“I could do it tonight,” Sting said in the downstairs lobby of Broadway’s Neil Simon Theater, soon after the announcement Monday morning that he’ll step into a co-starring role next month in “The Last Ship,” the new musical for which he wrote the score.
He might as well start now; his Dec. 9 start date doesn’t give him a whole lot of time for rehearsal anyway, even if his constant presence during the show’s five years of development means he already knows the musical intimately. But for Broadway watchers, the open question isn’t so much about the immediate future of “The Last Ship” — which has struggled to attract sustainable sales since it opened in October — as it regards how the production will fare once the Grammy winner finishes up his five-week stint in the show in January.
Judging from the last time a rock star sang his own songs in a Broadway musical, “Last Ship” looks poised for a signficant infusion of revenue during the Sting engagement. When Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong stepped into “American Idiot,” the Broadway musical based his band’s album, box office skyrocketed during his engagements in the show. Sting’s stint in “Last Ship” therefore seems sure to give the musical a major leg up, especially given the timing of his run, which coincides with the year-end holidays that are traditionally Broadway’s most profitable window thanks to the annual glut of Yuletide tourism.
But his departure in January — when he’ll surrender the role of a shipyard foreman back to Jimmy Nail — comes during the Street’s coldest time, when the post-holiday lull in city visitors hobbles sales at almost every show on the boards. And at “American Idiot,” sales dropped precipitously every time Armstrong wasn’t appearing, and despite the rock star’s sales boosts, “Idiot,” which closed in 2011, didn’t manage to recoup over its yearlong run.
Jeffrey Seller (“Rent,” “Avenue Q,” “In the Heights”), the lead producer of “Last Ship,” said the strategy is not only to turn heads with the publicity boost that Sting’s engagement will give the show, but to kickstart audience word-of-mouth — generally considered one of the most important components of a long run — with an influx of ticketbuyers over the holiday frame.
“I’m going to hope to generate a good 50,000 new fans for the show, who will help keep us alive and kicking all the way through to the Tonys in June,” he said. According to Seller, the challenge for “Last Ship” will lie in riding out the fallow winter weeks (brightened by traditional upticks during holiday weekends) through to the spring break season, which sees all of Broadway begin to regain steam.
Since “Last Ship” began previews Sept. 29, it hasn’t yet achieved the $625,000 weekly tally that Seller confirmed as a base level of sustainable box office. But the producer also cited the recent example of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” as a show that made it through a slow first year to emerge a Tony champ in June.
As “Last Ship” illustrates, Broadway audiences aren’t pushovers for rock stars when they try their hand at composing for the Broadway stage. Paul Simon’s “The Capeman” is the most oft-cited example of this; his 1997 show “The Capeman” tanked after just a few months. Cyndi Lauper has a hit on her hands with “Kinky Boots,” but the success of that project seems more attributable to a crowd-pleasing story that won over industry and audiences, rather than to Lauper’s name on the marquee.
“Last Ship,” which mostly earned respectful reviews if few outright raves, will hope to use Sting’s appearance to surmount the challenge of selling what is, for Broadway, a relatively melancholy tale about a prodigal son’s return to the dying shipbuilding town where he was born. Sting’s been a consistent public supporter of the production all along, and that trend will continue when he performs with the musical’s cast during the NBC telecast of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Sting’s engagement in “Last Ship” marks his first return to Broadway as an actor since he appeared in a 1989 revival of “The Threepenny Opera.” He said he’s certain he can handle the performance demands of an eight-show week, especially compared to a touring schedule that sees him performing as many as five concerts a week, singing nonstop for more than two hours at a time. “In this show, I sing, what, five songs, and I get to have a cup of tea in between,” he joked.