If you’re in New York and you’re looking for the least Broadway show on Broadway, then go see The Last Ship, a new musical with an original score by Sting. After Once closed at the beginning of the month, this show is the only sentimental piece at the scale of a Broadway musical in town. I don’t imagine it will enjoy the same success as Once, given that it’s not the first one of the genre, so hurry and see it before the economics of Broadway lead to its untimely closing.
The Last Ship tells the story of a shipbuilding community in the north east England town Wallsend, where Sting was born and raised. Centered around the lives of builders whose industry has left them behind as the business moves to foreign lands, this somber story narrativizes the lives of a man and a woman who must choose between freedom and the shipbuilding life they’ve been raised with.
The show, largely composed of songs from Sting’s last album, is a spectacular feat of musical storytelling. Although next to normal’s Brian Yorkey and Penny Dreadful’s John Logan put their best writerly foot forward, the musical favors the music over the story. Sting wrote the music and the writing was created to fill in the spaces between the songs. Yorkey and Logan’s book is acceptable at best, even with the help of a tremendous cast.
Michael Esper gives an impassioned performance as Gideon Fletcher, the man who returns to the shipyard town from a self-imposed exodus and must now face the consequences for abandoning his provincial community for the cosmopolitan riches of the world. What he finds, among other things, is his father dead, the girl he left behind with a son and a boyfriend, and the parish priest dying of cirrhosis. As Gideon Fletcher, Esper layers his process with brood, angst, madness and passion.
The Last Ship has been described on multiple occasions as Kinky Boots’ more depressive, realistic counterpart, telling the same story of the working class rag-tag team battling to preserve their way of life amidst burgeoning globalization. In a way, this is true; the story is a somber one, and does not allow for sequins and fan kicks. Instead, the movement is much more modest and unsurprisingly folksy, while preserving some Fosse-esque triangle wedge formations in the show’s occasional upbeat number. This is why it will always lose in the game of pizzazz against its less realistic competitors. I’m looking at you, On the Town and Honeymoon in Vegas.
Following a shaky start after opening night, the show’s production team decided to bring Sting on in the role of Jackie White, the shipyard’s foreman. This has done some good for ticket sales, but even so, the show is at the Half-Price Ticket Booth within months of opening night. I suppose it makes sense, given that there are few people who can buy tickets to Broadway shows, and even fewer in that group who are fans of Sting. It is, however, a terrific shame to see good music go unappreciated. We must seek consolation in the fact that, in the words of the scowling gays sitting behind me, “poor Sting will be just fine.”
If you are a fan of musicians writing Broadway shows, then you’re part of a growing population of Broadway fans. Following Cindy Lauper’s and Elton John’s respective successes with Kinky Boots and Billy Elliot, songwriters are taking to Broadway to partake in that special type of business symbiosis; their names sell tickets, so producers are more likely to hire them than working Broadway composers.
That The Last Ship stands on the shoulders of giants is a severe understatement. Unfortunately, (and I do mean this) because of the realities of who buys tickets these days, I do not predict it will stay at the Neil Simon Theatre for much longer. That is a huge shame, because it features some of the most powerful music to appear on Broadway in the past decade. Perhaps it is strangely symbolic that this is the fate of The Last Ship, because it is its most predominant theme – that of people’s choices, their lives, and those lives’ ambiguous ends.
Photo credits: Joan Marcus