checked pants with the cuffs rolled, not cut, a black sweater wrapped postgrad-style around his neck. His azure eyes pierce softly, and at midday, Sting looks and sounds tired, not surprising since he's been rehearsing 10 to 12 hours a day for more than a month, preparing for a Broadway debut in November.
Occasionally, Sting knits his brow and musses his silky hair, which seems to be retreating like the Russian front, though not enough to create the radish effect Brecht sought. He's grown a rakish moustache for the role, and while it does little to deflate the 37-year-old Sting's dignified boyishness, it does make him look very much like the young Laurence Olivier. "I hope the similarity will not just be facial," Sting says, gently humouring himself.
Despite a dozen films in the past 10 years, and a globe-straddling music profile that began with the Police, this is Sting's maiden voyage on the boards. Yet the only thing more apparent than exhaustion is anticipation. His is the name most likely to fill the National, and eventually New York's Lunt-Fontanne, but for now Sting is simply, and apparently enthusiastically, following the stern dictums of director John Dexter ('Royal Hunt of the Sun,' 'Equus', 'M. Butterfly') and musical director Julius Rudel, melding with a cast that includes Maureen McGovern, Georgia Brown and Alvin Epstein, and trying to survive the chaos traditional of the living stage.
"This is my first time and I ask everybody, 'Is this normal?' And they say, 'It's perfectly fine,'" says Sting, still not quite convinced. "But I'm having a good time, and my criterion for worth is whether I'm enjoying it. If I'm not, I don't know what the point is."
"It's exhausting vocally," Sting concedes. "We're trying to go for how it would have sounded when it was written and so we're not using body mikes. The problem is that as an actor, you're encouraged to be naturalistic, but this play involves what Brecht called an epic style of acting, which is about being larger than life, speaking larger than life, and not only being the character but commenting on that character. It's very broad strokes and you have to be very loud and distinct and we're all suffering."
Sting's nervous, too. It's been a very long time since he's worked in front of a small, immediate audience.
"Dreading it," he says brightly. "It's one thing to go out in front of 100,000 people where most of the work is done for you - you can come out and the audience has already created the environment, the tension, the excitement. Coming out into this audience, you come out cold. They're going to be sitting there, which is why first scenes are always so difficult. You have to create the mood."
"It's a marvellous choice to make for someone who's as big a star as he," says the veteran actress Georgia Brown. "I've seen rock-and-rollers bored out of their brain doing the same thing they did when they were 25 and they're now in their late forties and couldn't care less except for the money..."
"He told me he didn't want to go out on the road as he got into his forties, singing to teenage girls," says producer Jerome Hellman ('Midnight Cowboy', 'Coming Home', 'The Mosquito Coast'). "He saw this as an opportunity to link up to a more evolved, mature means of creative expression."
"I really don't like obeying the stereotypes," Sting explains, not sounding particularly egotistical or as if this is just a stage he's passing through. "I don't want to just do what's expected, and what's expected of a successful singer-musician is to keep making records, keep churning them out until you're 50 years old and you're still on tour like the Stones. Good luck to them, but it doesn't excite me. I'm not really into nostalgia."
That doesn't mean Sting won't be at RFK Stadium when the Stones roll through in two weeks - their second show falls on a Monday, when the National is dark. "I probably will go," Sting says. "But I can't see myself re-forming the Police and doing a grand reunion tour." The Police disbanded in 1984, partly as a result of personality conflicts; that's not a problem with a solo act.
Anyway, Sting adds, "I don't like what's happening to rock-and-roll and popular culture. I find it limiting, and therefore any chance I have of exploring areas that you're not supposed to, I enjoy. I'm not supposed to be Doing this - and that's why I'm doing it."
Of course, Sting's also why there are so many new, fresh faces to be found in the audience at the National These days. "It's fun to watch these young girls in the front rows, totally in love, watching his every move and no one else's," says Kim Criswell, who plays Lucy Brown. ("It's not bad to have to look into that face every night," laughs Maureen McGovern, who plays Polly Peachum, one of his two wives and his principal love interest.)
Producer Hellman concedes that success will depend on a broad coalition of "people who are interested in Theater and the quality of 'The Three Penny Opera', people who are drawn by curiosity and the younger audience drawn by Sting."
In any case, Sting is no stranger to Brecht, whose name crops up in his interviews from the early '80s.
"In college, I never acted in his plays, but I studied his theories," says Sting. "There were times in his life when he totally refuted all his theories as junk, but they're interesting to read, and his theater was revolutionary at the time."
Brecht was one of the first modernists to use the theater to introduce social issues. Like the socially conscious songwriters of the '60s and '80s, Brecht and his musical collaborator Kurt Weill used the medium to illuminate issues and to move people, seeking to be subversive even in a commercial context. ("I think he would have enjoyed rock-and-roll," says Sting.)
In 1986, Sting recorded 'The Ballad of Mack the Knife' for Hal Wilner's celebranthology, 'Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill', and a year later did a Weill program with the Hamburg State Orchestra. His last album included a song with a melody adapted from Hanns Eisler, a Weill contemporary. It was the Wilner record, though, that fuelled the current production, according to Hellman, a friend and neighbor of Sting's in Malibu. After inquiring about rights to the play and finding it "doable," Hellman approached Sting in 1986.
"His principal concern was the commitment of time to make it viable," says Hellman. "Sting seldom spends more than a couple of weeks in any one place - he's strangely proud of it, that the last few years have been nomadic, despite the fact that he has a very strong family life (Sting has four children, ranging in age from 3 to 12) . The notion of settling in for a long run in any one thing was, I think, intimidating."
Sting, who has committed for nine months, says "that's a long time for me to spend anywhere. Three weeks is a long time for me to be one place. It entails a certain amount of discipline and obviously I'm prepared to do that, though I'm sure I'll go crazy after a few months. This is a long haul, but there's a lot to learn."
There was consideration - brief - to doing a stadium or arena tour for a shorter length of time, Hellman says, but "we measured against the critical reality that one must not do anything to violate the integrity of the piece. It wasn't designed as a huge entertainment; it was designed for intimacy and confinement and limits."
Additionally, Hellman went back to the original Berlin version of the play and commissioned a new translation from Michael Feingold. "Sting liked the idea of doing a new version; it made it more attractive."
From there, Hellman started putting together a show, a process that took several years. Rehearsals began in New York in early August, and, according to Hellman, Sting "arrived without an attitude, without an entourage, and as a pupil, though well-prepared. Sting's sex appeal is undeniable, and he's aware of his importance and stardom, but he brought none of the trappings with him. He came to work super-conscious of the fact that they had years of stagecraft and experience that he lacked, and... he just buckled down in an unassuming way and went about his business, working like hell."
"There's no phony posturing. He's a real, straight-up-and-down, assured professional, a good musician and a smart performer," says Julius Rudel, the show's musical director. "It's a question of gaining confidence in terms of the sustaining power of notes, because in the thing that Sting did before that was less of a problem than it is in Weill, where there is often a long, sustained phrase. It's simply a question of routining and becoming confident he can do it."
For his part, Sting notes, "I'm rewarded in my normal life for expressing myself naturally. Here I'm working with a director and a musical director who have no interest whatever in how I express myself naturally, they don't want that. The music is written in a certain way, there's a certain tradition in how it's expressed and phrased and breathed. Mr. Dexter's not interested in the way I speak; he wants me to speak the way Brecht wants it spoken."
In this context, Sting, who is often surrounded by sycophants and yes men, makes being demoted to corporal sound downright therapeutic. John Dexter has a reputation as a strong-willed disciplinarian, and the company is being treated like an English repertory company, right down to group speech classes and dance workouts. All cast members, including Sting, call the director "Mr. Dexter," who, according to Georgia Brown, "sits out there in the dark while we all wait to be either killed or adored. Adored rarely."
"But I didn't come into this expecting it to be easy," Sting says. "I've come because it's difficult - I have to sing, I have to act, I have to dance and that's going to take an awful lot of stamina and endurance. Vocally, I'm pulled in all different directions, I have to project. I put makeup on, which I've never done in my life."
"Sting's learned a great deal in a very limited amount of time," says Hellman. "He told me that when he forgets something in concert, he makes it up on the spot. So none of that prepared him for the discipline of an integrated performance - where you've got to deal in relationship with, in response to and reaction to other actors in the scene - where you have to play to the audience at the same time. You don't even do that in movies."
"Acting in movies is internal," agrees Sting. "You think something, and the camera's so close it picks it up.
On the stage here, you can be thinking as much as you like, and if you're not doing something physical, it doesn't work. The camera will focus on you; the viewer in the theater will choose what he wants to look at, so you have to work harder to be watchable."
Sting's film career has been erratic - starring roles in films as varied as 'Stormy Monday', 'Brimstone and Treacle' and 'Plenty', less impressive leads in 'The Bride', 'Julia Julia' and 'Dune' - but it's also been more active, and certainly more extreme, than that of David Bowie, the only other talented rock star to have achieved a celluloid presence. "I have no regrets," he says. "There are some things that were real bad, some were good, some were fair to middling, but I don't think that's unique to any actor. When I look at the stuff I've done I can only be pleased because I never had an ambition to be an actor, I never thought I had any particularly native talent as an actor - and yet I've done a lot."
And, he adds, "I don't think failure is any disgrace as long as you're trying to go beyond yourself, go beyond what's comfortable. I don't think being comfortable is particularly useful to the human being. You get fat, you get lazy, you get tired, you die. It just seems to be the thing to do if you're human - you keep going, you keep pushing, inside and out."
Critics have been analysing the roots of Sting's ambition since that time, 50 million records ago, that Sting, drummer Stewart Copeland and guitarist Andy Summers emerged in the late '70s from the chasm between corporate rock and punk. Before disbanding, the Police served up dollops of seductively lean and melodic hits like 'Roxanne', 'Message in a Bottle', 'Don't Stand So Close to Me', 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic' and 'Every Breath You Take'.
Subsequently, Sting embarked on a successful solo career and straddled the line between privilege and responsibility by becoming one of the most visible and articulate spokesmen for a number of causes, including Amnesty International, the Brazilian rain forests and the mistreatment of native Indians there.
When Sting describes Macheath, he's talking a bit about himself as well. "He's from a poorer background than he pretends - he's a social climber - he pretends that he's well-to-do when he in fact isn't... He has two accents, one a pretend accent which is very proper, very English, though when he gets angry, he gets very low... I have two accents as well."
"Mackie has a sense of himself as a romantic hero: He likes the idea that he's Clark Gable, he likes money, he likes women." These are all things Sting has learned about his character since August. Has he learned things about himself as well?
"I hope so," he smiles, refusing to fall into the trap of specifics. He grew up Gordon Sumner in Newcastle, a Northern English coal town and shipbuilding centre that has never quite recovered from the '30s depression (that's it in 'Stormy Monday', along with the "lower" accent). His mother was a hairdresser, his father a milkman who eventually took over a local dairy. That social context, along with a Catholic upbringing and Jesuit education, conditioned Sting to subscribe early on to the work ethic. What he lacks in education and training he usually makes up for with dogged persistence. Even now, he is a voracious reader, the one-time schoolteacher who remains the perennial student. His guidelines, he once explained, are to "risk, provoke, learn, stretch" ("sounds like some sort of spiritual Jane Fonda tape," he chuckles now).
So theater, like film and music before, is providing Sting an avenue to extend himself, as well as an escape from the image traps of pop culture. Still, he makes it clear he's not abandoning rock, only rethinking his place in it. "It's not as if I've left music," Sting says. "I can't not be a musician, music's going through my head all the time. I'm hoping that by stepping outside of this rat race, I can comment on it better, be more useful to myself. The big problem is why do we do it: What's the reason behind it?
"I don't want to write a song unless I know the reason for writing it. I don't want to perform unless I have a reason to perform, so I've sort of shifted to the side. I think pop music needs to be looked at quite closely or the people in it are obviously losing something. We're getting cynical, we're getting older; I find it very mundane... If you can't really give yourself a satisfactory reason, then you shouldn't be doing it, you're just using up that space."
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