NEW YORK — Sometime around 2004, Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner, better known as Sting, a rock star with 16 Grammys and more than 100 million records sold, found himself with a severe case of writer's block. It wasn't that he stopped touring (he didn't), making money (he still made plenty) or even recording (there were albums of other people's songs and a new symphonic treatment of his past material), but he found, to his chagrin, he could not write any new songs.
This went on for some eight years. He was, in the words of writer John Logan, "at an impasse." The title of Sting's intensely personal, strikingly reflective 2003 autobiography, "Broken Music," had proven prophetic.
"I just found myself thinking, 'What's the point?'" a scrunched-up Sting says, softly, matter-of-factly, occupying as little space as possible at the back of a 42nd Street rehearsal studio here one recent afternoon. "I just didn't have the desire or the passion. I was treading water as a writer."
Of course, Sting, born in 1951, also had by that time reached a certain age, tricky for a plaintive balladeer. It's hard for a mature man to keep writing lines like "everything she do just turns me on" or "I won't share you with another boy" without feeling, well, a bit ridiculous eventually. Although Sting had always been far more of a narrative songwriter than most, many of his hit pop songs were still restatements of a needy but sensual emotion — I love you this way, I miss you that way, please do this, I feel that — wherein the listener had to believe in the veracity and vulnerability of the seemingly single and youthful songwriter. That was getting harder to pull off.
And then Sting happened upon a magazine article about a proud shipbuilding community falling apart.
Sting is himself from such a community. Haunted by one, in fact, ever since he got out of the failing English town of his childhood, headed to London and New York and became the leader of a band called The Police, and then a multihyphenate solo artist, an artist who never really went home.
"The ships leaving the river would, in hindsight, become a metaphor for my own wandering life," he wrote in "Broken Music," "never to return."
How could he really, after a certain point? To hang out on those old streets would have been perceived as an act of dilettantism, a rock-star circus. He didn't even attend his parents' funerals in the mid-1980s (they both died young), preferring to say goodbye while they still were alive and fearing that his presence would tempt tabloid coverage (although he wrote in his autobiography that he also was afraid to confront their deaths). During those long, more recent years of writer's block, Sting found himself intensely focused on his childhood.
"Sting," Logan says, "has been grappling with his past since the day he walked away from Newcastle."
Somewhere around 2012, Sting hit on an idea. What if he combined two stories: his unresolved feelings about the lingering personal attachments of his youth and his abandonment of his roots, and the soul-destroying demise of a shipyard and its impact on the workers? He had learned all about augmented and diminished chords by listening to his mother, a pianist, play the work of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. Years before he had performed (as, of course, Macheath) in a 1989 revival of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's "The Threepenny Opera" (then rendered as "3 Penny Opera") on Broadway. So what if he, Sting, wrote his own Broadway musical about a guy who goes back home to try to find some peace and reconciliation after the death of his father? What if the theater were a home for his songs?
What if the show was called "The Last Ship"? What if it was to try out in Chicago, a town that knows postindustrial pain?
Sting was born in a terraced house in Wallsend (as in, the end of Hadrian's Wall) in the North East of England, on the north shore of the River Tyne, close to Newcastle, hard upon Swan Hunter's thriving shipyard, where almost everyone in the town worked in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Swan Hunter built giant, steel, oceangoing vessels and had a long history: Its workers had built the RMS Carpathia, which rescued survivors from the Titanic. Sting got out of Wallsend, of course. But most of his old friends and neighbors — those not blessed with such singular musical talents — got stuck as Swan Hunter went down the toilet, a victim of a changed global economy.
The story was not unfamiliar in postindustrial Britain or so different from what simultaneously happened, say, to the mineworkers of Doncaster (as told in the musical "Billy Elliot") or the steelworkers of Sheffield ("The Full Monty"). There were struggles and ownership changes for Swan Hunter in the 1980s, receivership in the early 1990s and then layoffs and closings. The once-proud workers were fired or merely offered piecemeal work doing salvage or maintenance. A few years ago the famously colossal cranes of Wallsend finally were sold off. Shipbuilding, as Sting and Wallsend had known it pretty much all their lives, was finished for good.
So Sting called a producer, Jeffrey Seller. Seller told Sting that he liked the idea because communities under siege tended to make very good musicals ("Fiddler on the Roof" is one such show). Plus — and Seller did not exactly need to point this out — Sting is Sting. Sting has a lot of fans. Seller said yes to Sting.
The writer's block was over. Characters appeared, based on the people Sting had known in Wallsend. Verses came to him in abundance.
"Once I got that green light," Sting says, "the songs just flooded out of me."
And that is why he is sitting in this New York studio with screenwriter-turned-book writer Logan, director Joe Mantello and an old pal from Newcastle, actor-musician Jimmy Nail. For the past several weeks, Sting and his collaborators (including the red-hot movement man Steven Hoggett) have been wrestling with Sting, Unstuck, trying to turn the songs into a viable Broadway show. Previews for the pre-Broadway tryout of "The Last Ship" begin this week at the Bank of America Theatre in Chicago.
Just a few feet away from Sting, actors are milling around. They've just finished singing one of the stirring anthems in the show, which variously come with a touch of the balladic Weill, a touch of Rodgers and Hammerstein's melodic lushness and a flavor of the working people's songs from the nautically inclined section of the England-Scotland borderlands.
Many of those songs have been recorded or heard publicly. But the songs on "The Last Ship" album, and on the concert performance broadcast by PBS, may or may not be in the show.
"I've just got into the mode of cutting," Sting says. "Once you start killing off your children, it's quite exhilarating."