I am a producer of Broadway musicals who has been nurturing my obsession with the form since appearing in my first musical, a temple Purim play, in the fourth grade. Instead of repeating the Old Testament story of Queen Esther, our ingenious director juxtaposed our Jewish heroine’s quest to save the Jews from the evil Haman against the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, South Pacific. Immediately smitten after my first playmaking experience, I jumped to the next. I wrote a play called Adventureland where two of my best friends headed out on a journey with me and some of my favorite superheroes. My fifth grade teacher affirmed the endeavor by giving us class time to rehearse it.
This would be my calling. By seventh grade, I was performing in community theatre and by high school producing and directing a series of productions handling all elements both on and off the stage — from marketing and publicity to fundraising, where I’d solicit local businesses to buy ads in our programs.
My obsession with producing plays ultimately led me to a career on Broadway and resulted in my winning three Tony Awards for Best Musical: Rent (1996), Avenue Q (2004), and In the Heights (2008).
In 2009 I had the pleasure of meeting Sting, who had a big idea for a new musical.
He told me about growing up in the shadow of a ship building yard in Newcastle, England. About the hardworking men and women who endured harsh and often dangerous work conditions in that port city to build some of the greatest vessels constructed in the 20th Century. At its heart was the stuff of many great manufacturing centers bowing to industrial progress at the expense of craftsmanship: the steady disintegration of the shipbuilding business and the profound effect it had on the lives of the men who derived not just their livelihoods from their work but their identities, purpose and self esteem.
Sting wanted to make a musical in which these men, in the wake of their yard’s demise, set out to build one last ship — for themselves this time — to sail the world on their own Odyssey. He wanted to make a musical imbued with the haunting sound of Northern England: the sound of the streets and the pubs where he grew up. It would stand as a tribute to his home. The musical is The Last Ship.
After four years of development, including three workshops — one in Sting’s hometown of Newcastle, and the creation of a concept album released in 2013, our play has finally come to life.
I’m writing this article from Chicago, where we are half way through a pre-Broadway run with live audiences whose reactions will help us refine and improve the work. After a short hiatus, we’ll go back into rehearsal and begin previews at New York’s Neil Simon Theatre September 29th.
The Last Ship is about finding pride in our work. Work that gives purpose to our lives. Work that helps forge our identity and contributes something tangible to society. It’s about community and being responsible to each other. It is our contribution to the world of social good.
Our team, which started with Sting and an idea, is now a vast community of theatre pros. We employ over 100 artists and technicians who have joined Sting on his own ambitious Odyssey: Making a new musical that employs every single tool in the theatre to tell one unified story about one community fighting to hang onto the only life they’ve ever known. “A man’s work is a sacrament—an outward sign of inward grace. And to build ships well enough that other men will sail in them — to make other men safe — well if that’s not God’s work I don’t know what is,” says Father James O’Brien, the spiritual leader of The Last Ship.
The men of The Last Ship are confronted with challenges they never imagined. Their river is one of profound change. How these men confront these challenges and use their skills and talents to forge ahead against logic and odds provides a poetic grace and redemption from which we all might find inspiration.
Elsewhere in this Journal, “The Last Seat” is about the development of a Board of Directors and the qualities one seeks in a candidate who can become a long-term steward of a forward-looking company. How can we steel ourselves for an uncertain future? What can we learn from the hardworking craftsmen who forged our cities and cultures? How do we harness the positive forces of capitalism to expand wealth while protecting our environment and planet — as it’s the only one we’ve got.
The Last Ship is a story of stewardship. When the characters take back their abandoned shipyard and embark upon their mission to build their ship for their own salvation they sing, “What’ve we got? We’ve got now’t else.”
Indeed, “we’ve got now’t else.”