Sting’s shipbuilding

January 21, 2015

Helen Redmond reviews The Last Ship, a new musical from Sting.

THE BROADWAY musical The Last Ship features an original score written by the Grammy Award-winning rock star Sting. In the play, shipyard workers foot stomp, twirl, sing--and, oh yeah, they occupy a shipyard.

When was the last time that happened on Broadway?

Sting's songwriting ability is astonishing. His simple, clever lyrics tell complicated stories in less than four minutes, also infusing them with humor, politics, love and despair. Many of the songs for The Last Ship are influenced by traditional Irish and English music and are driven by fiddles, Northumbrian pipes, flutes, whistles, cello and melodeon. The songs come alive on stage with the help of a superb orchestra.

The Last Ship explores, through personal relationships and a struggle waged by the union to keep the shipyard open, how capitalism destroys regional economies and rips apart the lives of workers and their families.

Sting's musical is inspired in part by the writings of Karl Marx. This quote from the Communist Manifesto neatly sums up one of the main themes of the play--the relationship of the shipbuilders to the owners of the shipyard. Marx wrote of the working class, that it is "a class of laborers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labor increases capital. These laborers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market."

The Last Ship is appearing on Broadway
The Last Ship is appearing on Broadway

When was the last time that Marxist ideas were at the heart of a Broadway musical? Like never.

THE MUSICAL is partly autobiographical. Sting (real name Gordon Sumner) grew up in England in the town of Wallsend on the Tyne River. The shipyard was the largest employer. In a great, live concert for PBS, Sting recalled how each morning, like clockwork, thousands of men dressed in black and wearing gray caps walked down his street to the shipyard. Then, at night, they all walked back.

The shipyard was loud, dirty and dangerous, and workers suffered high rates of industrial accidents. Shipyards were the 1970s incarnation of the "dark satanic mills" that powered the English industrial revolution. But the workers were fiercely proud of the skills they to used erect the ships.

There is an iconic photograph of Wallsend by photographer Peter Loud that speaks volumes about life in the town. It is an image of a narrow street lined by low brick houses and at the end of the block sits the massive black hull of a ship called Tyne Pride. The hull dwarfs everything and blots out the sun and sky. It's absurd in the way that a Dali or Magritte painting is. In this surreal, mechanized landscape, the ship is a symbol of how capital not only dominates the physical environment, but also how it dominates the ability of workers to, as one character in the play states, "Put food on the table."

Review: Theater

The Last Ship at the Neil Simon Theater, New York City, playing through January 24.

There are three storylines in The Last Ship: A father-son conflict, a love triangle and the fight to keep the shipyard open.

Gideon Fletcher, played by Michael Esper, returns home after 15 years because his father, a rough and tough shipbuilder, has died. Gideon left home to escape brutal beatings from his father and to avoid employment in the shipyards. Instead, he became a sailor.

Trying to find solace and closure, Gideon sings "Dead Man's Boots" as an angry tribute to the hardworking father that he loved and hated. In the very entertaining song, "The Night the Pugilist Learned How to Dance," Gideon sings about transforming the swinging fists of a fighter into the swinging hips of a dancer, who then, without black eyes or a broken nose, gets the girl. Esper's voice is pitch perfect, and his acting is stellar. His performance is the super-glue that holds the play together.

When Gideon left town, he vowed to return one day and marry his girlfriend Meg Dawson, played by the wonderful Rachel Tucker. But now Meg is in love with another man, and by the end of the play, she's forced to make a choice. No spoilers here. Tucker's voice soars and her acting is believable even though some scenes with Gideon are predictable and hokey.

There shouldn't be a play about English workers without the entire cast singing, swearing, arguing politics and pounding down pints of lager in the pub. In The Last Ship there are plenty.

The song "Shipyard" explains how the only life the workers have ever known is in the shipyard, building boats is what they do and to a large extent it is their only identity. When a ship is launched out to sea, the workers find themselves trapped in a contradiction. On the one hand, they feel pride and joy that their labor has produced a magnificent vessel, but then sadness and anxiety sinks in because they don't know if they'll build another one.

The song continues with the shop steward of the union, played by Craig Bennett, belting out the words, "My dream is proletarian revolution. Comrades, brothers and fellow travelers, class struggle is the means of dialectic evolution. Das Kapital is me bible and the ruling class is liable. Quoting Marx and Engels, it's entirely justifiable...Till the means of production are safely in our hands and we'll become the rightful owners of the shipyard."

STING ACTS in one of the smaller roles as Jackie White, the foreman of the shipyard. His voice is top-notch, his acting is decent, but he's humble enough to know that he shouldn't try to carry the show. The Last Ship is truly an ensemble work.

The first act ends with the workers linking arms, charging a fence, climbing over it and occupying the shipyard. The audience claps and cheers.

It's Father O'Brien's idea for the workers to occupy the shipyard. Played with much hilarity and empathy by Fred Applegate, he's a respected religious figure who swears, smokes, drinks and believes in workers' rights. Father O'Brien wants the workers to build a boat for themselves and finds the financing to do it.

The song from the play's title, "The Last Ship," is hauntingly beautiful. It's the kind of tune that reveals with repeated listening new layers of meaning. Sting sings that for the workers, the vessels they construct "sum up your hopes, your despairs and your fears."

He describes the ship as having "a strange kind of beauty, cold and austere." And then there is the song chorus that captures the dichotomy of launching a ship: "Oh the roar of the chains and the cracking of timbers, the noise at the end of the world in your ears, as a mountain of steel makes its way to the sea and the last ship sails." Sections of the song are sung throughout the play by different characters.

Not everything works in the play. There are moments that feel rushed, and we don't see enough of the men actually working on the ship. Cheesy, feel-good lyrics pop up in some of the songs, and at two hours and thirty minutes, the play could have been shorter without compromising the plot. But none of these criticisms sink The Last Ship.

If you don't like Sting's pop songs, fair enough--but the ballads in this musical will inspire you with their fighting spirit. They are the lost voices of shipyard workers who put their blood, sweat and tears into every monster ship they built.

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