The Last Ship, 16-time Grammy winner Sting's first foray into theater, is no jukebox musical.
The project, billed as "a portrait of a community so bound together by passion, faith and tradition, they'll stop at nothing to preserve the only life they've ever known," is an original construct, composed specifically for the stage, with narrative strings tied to the acclaimed singer's childhood - and like many world premieres before it, will debut in Chicago prior to setting sail for New York.
Directed by Joe Mantello with a book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey, The Last Ship will play a 4-week tryout at the Bank of America Theatre, beginning June 10 and continuing through July 13. With tech now underway, the cast and creative team gathered at the Cadillac Palace Theatre on May 27 as the musical, an intimate behemoth steeped in English tones and prickling music, rises from the tide with Broadway in its sights.
"The Last Ship is about building a ship, but today's about building a musical," three-time Tony winning producer Jeffrey Seller said, introducing the musical's creative team and cast, including American Idiot's Michael Esper, star of London's Wicked Rachel Tucker, and Drama Desk Award winner Aaron Lazar. Fred Applegate, Jimmy Nail, Sally Ann Triplett, and Collin Kelly-Sordelet round out the principal cast.
And building they are, according to Logan, who says there's still work to be done - though there's nowhere else he'd rather do it. Previewing The Last Ship in Chicago is as much of a homecoming as it is a tryout, a chance to showcase the musical for "his audience" - a community of theatregoers who groomed and "taught [him] how to be a playwright."
"I think everyone feels like we're in the right town," said Logan, a Northwestern University grad and award-winning writer behind Broadway's Red, last season's Bette Middler-lead 'I'll Eat You Last,' as well as the latest James Bond film Skyfall, and Showtime's Penny Dreadful. "It's a delicate thing when you introduce a new piece of work. It's like you're sending your child out into the world for the first time, and because I produce all of my plays here, I've learned that it's a forgiving, honest town about art. And that's what we need to help us finish our job."
Though 'Ship' may be sailing onwards to Broadway later on this year, the production's roots grew out of not only Sting's childhood memories of English coastal towns, but Logan's, whose father worked in the Harland and Wolff shipyards in Belfast, which allowed the pair, along with Yorkey, to create a group of distressed and determined cast of characters in a small shipyard town.
The Last Ship, a tale of reclaiming one's dignity, what it means to be a father, and the tension of time on relationships, according to the cast, centers on Gideon Fletcher (Esper), who sets out to travel the world, leaving the towering vessels constructed by equal parts pride and labor and those he loves behind. Included in that fold is his childhood sweetheart, Meg Dawson (Tucker), who she describes as a "strong and feisty woman" and mother of Tom (Kelly-Sordelet.) When he returns 14 years later, Gideon finds Wallsend in a dire state, and along with the community, rises up to reclaim their pride, set to craft a legacy through constructing the community's last hope, a hulking, massive, iron ship.
"The show, at its most basic level, is about family," said Logan. "It's about fathers and sons, and mothers and children, and how they connect - or don't."
Raising Wallsend from page to stage has taken Sting many years, the score a product of a long songwriting hiatus, which was showcased in a series of benefit concerts last fall at the Public Theater, and recorded for PBS.
"He got the idea for this in 1989, and it's been percolating ever since," said Applegate, also a graduate of Northwestern, and former Chicagoan. "It's interesting to see him work on things: to cut songs, to add a song. It's a very different style for him, so it makes it all that much more collaborative, because we're all discovering what putting a musical together means. He's very supportive and appreciative of what we bring, it's been a great experience."
The musical, brought to life by a blended score of classic Sting, rock, and shanty work-songs, works to capture a specific type of community, with Esper, who was featured in the original Broadway cast of Green Day's American Idiot, understanding how music unseemingly able to transcend generations and culture, somehow, does.
"I personally feel like the more specific, the more universal," he said on the two shows' similarities. "The more specific and detailed you are about the world and the people you're representing, the more people will be able to identify. Hopefully this show is an example. It's a very different world, a very particular world, but the struggles are universal."
The ship, a monstrous vessel in the harbor representing pride and dignity, unites the characters as the story draws on, according to Applegate, coming to signify a multitude of ideas and hopes to the characters and actors, and hopefully, to the audience.
"[The ship represents] the dream, the dream of having a meaningful life, and producing something that will live on," said Logan. "Whether that's a ship made of iron, or a son well raised."
As they get deeper into the material, with over four weeks of rehearsals behind them, and many previews, edits, revisions, and additions to come, the cast is settling into their own interpreptation of the ship, both onstage and off.
For Esper, he's finding the inherent value of doing something simply to do it, for Kelly-Sordelet there's some redemption and learning to accept consequences within the show, and for Tucker, it's originating a character she'll soon take to the Neil Simon Theatre's stage in New York.
"My ship is coming to Broadway," she said. "It's been a dream of mine since I was a kid. My ship has sailed. We're coming to Broadway."
(c) Broadway World by Tyler Peterson