“The Last Ship” Begins Previews on Broadway

Sting’s Debut as a Musical Theatre Composer

the last shipThe 16-time Grammy Award winning musician Sting has written his first musical: The Last Ship. Set in an English seafaring town called Wallsend, Tyne and Wear, the musical is based off some of Sting’s own childhood experiences. The protagonist is a young man named Gideon Fletcher, who grew up in this shipping town but dreams of a different life for himself. Though he is expected to follow in his father’s footsteps, he decides to leave home and take a trip around the world. 14 years later, he returns home to discover that the industry is in dire straits, and meanwhile that his childhood sweetheart has found another man to be her fiancé. Gideon, along with the men of the town, endeavors to build one last ship, proving to themselves and to the world that they have power within them.

The Show’s Pre-Broadway Life

The first recorded instance of the show being performed was an early try-out in Newcastle, England at the Live Theatre. More recently, the show was given a pre-Broadway run at Chicago’s Bank of America Theatre from June 10, 2014 until July 13, 2014. Previews have now begun at Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre, with the first performance having taken place on September 29, 2014. Opening night is scheduled for October 26, 2014. Reviews in Chicago were less than ecstatic. The book was written by John Logan (Red, I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers) and Brian Yorkey (Next to Normal, If/Then), but despite the pedigree of these writers, many found the libretto to be implausible, and the story to be dreary. Fans have come to expect that a musical will be somewhat upbeat, and perhaps the story of this struggling English shipping town is not America’s cup of tea.

Cast and Creative Team

sting

Sting

In addition to the book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey, and the music and lyrics by Sting, the show is directed by Joe Mantello (Casa Valentina, Other Desert Cities, Glengarry Glen Ross) and choreographed by Steven Hoggett (Once, Rocky, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time). Though this is Sting’s first musical, he has previously ventured out of traditional songwriting territory when co-writing the score for the 2000 Disney animated film The Emperor’s New Groove. Furthermore, Sting released a musical album in 2013 entitled The Last Ship, which features music from the musical, or originally intended for it. He had not released an album prior to that since 2003 with Sacred Love, and credits the show for motivating him to craft a new slew of songs. The cast features Broadway favorites including Michael Esper (The Lyons, American Idiot) and Aaron Lazar (A Little Night Music, The Light in the Piazza), as well as West End star Rachel Tucker making her Broadway debut. Further cast members include Jimmy Nail, Fred Applegate, Sally Ann Triplett, and Collin Kelly-Sordelet.

“Casa Valentina” Begins Previews on Broadway

Tonight at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, previews will commence for the Manhattan Theatre Club production of Casa Valentina, a world premiere play written by four-time Tony Award winner Harvey Fierstein.  Directed by two-time Tony Award winner Joe Mantello, the play will run for a limited engagement between April 1, 2014 and June 15, 2014, with the official opening night taking place on April 23, 2014.  Fierstein, who has seen enormous success in penning the book for musicals including Kinky Boots, Newsies, and La Cage aux Folles, has not had a straight play produced in almost thirty years.  Well, none of Harvey Fierstein’s content is ever “straight,” per say.

casa-susanna is the basis for the Casa Valentina Broadway Show

casa-susanna is the basis for the Casa Valentina Broadway Show

Casa Valentina is based on the true story of a group of New York men in the 1960s – white collar professionals with families – who vacationed in the Catskill Mountains during the summers.  Unlike most vacationers in that period, however, these men had a particular quirk: they dressed up as women.  Beyond assuming female wardrobe to a meticulous degree of detail, they also adopted the personalities of their female counterparts during the vacation.  While transvestitism has proliferated in our culture in many forms since that time, these men were truly transgressive, and yet they were still firmly embedded in conventional heterosexual culture in the course of their everyday lives.  The play introduces us to these unique individuals, and then follows them as they are confronted with a difficult choice: the opportunity to become an official organization, effectively outing their precious secret.

casa-susanna is the basis for the Casa Valentina Broadway Show

Just as interesting as the plot of the play, however, is the background of how this true story became uncovered.  Some time ago, a pair of antique collectors discovered a large collection of old photographs at a New York flea market.  When they realized that the gorgeous women depicted in the photographs were in fact men, which was not immediately obvious, they decided to publish them in a book entitled Casa Susanna.  The pictures alone tell the heartbreaking story of these conflicted souls.  However, what is exceedingly interesting is that none of the press releases about this new Broadway play refer to the original source material.

After purchasing the rights to this book of photographs, the producers Colin Callender, Robert Cole, and Frederick Zollo commissioned Harvey Fierstein to write a play based on the images.  To mitigate their risk in bringing an untried play directly to Broadway, they partnered with the Manhattan Theatre Club, and agreed to be credited as granting the production “by special arrangement.”  It is curious that the producers decided not only to change the name of the play to Casa Valentina from the original title of Casa Susanna, but also to neglect to mention the book of photographs in any press release.  Perhaps the reason was to protect the appearance of originality for Harvey Fierstein, and calling this a “world premiere” by Fierstein certainly implies that it was his idea in the first place, which it was not.

casa-susanna is the basis for the Casa Valentina Broadway Show

Of course, none of this background information would affect the quality of the play itself, which is to be seen in the coming weeks as previews unfold.  What does bode well is the extraordinary cast of Broadway stalwarts and up-and-comers, including Reed Birney, John Cullum, Gabriel Ebert, Larry Pine, and Patrick Page.  Under the skilled direction of Joe Mantello, and surely featuring Harvey Fierstein’s signature wit, this play could be a very exciting addition to the Broadway season.  Indeed, it would be a true achievement if Fierstein’s concocted narrative comes close to representing the understated yet superb beauty of the mysterious found photographs, which the producers of this play clearly do not want the audience to discover.