NEW YORK (AP) — The actors in Sting's musical "The Last Ship" have plenty of pressure these days. The show is making its Broadway debut. There are last-minute changes. And Sting is pacing in the darkness.
"I'm at the back there every night, mouthing every syllable, which is an extra burden the poor things have," says the Grammy Award-winner at the Neil Simon Theatre. "They know I'm listening."
Hearing this, one of the stars, Rachel Tucker, nods and laughs. "It's true," she says. "He'll be, 'Where was the 't' in 'light?'"
Sting's tremendous skills as a songwriter — not to mention his perfectionist streak — are both being tested with "The Last Ship," which opens Sunday.
The show marks his maiden voyage into composing musical theater and Sting seems tired, but game. Sitting beside Tucker in the theater's empty seats before a recent preview, he could see the finish line.
"It began as my dream and then became everybody's," he says. His lovely, powerfully voiced co-star mouths a "thank you" and bows in his direction.
"The Last Ship" is a semi-autobiographical story about a prodigal son who returns to his northern England shipbuilding town to reclaim the girl he abandoned when he fled years before.
"The imagery of the sea and ships is very fertile. I mean, we came from the sea. Everything came from the sea," he says. "I just tapped into that. I tapped into my own ancestry and my community, and behold we have a musical."
Sting, born Gordon Sumner, drew on his childhood, growing up in Newcastle's Wallsend neighborhood, near the Swan Hunter shipyards, which built more than 1,600 ships before closing in 1993.
The show's evocative lyrics are by a master craftsman himself — "The roar of the chains and the cracking of timbers/The noise at the end of the world in your ears." But comparisons only go so far.
"It's rooted certainly in my experience and something I know about," says Sting. "But we're not telling a biographical story. There are elements of my life in this thing, but that's not what we're doing, I promise you."
The project began as a CD and PBS concert special before it was turned into a stage version for a pre-Broadway stop in Chicago this summer. Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winning lyricist Brian Yorkey ("Next to Normal") and Tony-winner John Logan ("Red") wrote the book, and Tony-winner Joe Mantello ("Wicked") directs. Sting doesn't appear in it, but he is fully involved in every aspect. He's in back during every performance, after all.
While it may mark Sting's debut as a musical composer, he's familiar with the stage, having started his musical career in the orchestra pit in Newcastle playing bass for a production of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." He's also been onstage on Broadway in 1989's revival of "The Threepenny Opera."
Asked if much had changed since the Chicago run, he turns impish: "It's now set in a gay disco. Not a radical change. We just figured it was too butch," he says, laughing.
Tucker, a native of the shipbuilding Northern Ireland city of Belfast who plays the object of a love triangle in the show, downloaded Sting's CD before going on holiday and was transported home.
"Every song I listened to I was like, 'That is a story in itself.' It got me. It brought me home to Belfast," says the singer, who starred as Elphaba in "Wicked" in the West End and is making her Broadway debut. "It took me home."
Working with the 16-time Grammy winner who led the seminal band The Police has turned Tucker into a "giddy 2-year-old." To get into character, she visited Newcastle, went to the shipyard at Wallsend and even picked up a rivet from the ground as a keepsake.
"It's a complete dream come true," she says.
Sting describes his hometown as "poetic" and "bizarre," filled with huge hulks of steel, like industrial dinosaurs. "I think it fed my muse as a child, living next to a shipyard, living with those people and those strange, surreal giant artifacts," he said.
He insists he isn't romanticizing the shipyards, which he studiously avoided, as toxic and dangerous. The Swan Hunter shipyards had one of the worst safety records in western Europe, but Sting saw honor in its workers.
"The pride those men and women took in the ships they built was palpable. You could point to the end of the street and say, 'We built that with our hands.' Modern society doesn't have that. We don't build things," he says. "We're honoring the pride of that community and the joy of that community."
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits