The North has a rich history of creating great things, from coal to textiles, steel to ships…and even the music legend, Sting. Drawing on his own upbringing in Tyneside, Newcastle, Sting has written original music and lyrics for musical, The Last Ship, that are “very much steeped in the folk music of the North East”. The story explores the demise of the shipbuilding industry upon a community in the Wallsend, Tyne and Wear.
The Last Ship first set sail to Chicago and later Broadway in 2014, and returns to its native shores for the first time this year. Sting explains the story is about “the shipyard workers who in the 80s were all made redundant. Whole generations of skill sets were thrown on the scrapheap for very abstract economic reasons”. The musical, he says, asks questions that we’re all wondering about the future: “What happens to communities and societies when work disappears? Who are we? What is left?”.
With more Grammys than you can shake a stick at, it’s hard to imagine Sting (or Gordon Sumner as he was then known) as a young lad growing up in Tyneside, but those round Geordie vowels and the odd ‘aye’ creep in from time to time, reminding you that he is in fact one of our own. Of the seemingly endless projects that Sting has been a part of, he says “I’ve never been so passionate about anything I’ve ever done. I’m fiercely proud of my heritage in Tyneside. It’s like Mancunians – you’re fiercely proud of where you come from, and you want to honour where you come from.”
Sting left Tyneside at eighteen to follow his dream to become “a writer of songs and a singer of songs”. Now that dream has well and truly been realised, he returns to his roots to “pay the debt” he feels he owes to the people and the place that made him.
Sting grew up, quite literally, in the shadow of ships being built in the shipyard at the end of his street. A young man’s career options in Tyneside at that time were very limited: you became a coal miner or a shipyard worker – and certainly not an international musician. Despite rejecting the life that Tyneside offered him, the symbolism of the shipyard had always been hovering somewhere in Sting’s mind. But it was only eight years ago when everything clicked: “I wanted to give the community of where I come from a voice, tell their narrative in this form because it’s a story that hasn’t been told.”
“It’s like Mancunians, you’re fiercely proud of where you come from”
It was a task that Sting took very seriously. He tested his material out on ex-shipyard workers in Newcastle. Of that early audience, he says “most of them had never been to the theatre – ever. They sat there with their pints, and they watched me sing, and I said ‘well, shall I carry on with this?’, and they said ‘Aye. You’re doing a grand job’. And with their blessing, Sting went full steam ahead with the project.
Sting is quick to admit though that he’s never been a shipyard worker or a sailor, joking that the only time he’s spent at sea is as “a musician on a cruise ship”. Instead, he sees himself as the “ship’s doctor” tasked with “refitting The Last Ship for British waters”: tinkering with songs, adding new parts, reshaping characters ready for UK audiences. He is very much aware that the lives of the characters in his musical could quite easily have been his own: “Kids that I went to school with are still there. I recognise that I was lucky.” He rather modestly puts the difference down to “good fortune”.
Still, there are biographical elements of the story that have “crept in subconsciously”. Like Sting, The Last Ship’s protagonist, Gideon, abandons his family and the shipyard. Gideon returns fifteen years later to find the shipbuilding life he once knew in turmoil. The tension between Gideon and his father is drawn, in part, from Sting’s relationship with his own father, and captured beautifully in the song ‘Dead Man’s Boots’. Sting says, “Like most working-class dads, he would say ‘You can’t make a living doing that [music]’. It’s hard for a man to admit he’s wrong, or to say he’s proud of you, but he was. He couldn’t tell me that, but he was [laughs].”
You may be forgiven for thinking that this is a story solely about men, but Sting points out that his mother’s influence – as well as his father’s – is very much present. He describes his mother as his “musical muse”. She was a piano player with a passion for musical theatre that encouraged the young Sting to fall in love with the musicals Carousel and Oklahoma. He says, “One of my earliest memories is of my mum’s feet on the piano pedals, listening to her. She used to play tangos all the time for some reason. I adored my mother. I adored music. She was really the reason I became a musician.”
The music of The Last Ship brings together “folk music of the North East” with those traditional musical theatre influences that Sting was exposed to through his mother.
Reconnecting with his past by creating The Last Ship allowed Sting to get a deeper understanding of what his upbringing gave to him: “I’m grateful for it because it was a surreal, industrial environment that was a gift to me as a song writer: seeing something as big as a street being launched into a river with a noise that sounds like the end of the world. Even though the work was appalling, those men were very very proud of what they did, and I’m proud of them too”. The musician has shown pride for his Northern roots in a way that only Sting could do.
The Last Ship is at The Lowry from 3 – 7 July 2018. Tickets are available at thelowry.com/events/the-last-ship.