“When I see a film of a ship being launched, for some reason I tear up,” says Sting. “I can’t explain why.
“There’s something about the profound, symbolic nature of a ship which is deeply rooted within me.”
The son of Tyneside fought against his roots for many years, putting thousands of miles between his Wallsend childhood and his multi-millionaire superstar life as an Englishman in New York.
But recently something changed, and the man born Gordon Sumner who grew up in the shadow of those maritime monoliths on the Tyne, heard the siren song of the shipyards calling him once more.
The result was The Last Ship, his first musical, which weighs anchor in Liverpool next month as part of an inaugural UK tour – and with local lad Joe McGann replacing the previously advertised Jimmy Nail in the lead role.
So what made Sting look back now?
“I think it’s a function of age,” ponders the 66-year-old during a visit to the Merseyside Maritime Museum to promote the show.
“You get to a certain point and you’re like a salmon, you head back to the river where you were spawned. There’s a compulsion there almost to understand yourself by seeing where you come from.”
The Last Ship centres around a Tyneside shipyard and its community.
Joe McGann (Jackie) and Charlie Hardwick (Peggy) . Top: The Last Ship. Photo Pamela Raith
Sailor Gideon Fletcher (Richard Fleeshman) returns home from sea to find the ship-building life he left behind is in chaos, the yard is closing and no one knows what will happen next.
Picket lines are drawn as foreman Jackie (McGann) and his wife Peggy fight to hold their community together to face the future as one.
Perhaps surprisingly, given The Last Ship’s setting, it was actually premiered on Broadway – its only UK performance up until now being a concert version, in which Sting took part, at The Sage in Gateshead in 2015.
“I should explain that,” he...explains. “Because I live in New York, I had this song cycle that I was writing, and I took it to a Broadway producer who I just happened to know and played him the songs and said do you think this could be a musical?
“He said ‘absolutely, this is a musical and I’ll tell you why. It’s about a community under threat and that always makes for the best drama’. He said, ‘this is Fiddler on the Roof with ships’.
“OK, I said, so what do I do? He said ‘I’ll get you a professional playwright and you’ll work together’.”
Sting in Liverpool. Picture by Brian Roberts
The singer-songwriter and actor says it was always important for him to bring the show back to Britain, and “especially to the north of England, because I think there will be a resonance here that perhaps was missing in New York.”
The production has had what he dubs, in shipyard parlance, a “refit for British waters”.
While on Broadway, producers were keener to concentrate on the love story aspect of the show. Liverpool audiences will notice a much more overt political point to be made.
“The important question the play asks, in my opinion, is what do communities do when their work is taken away from them?” its writer says. “What is our function without work? Where is our identity?
“It’s a question that’s relevant right now, not just in the 80s, in the past.
“Right now, what are we as human beings without work? I don’t know the answer, but the question is asked in the play.”
The music in the show is based on a rich Northumbrian folk tradition, mixed with a traditional musicals’ feel which owes a perhaps surprising debt to Sting’s own upbringing.
“I’m a great lover and respecter of musical theatre,” he announces. “My mother was a piano player and played Rodgers and Hammerstein in the house every day. We could never afford to go to see a play, but I know Carousel back to front, Oklahoma, South Pacific, Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady, West Side Story.
“These are all part of my musical education as well as rock and roll.
“So what I’ve done in this thing is stolen as many ideas as I could from Richard Rodgers!”
A career writing narrative songs helped the process too.
The story itself was inspired by a movement in a Gdansk shipyard, and the actions of union official Jimmy Reid in Govan, on the Clyde, in the 1970s.
So is this it for Sting and musicals? Has that ship now sailed, or are there more stories on the slipway?
“It was a compulsion,” he says of the creation of The Last Ship. “And it would have to be something that I felt as passionate about. A subject matter that I felt compassion about. It would be hard for me to sit and do a Disney cartoon after this. In fact, impossible.
“I’ve really enjoyed it and probably part of me will be looking for something as important as this.”
The Last Ship is at Liverpool Playhouse from April 9-14. Tickets HERE