Who will play Sting on Broadway next year?
That was the burning question posed - sort of - Wednesday night at the Public Theater, as the pop veteran launched a 10-night run of benefit concerts introducing songs "inspired by" his first musical, The Last Ship, due to arrive on the Main Stem in fall 2014.
Billed as An Evening With Sting: The Last Ship, the show placed the international star in the Public's 260-seat Anspacher Theater, where he explained to an audience including fan-club members and lottery winners how he conceived his virgin project as a musical-theater composer/lyricist. Set in a Northeast England, where he grew up, it features as its hero a man who is, like Sting, the son of a shipyard worker, who leaves his small community and remains "very ambivalent about where he comes from."
His name is Gideon - not a far cry, Sting wryly noted, from his own given name, Gordon (Sumner). "There's some autobiography there," he said.
But not too much. Sting's newly released album, also titled 'The Last Ship' and featuring songs from the upcoming musical, is his first collection of new tunes in a decade; and it came to fruition, he told the crowd, only after he was freed from writer's block by the concept of crafting songs to be delivered by other people, representing different perspectives.
"That freed me up," he said, likening the consequent outpouring of music to "projectile vomiting."
His set list at the Public - where he was joined by 14 other musicians and vocalists, a number of them also natives of Northern England - featured at least one song that hadn't made the cut for the stage project (but is on the album): Practical Arrangement, a bittersweet duet written for Meg, the feisty single mom who is Gideon's love interest, and a rival for her affections.
The wispy-voiced Jo Lawry sang the parts of Meg and Peggy, another female character, while a droll, animated Jimmy Nail assisted Sting with the male roles. Sting prefaced several songs with explanations of how they fit into the plot, but the mood was generally as informal as his dress: a working man's jeans and T-shirt.
Like the songs on Sting's 1991 album, 'The Soul Cages', also inspired by his childhood and his relationship with his late father, the new tunes liberally incorporated the singer/songwriter's native folk textures. They also showcased his usual conspicuous sophistication, shifting moods and rhythms - in this case, to help distinguish the characters and propel the narrative.
The Celtic-flavored romp We've Got Now't Else was immediately recognizable as a production number, as was 'Shipyard', a song written to introduce various characters - among them a "pompous" laborer with literary aspirations, whom Sting was "born to play," he joked. The wistful 'Peggy's Song', delivered by Lowry, and 'So To Speak', a duet between Meg and a priest who befriends the workers, were more intimate and tender.
There were also a couple of nods to Sting's catalog. He segued from the fetching waltz 'The Night the Puglist Learned How to Dance' to 1994's lilting 'When We Dance', and topped the performance with an encore of 'All This Time', the first single from 'Soul Cages'.
After all, Sting quipped, he didn't want to reveal too much about the theatrical version of The Last Ship: "I want you to come see it."
The Last Ship
We've Got Now't Else
What Say You Meg
Dead Man's Boots
Ballad of the Great Eastern
New Rigged Ship
The Night the Pugilist Learned How to Dance
When We Dance
Jock the Singing Welder
It's Not the Same Moon
So to Speak
Show Some Respect
I Love Her But...
We've Got Now't Else (reprise)
The Last Ship (reprise)
All This Time (encore)
(c) USA Today by Elysa Gardner