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Sting tells the stories behind his play 'Last Ship' at private Opera House event

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

Sting was in Detroit Monday evening selling a story of community, hard work, love and passion set in a city that is suffering the effects of losing the main industry that keeps its people alive. 

The Grammy Award-winning musician performed for a small audience of Broadway in Detroit's season subscribers, sponsors and local media Tuesday night to promote his upcoming musical, "The Last Ship."

He'll be back in April to star in the Tony Award-nominated musical — or a play with music, as he describes it — when "The Last Ship" takes the stage for eight performances at the historic venue where he performed with his band in 2004 on the "Sacred Love" tour. 

The nearly three-hour production tells the story about the death of an English communities' shipping industry, a tale that was informed by his own childhood experiences. Sting wrote music and lyrics, which was inspired by his 1991 chart-topping album "The Soul Cages."

Armed with only an acoustic guitar and his musical director, Rob Mathes, on a Yamaha keyboard, Sting talked about the themes in the show, in which he stars as shipyard foreman Jackie White.

After a brief and joke-filled introduction by the show's producer Karl Sydow, Sting sang the haunting and dramatic title song and the chantey-esque storytelling tune "Shipyard." His short, intimate set also included "The Night the Pugilist Learned How to Dance" and "Dead Man's Boots," which he said reminds him of his blue-collar father.

"Whenever I sing that song, I always feel the ghost of my father on my shoulders," he said. 

Sting and Mathes closed the set in front of 150 people with the bawdy and jazzy song "If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor." He said he considers this number the high point of the show and promised that the actress who will perform it, Frances McNamee, "nails that song to the roof every night." 

British musician Sting performs a private concert with keyboardist Rob Mathes, right, playing some of the songs from his musical "The Last Ship" at the Detroit Opera House in Detroit on Sept. 9, 2019. The musical will come to the Detroit Opera House in the spring.

The British musician didn't originally intend on performing in this show, which he describes as fun but serious ("it's not 'Aladdin,' " he joked). One of the producers suggested that it would help sell more tickets if he was in the cast. 

"I had no intention whatever of being in this play," he said. "I wrote it. I wrote the songs for actors ... I actually loved it. Once I was in I was very happy." 

Sting, born Gordon Sumner, is known largely as a musician with a vast back catalog of solo material and hits with his band the Police. During his Detroit visit Tuesday, he recalled his first area show, a poorly attended gig at the now-defunct Bookie's Club 870 in the late 1970s.

The Kennedy Center Honoree already had acting chops before delving into writing this musical. He was cast in the 1984 sci-fi epic "Dune" as well as other films and television shows throughout the past several decades, including hosting "Saturday Night Live" in 1991. 

Sting said he thinks the themes of "The Last Ship" will resonate with Detroiters and he says he's especially looking forward to his run of dates here. 

"I'm very aware of the history of this town and how successful it was in building cars and building music, and I think the two things are related," he said. "The confidence that a city gets from its industrial output, the ability to create Motown and all the rock and roll that came out of here -- I'm very respectful of that. And I know that the city has been through lots of problems and yet it still has a beating heart."

He said though he was only in town for a day for this press junket, he's "sensing something coming back."

Part of the reason he feels the need to travel around the country to promote this story is because of the importance of its themes, and he owes a debt to the shipyard community that made him. 

"I'll do anything I can to get as many people to see this play as I can, because I think it's an important message."

Twitter: @melodybaetens 

Sting starring in "The Last Ship"

April 22-26

Detroit Opera House

1526 Broadway, Detroit

Tickets go on sale Nov. 29 at