Broadway is the strangest and least predictable of all the world’s stages. The latest proof of this maxim is exemplified by the fate of Sting’s new musical, “The Last Ship,” which debuted in Chicago this past June, opened on Broadway in October, and will close, far earlier than expected, on Jan. 24. Not even a last gasp effort to salvage the musical — which, beginning Dec. 9, found the composer-lyricist and rock icon himself stepping in to play a major onstage role — has been enough to keep it afloat.
As one of the most enthusiastic supporters of this musical — a show that, along with the more successful “Once,” can easily lay claim to possessing one of the most beautiful and literate scores to arrive on Broadway in a long time — I am heartbroken. So the question is: What went wrong?
Was it the quasi-autobiographical theme of the show, which was inspired by Sting’s own escape from the troubled shipbuilding town in northeast England where he grew up (and had echoes of a modern-day “Carousel”)? If so, why did Elton John’s “Billy Elliot” (in which labor strife in an English coal mining town was the backdrop), or Cyndi Lauper’s “Kinky Boots” (which looked at the possible demise of a shoe factory in England) succeed?
Was it that Sting’s score, with its terrific Celtic lilt and sophisticated, poetic lyrics, was too folk-based rather than rock-driven or “pure Broadway” (whatever that might be these days) to catch on? Hard to believe, but possible.
Was its storyline just too gritty and adult to attract the tourist crowd and the parents-with-kids crowd — the sort of audiences that flock to such shows as “Wicked” and “The Lion King”? Perhaps.
Was Sting’s wonderful PBS concert rendering of the score, aired before the $15 million production ever arrived on stage, just too much of a good thing? And did it confuse audiences who might have expected to see the 63-year-old “Apollo” (as his pal, Paul Simon, dubbed him) up there on the Broadway stage from the very start? Certainly his eventual presence boosted ticket sales, but he wasn’t about to commit to a long run, and the truth is, Jimmy Nail, who originated the role of the shipyard’s foreman, was terrific. Even more terrific was the performance of the fiery Rachel Tucker, who, despite the fate of “The Last Ship,” should emerge as a major star.
Director Joe Mantello’s muscular staging of “The Last Ship” far outstripped his work on “Wicked.” The show’s robust cast was full of genuine character. And every element of the production’s design was stunning. No blame there. And while you might quibble with aspects of the show’s book, the score is such a beauty it would be difficult to say the book was the show’s undoing. Maybe it just comes down to the fact that the cast featured no “stars,” that the story was not based on a popular movie or animated film, and that, surprisingly enough, it didn’t get the sort of branding (beyond Sting) that a really fine marketing and publicity campaign can supply.
Here is the one positive element in the whole thing, though it’s probably no balm for Sting, for whom “The Last Ship” clearly was a labor of love: Somewhere down the road, a Chicago theater company will grab hold of the rights to the show, tap a local Irish band or two to play the stuffing out of the score, and find just the right director and actors to bring it back to life. Just wait and see. It will happen.