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Sting sets sail with Paul Simon tour, ‘The Last Ship’ on Broadway

By Neal Justin
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

The lute is in the closet. Over the past decade, Sting has alienated many fans with obscure music and a Police reunion that felt more like an obligation than a celebration.

But the Grammy-winning star is in the midst of a creative comeback of sorts, with a new album of original, hummable tunes and a well-received tour with Paul Simon.

Sting makes no apologies for his long absence from the pop charts. “It was probably eight years where I didn’t feel the urge to write a song,” he said last month, a day before going into rehearsals with Simon. “Whether I’d lost my passion, I don’t know. I just didn’t feel I had anything useful to say.”

He’s got plenty to share on “The Last Ship,” a collection of songs based on his rough-and-tumble childhood near the historic shipyards in Wallsend, England. None are likely to get much radio play, but they may be hits on Broadway, where a musical with the same name is expected to open in late October after a tryout run in Chicago. TV viewers can see a draft of the production in a PBS special (check local listings).

Sting has strengthened his chances for success by surrounding himself with theater veterans, including Tony Award-winning playwright John Logan (“Red”), Pulitzer Prize-winning lyricist Brian Yorkey (“Next to Normal”) and acclaimed director Joe Mantello (“Wicked”).

Still, Broadway has destroyed the aspirations of many rock stars attempting to tap their inner Sondheim. Just ask Simon, whose ambitious 1998 project “The Capeman” opened to bad reviews and closed after 68 performances.

“Neither of us are under any illusions about how difficult it is to write a successful musical, and we’ve had many, many discussions about it,” Sting said. “If you make your living making three-minute, four-minute narratives, you want to make at least one attempt at a longer narrative, so it’s no surprise that people in my business want to try it. But the landscape is littered with bleached corpses of failed attempts. It’s an extraordinarily difficult thing to pull off.”

Learning to collaborate

What may be hardest for an artist of Sting’s caliber is having to give up a certain amount of independence.“There are so many moving parts: actors, singers, dancers, book writers, director, choreographers,” he said. “You only have a certain amount of control over the end product, but nonetheless, as a collaboration, it’s an incredible new and exciting thing to try.”

Collaboration is also the theme for the current tour, which features both musicians on stage together for a surprising amount of time, swapping lyrics on several classics including “Mother and Child Reunion” and “Every Breath You Take.” The friends, who have lived in the same New York City complex for 25 years, are getting the chance to jam on some of their favorite songs from each other’s canon.

“Paul asked me if I would sing ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water,’ which is one of my favorites, and I’ve always been very fond of ‘America,’ which Paul doesn’t normally do,” Sting said. “Paul is very keen on songs like ‘Fields of Gold,’ which he loves, songs like ‘Fragile.’ I think the gentler side of my repertoire interests him.”

‘A big bash’

The headliners aren’t the only ones mixing it up.

“The idea is that, as the tour evolves, the two bands will somehow weave in and out of each other. You know, a member from one band will come into mine, and one of mine will drift across the stage to theirs,” Sting said. “I mean, that’s really the excitement of this tour. It may evolve into a big bash, sort of battle of the bands, if you like.”

The duo is well aware that audiences want to hear the hits, which means you probably won’t hear numbers from Simon’s upcoming album and Sting will restrain himself from showcasing songs from “The Last Ship.”

Even the usually unflappable Sting seems dazzled by the idea of being on stage with one of rock’s most respected talents.

“He’s the master. If I ever wanted to emulate a literary and literate songwriter, then Paul Simon would be the person I would go to,” he said. “So to work with him is a huge honor. At the age of 15, when I first heard Simon & Garfunkel, the idea that I would be performing with him would be crazy. But we’re still crazy after all these years.”

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