Sting opens up about his troubled childhood, theatrical inspiration and refitting The Last Ship

The former frontman of The Police has had a wildly successful music career, but he's been facing big challenges on the theatrical stage that have forced a revamp of his play The Last Ship.

Stage play by former frontman of The Police revamped before opening for Canadian audience

Sting, former frontman of The Police, says his stage production of The Last Ship is based on his experiences growing up near the shipyards of Wallsend, England. 'You have to come to terms with the ghost you left behind, so really it's a search for myself.' (Anand Ram/CBC)

Sting, the wildly successful singer-songwriter and once frontman of The Police, spent the first half of his life trying to escape what he feared would be his destiny. Now he's doggedly embracing it.

Born in Wallsend in North-East England, as a boy he woke up every morning to the sounds of one of the biggest shipyards in the world situated just at the end of his street. Practically everyone in town worked at the shipyard, but even from a young age Sting says he knew it was the last thing he wanted for himself.

"It was a dark, terrifying place with an awful health and safety record, with terrible chemicals. People got diseases, and industrial accidents occurred. So, I did everything I could not to have that as my destiny," he told The National's Susan Ormiston in an interview in Toronto.

  • WATCH: Susan Ormiston's interview with Sting Monday night on The National on CBC Television and streamed online

The irony is that after successfully building an international career in music far away from his hometown, Sting has spent the past 10 years revisiting his roots by writing and composing a musical theatre production based on his town's shipyard.

"I can tell this story perhaps better than if I'd stayed there, because I can see it from the outside. And it was a gift that I didn't appreciate at the time, because I just wanted to escape," Sting says.

"But in later life you realize that like a salmon, you have to go back to your spawning ground at some point and make sense of the whole shape of your life. And you have to come to terms with the ghost you left behind, so really it's a search for myself," he adds.

Refitting The Last Ship

The cast of Toronto's production of The Last Ship. The show has been revamped substantially since it left Broadway. (Mirvish Productions)

The Last Ship opened this week in Toronto at The Princess of Wales Theatre, and runs until March 24. This current show is quite different from its previous runs on Broadway and in London.

The Last Ship was forced to close after just four months in New York due to lacklustre ticket sales, even though it did manage to snag two Tony nominations. Leaving New York, the entire structure of the show was reworked, whole scenes were either dropped or changed, and new music was written.

The process was one Sting says he is used to from his work as a musician.

"You know, I've been singing my songs for 40 years and every night I change them ... but in the theatre, once you have a product you don't change it, you go on your track," he says. "My thing is completely the opposite of that."

Before bringing the stage production to Toronto, Sting took the revamped show to sold-out audiences in the United Kingdom, including his hometown, and to Ireland. It was in Dublin that the Mirvishes came to see the show and approached Sting about bringing it to Toronto.

They had one condition, though. They wanted him to star in the play, something he only did briefly in New York to try to boost ticket sales.

"I think, you know, I'm an asset in terms of being able to get publicity, so this is the reality," he says. "So if we can sell the play with my name, I'm perfectly prepared to do that."

Sting appears at the curtain call following his debut performance of 'The Last Ship' on Broadway in New York City. (Charles Sykes/Invision/Associated Press)

As to why the play didn't do better on Broadway even after he did join the cast, Sting says the subject matter itself wasn't well suited for audiences there.

"It's a difficult subject, it's a difficult subject," he says. "Broadway is a tourist market, and people come in to town to watch girls kicking their legs in the air."

The story Sting produced is definitely not that.

It tells of the struggles associated with working in a one-industry town, and the social devastation that follows when that way of life is threatened. The theme is one he thinks will touch audiences in Canada, especially in the industrial heartland of southern Ontario.

"I am feeling that Ontario will respond to this play," he says. "People are losing their jobs to automation … I know what's happening here with General Motors, so the themes of the play are very topical."

In fact, Sting felt that connection so strongly that this week he reached out to the workers of General Motors in Oshawa, Ont. — some 2,500 people who are at risk of losing their jobs after the company announced plans to shut down the plant by the end of this year.

He and the cast travelled to the community and performed The Last Ship just for them. He said he was doing it to show his support and solidarity.

Sting performs for GM workers in Oshawa


2 years agoVideo
In a show of solidarity, Sting performs for GM workers in Oshawa. 1:06

Speaking to General Motors workers in Oshawa on Thursday, Sting said: "You deserve to be looked after better by the company that you've supported. It's very simple — it's a social contract which should be observed. You deserve to be treated better."

While the rights of workers is a central theme of The Last Ship, the play is also a love story and it deals with a central father-son relationship.

Sting has been open about the parallels he drew from his own life in writing the play. After choosing a life in the arts and pursuing a career as a musician, his relationship with his own father suffered and wasn't fully repaired until his father was dying.

"We had a tough relationship," Sting says. "Sometimes a father's love is misconstrued as being too controlling, and conversely, a son's ambition can seem like a pie-in-the-sky dream. I was a dreamer."

Sting says he had 'a tough relationship' with his father growing up because of his choice to pursue a career in music rather than finding a job in the shipyards of his hometown. (Anand Ram/CBC)

With his own kids, two of whom are successful musicians in their own right, Sting has taken a different approach.

He says he tries to trust them to make their own choices and choose their own paths. But when asked if he thinks he's been a good father, he admits he isn't entirely certain.

"I'm not sure how good a parent I am, at all," he says. "So really it's a question they have to answer. I've spent a lot of my time on the road, and although they've been given great privileges … whether or not I'm a good father or not, I don't know. Ask them. I try my best."

After its stint in Toronto, Sting says The Last Ship will travel to London, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

  • WATCH: Susan Ormiston's interview with Sting Monday night on The National on CBC Television and streamed online

About the Author

Perlita Stroh

Producer, The National

Perlita Stroh is a producer with The National at CBC News. She works on news and current affairs stories and is based in Toronto.