by Daniel Corey
Tonight, my wife and I went to see the latest edition of the Sting-led musical The Last Ship, which is currently running at The Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre in Downtown Los Angeles. Still featuring music and lyrics by Sting, but sporting a new book by director Lorne Campbell, this iteration of the show is vastly different from the version that previously ran on Broadway.
My relationship with The Last Ship began prior to its New York opening, when I watched a PBS special that featured Sting and an ensemble of musicians presenting songs from the play in a concert-like setting. A 2013 studio album was released, also titled The Last Ship, featuring similar performances. At the time, I thought I had a handle on what Ship would be offering theatre audiences, but many changes would take place before its September 2014 opening on Broadway, as I’ll detail in a moment.
In 2015, I had the opportunity to catch The Last Ship in previews when I was in NYC for New York Comic-Con. At that time, Sting had served as lyricist and songwriter, but not as a performer. He would later join the cast in an effort to save the show from a dwindling box office, but Ship would ultimately close after only four months in residence at The Neil Simon Theatre.
The Last Ship is based on Sting’s experiences as a youth in the city of Newcastle, a history that he had previously expressed in his Grammy-winning 1991 album, The Soul Cages. Cages dealt with the death of Sting’s father and Newcastle’s decline in the wake of its failing shipbuilding business. The first version of Ship focused on Gideon, a young sailor returning home after a 15-year absence to find his long-lost love Meg raising his son, whom he’s never met. Meg is now coupled with Arthur, who has raised Gideon’s son as his own, and who also works for the scrap-metal company that is dismantling the city’s shipyard.
What I found surprising about the preview run was that the show featured only a few of the songs from The Last Ship studio album. Characters had changed, songs were deleted, new ones added. Notably, And Yet, somewhat touted as the album’s single, was absent. Also, a few cuts from Sting’s discography made their way to the stage: Island of Souls and All This Time from The Soul Cages, as well as When We Dance (featured on the hits collection Fields of Gold 1984-1994) and Ghost Story (from 1999’s Brand New Day).
The original show opened with Island of Souls, and within a few minutes of Gideon’s arrival, made its way to All This Time. Both songs hewed pretty faithfully to the original recordings, as did When We Dance, which had Meg trading off dances between the two men in her romantic triangle. Loving ballad Ghost Story was utilized as an 11th-hour moment of Gideon singing to his father’s grave.
While I adore each of those songs as they appeared on their respective albums, none of them fit well into the show. Ghost Story—one of my all-time favorite cuts by Sting—was especially dysfunctional, falling flat somewhere around the show’s two-hour mark. At that point, the audience either needed splash-and-flash or hard-hitting drama, not some guy alone on stage singing a sweet ballad to a rock and flower.
The original show, though good-natured and featuring its share of positive points, faltered in its pacing and story logic. The setup of the love triangle in a failing town had some teeth, but everything seemed to stumble in execution.
Fast-forward to 2020: new director Campbell has completely rewritten the book, Sting is now the character lead, and a brilliant new set featuring beautiful video projection and animation has been added. I won’t spoil the story, but I’ll give you a few of the basics, so that you get an idea of how much it has improved.
The play now starts with a pre-show. As the audience settles in, the cast takes the stage and creates the town’s atmosphere. The opening has no curtain: Sting simply joins the townsfolk onstage, the lights dim, then he leads the cast in a rousing overture of What Have We Got, a song that previously was one of three or so almost identical anthems used late in the runtime of the original show. After getting the audience involved in a lively opening number, the cast transitions into a nicely retooled Island of Souls, now with new lyrics and musical passages that help the song fit into the show more properly.
The revamped story still focuses on Gideon returning to a failed shipbuilding town, but now Meg is a struggling single mom to their daughter, Ellen. Sting is introduced as shipyard foreman Jackie White, who is embroiled in a life-and-death debate with company management; from there, individual characters are introduced in energetic fashion, presenting us with songs that are woven nicely into the narrative. The first act sets up the town and its troubles, and the second act takes the audience into a well-paced, high-stakes finale that has more than one tear-stimulating moment.
All This Time is once again featured, but with completely different context and lyrics, and When We Dance is also vastly retooled to fit the story. Both songs just make sense now. Also, notably, previously axed Last Ship album cut And Yet has finally made its way to the boards.
On rare occasion, art may come to us fully formed. Mostly, the creation of artistic work is a long and brutal process, and many pages of content that we once adored as brilliant and innovative are torn from the book and strewn out by the wayside, never to be seen again.
I have experienced the seemingly endless journey of getting an artistic work into shape, albeit on a much smaller scale than The Last Ship. Unfinished film scripts turn into finished books, which then turn into completely different finished film scripts, which inspire me to write songs that then go through many evolutions. Most of the best work that artists do is tested, revised and tested again.
The Last Ship has taken a rough path, starting with the loss of a loved one that inspired a rock album, which 20 years later would become a stage musical, and then five years after that become yet another musical. It’s been choppy seas, but The Last Ship has weathered the storm and turned into a work that Sting, director Campbell, the cast, crew and Center Theatre Group can be proud of.
Check out Sting’s offerings on Apple Music: https://music.apple.com/us/artist/sting/94804
And buy tickets to see The Last Ship, now in its final week at The Ahmanson: https://www.todaytix.com/x/los-angeles/shows/19625-the-last-ship
Have a great week of artistic discovery, DangerKatts!
– Daniel Corey