Spotlight On: Bartlett Sher

Seattle’s favorite director returns to talk South Pacific and why he doesn’t love opera.

By Laura Dannen January 7, 2010


It’s an understatement to say departing Intiman director Bartlett Sher is busy these days. His hit Broadway revival of South Pacific starts its national tour this week, and opens at 5th Avenue Theatre on January 29. He’s resident director at Lincoln Center in New York, crafting operas that also screen in HD broadcasts across the country. Plus, he’s shuttling between New York (now his full-time home) and Seattle to watch the new Intiman season take off under the direction of Kate Whoriskey.

But the man still has time to sit on a couch with me and talk Glee.

How much of the original cast is in this tour of South Pacific?

There’s three, but not any of the principals from the original cast—most of them are still on Broadway.

Except for Matt Morrison, right?

Matt Morrison is now completely running the world from the vantage point of being the lead in [Fox TV show] Glee.

Have you seen it? It’s hysterical.

Oh yeah, are you kidding me? [Laughs.] It’s so funny because I’ve known Matt for a long time. I’ve done Light in the Piazza with him. He was here for Hairspray at the beginning of his career, which started at 5th Avenue, and we did South Pacific, and recently I did a workshop with him. But the workshop came after he’d done most of the season of Glee. And watching what has happened to his life because of that TV show! We were walking across the street on Broadway [in Manhattan] and I heard this screaming. I thought someone had been hit by a car. It turns out it was this clutch of high school girls absolutely going insane, and only calling him by his character’s name: Mr Schuester, Mr Schuester! I mean, absolutely out of their minds.

It has to be fun seeing your actors explode like that…though your revival of South Pacific didn’t do too badly either (seven Tonys). What did you feel like you had to adapt to make this production more accessible?

I actually think it was too accessible. The tradition of South Pacific, from 1949 on, was that it was all about the music and the story was not quite as important. It became about “Some Enchanted Evening” and girls on the beach and guys longing for girls, and it was less about what I found when the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization gave me the original text. It was about race, and a world of people going through enormous changes, and about the risk and anxiety of war. What we know about war since then is so different, so I just went back to the original text, in very great detail, with a lot of naturalism. I tried not to get so trapped in the happy, happy [waves hands].

“Happy Talk” is actually a good example, with Bloody Mary, this iconic Polynesian woman. First of all, she’s not even Polynesian—she’s from Vietnam, and an imported worker. And “Happy Talk” was about a woman trying to sell her daughter to somebody to get her out of poverty. When you played it for what it was, it changed how you heard the song.

What are your next few projects?

I just finished the Tales of Hoffmann at the Met, and I go back to Salzburg in the summer to do Romeo and Juliet(God help me). And I’m working on some new musicals. We did workshops on a musical based on a film of Pedro Almodovar’s, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. That’s what I’m in the middle of, and that’s what I’m spending the next two months on. Plus I’m working on a new opera for the Met. Lots of new stuff.

Are you more interested in directing opera now?

NO. No. I for some reason have done a lot of them, but no. I like operas, but I never really understood them growing up. Truly, I’m a guy who likes to make a play, and I love musicals, and I like operas. But if it was all opera, all the time, I’d go out of my mind.

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