February 10, 2015 | Posted in MUSICAL THEATER | By sockii
The Last Ship in Review: Why It Failed To Capture Broadway Audiences
After a brief summer preview in Chicago, Sting‘s long-anticipated musical The Last Ship premiered on Broadway in September of last year. Dedicated fans and lovers of musical theater alike were excited to see how the legendary singer-songwriter could bring his music to the Broadway stage. Indeed, Sting’s 2013 album The Last Ship, featuring music written for and around the project, received quite strong reviews overall and was the first album of new material from Sting since 2003’s Sacred Love.
But The Last Ship—the musical—received lukewarm reception from critics and theatergoers alike and failed to draw in enough crowds to keep the production afloat. In December of 2014, Sting made a last-ditch effort to create buzz and save the production by appearing in the show himself, replacing Jimmy Nail in the role of shipyard foreman Jackie White. Even so, the production came to a close after a final performance on January 24, 2015, leaving many to wonder what exactly had gone wrong.
I was fortunate to see the performance once during its brief run at the Neil Simon Theater in New York, back in November before Sting joined the cast. Overall I personally enjoyed The Last Ship very much and was sad to see it did not manage to connect better with theater-going audiences. In retrospect, however, I can see some of the flaws of the production and why it might have been doomed to failure from the start. These are just my feelings not so much as a musical theater fan (indeed, I’m generally not enthusiastic about the genre) but as someone who has enjoyed Sting’s music for many decades—but not without a critical eye.
Video: Sting and the cast of The Last Ship performing “Show Some Respect” during the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.
Sting’s “Re-purposed” Songs Made For An Awkward Mix with New Material
The Last Ship featured not just new music from Sting but several songs from his back-catalog of solo, post-Police material—and the contrast in sound and style was sometimes jarring. “All This Time”, for instance, fit well with the storyline and setting of the show, and was a good song to have early on in the first act to catch the audience’s attention. But its sound and style just didn’t fit with the new material written specifically for The Last Ship, which is all much more folksy and definitely theatrical in sound (like “Show Some Respect” spotlighted above). “Ghost Story”, a Sting song from the 1999 album Brand New Day, felt awkward to me toward the end being re-purposed for the show; it’s one of my favorite solo-Sting songs yet the interpretation here did not work for me.
At the performance I attended I overheard other patrons definitely confused by the mixture of new and old material. If they were expecting a “jukebox musical“, The Last Ship was not it. Neither did it feel as entirely original as it should have, which is a shame as Sting wrote quite a lot of material related to the story which did not make it into the musical (but was instead included on his 2013 album of the same title.)
“When We Dance” was used to good effect to illustrate the love triangle between the characters of Gideon, Meg, and Arthur, but otherwise the melding of new and old material was truly awkward at best.
Gideon: Not An Easy Character For Some To Relate To
The central character in The Last Ship is Gideon Fletcher, who returns to his hometown of Wallsend upon news of his father’s death. Gideon walked away from his father years before, determined to not end up like him and the other residents of the town whose lives all revolved around the shipyard and that now-dying industry. Gideon also left behind his girlfriend, Meg, who it turns out was pregnant with Gideon’s child at the time (he did not know when he left) and Meg is now torn between the man who left her behind and the man she is with now, Arthur.
Some people I’ve talked to who saw the play complained that they did not find Gideon a sympathetic character at all, and could not understand why Meg would even consider wanting him back in her life when Arthur was so devoted to her and her son. They complained about the way Gideon abandoned his father when he did, when the man was unable to work and really care for himself after a shipyard injury. Personally I found Gideon a strong and interesting character, one I could relate to on several levels, perhaps because of my own early life and struggles. I prefer not to go into those personal details at length; suffice to say, as an example, that the imagery and staging of the song “Dead Man’s Boots” were extremely powerful (in my opinion) to anyone who suffered from any form of mental or physical abuse/domination as a child. I could deeply sympathize with Gideon’s need to get out of a community so small and limited that it felt suffocating, without anything to offer one in life except sameness and drudgery.
But without a strongly heroic central character that all of the audience could get behind and cheer for, I think many in the audience found themselves emotionally disconnected from the work and the storyline. Meg, perhaps, was more likeable as a heroine but her story was not so central to the play as Gideon’s return home, and the closing of the shipyard. Indeed, there seemed to be too many competing storylines throughout The Last Ship, and it lacked that solid, central narrative voice that should have propelled the plot along.
The Last Ship Was Quite Dark In Tone Compared To Most Broadway Musicals
The Last Ship was not your typical, happy “feel good” Broadway musical by any stretch of the imagination. There were a few laughs, yes, and there was some romance, but overall the tone of the work was quite brooding and not exactly uplifting. After all, it starts with the death of Gideon’s father as a set-up for the story. Then there is the news of the shipyard closing, which is the only life and employment most of Wallend’s men have ever known. The town’s beloved priest is also dying, and there seems to be little hope for the future for anyone in the story at all.
The only thing that rallies the town together is the priest’s idea to build one last ship for them all to sail away on…but to where? For what purpose? Will they every return, and what of the women largely remaining behind? It’s all rather esoteric, a fantastical idea that left many audience members and critics repeatedly befuddled. Sting’s message may have been about the importance of work, of creating, of having a purpose in life and what happens to those (especially men, sons and fathers) who lose that driving purpose. On a certain level the allegory works—in fact I kept thinking of the Elves sailing to the West at the end of The Lord of the Rings books—but it’s still not the typical cheery, Disney-style storylines so popular with Broadway audiences today.
The Wrong Audience, The Wrong City?
I still am scratching my head over the fact that The Last Ship premiered here in the United States, in Chicago and then New York City, instead of in Great Britain where I think audiences would have connected much more easily with the story and setting. In my opinion it seemed a show much better suited for London’s West End than Broadway, certainly at least for giving it a trial run and testing out audience reaction before taking it elsewhere, to those not as familiar with British industrial towns and their heritage. I know some did pick up on the similarities between Wallsend and dying industrial towns in America, but Wallend is still quite a bit different from, say, Detroit.
Whether The Last Ship might see a new production in London or elsewhere in the future remains to be seen and may not be too likely, which I do think is a shame. Despite its flaws, I still thought The Last Ship was a powerful show with some excellent music and a story that was thoughtful, relevant, and deserved to be told. I recommend checking out both the Broadway cast recording and Sting’s related 2013 album, which I fully contend contains some of his best, most personal and moving material ever.
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sockii is just your typical Jane-of-All-Trades who never has enough time in her day for all of her projects. She has written for many websites online including Squidoo, Zujava, Yahoo! Contributors Network, HubPages and Wizzley. She has been attending and vending at science fiction and media conventions for over 15 years, and for several years ran an art gallery and jewelry store in Philadelphia. Today she is happy to be living in South Jersey with her partner David and their 6 cats. Sockii is a member of several affiliate sales programs including Amazon Associates and Viglink. Products from these services may be advertised on her posts and pages to generate sales commissions.
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