Monday, February 25, 2008

Sher excitement

The New York Times had nice package of stories yesterday in its spring theater preview. There was also a great profile by Alex Witchel in the magazine of director Bartlett Sher.

I didn't know that much about Sher, and what I thought I knew turned out to be wrong. I thought he was British, because I knew there was a British actor named Antony Sher, and I figured they were brothers. Well, he's not and they're not. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. (I did learn that his name is pronounced sheer, he grew up in California, his parents went through a nasty divorce, and as a child, he broke an unusually high number of bones).

Currently, Sher is in rehearsals for Lincoln Center's revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacfic. I'm thrilled that I'll be in the audience next month for South Pacific, which begins previews on Saturday and opens April 3.

It'll be a trio of firsts: the first-ever Broadway revival of the show, plus my first time at Lincoln Center. And while I grew up watching Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals like Cinderella, Oklahoma and The King and I on television, this will be my first time watching one on stage.

Brendan Lemon, the New York theater critic for the Financial Times, is writing a backstage blog for South Pacific on the Lincoln Center Web site. In his latest post, on Feb. 20, he says that the show is now in "tech hell," with working days lasting until nearly midnight.

For me, what's most interesting is the extent to which the creative team is going to make South Pacific historically accurate, and Sher's comments on what the musical offers to an audience that, by and large, no longer remembers World War II.

In the midst of scene analysis, dance and movement work, the cast has been given a short history lesson on the war in the Pacific, Lemon writes. They've heard from professional historians and veterans of World War II.

Sarna Lapine, the assistant director, is South Pacific's unofficial on-site historian. "For the current assignment, I spent four days in Washington doing research primarily at the Naval Historical Society. I talked to people from the Marine Armory in Brooklyn, who've helped us find people to help instruct the cast in things like how to handle a weapon."

Lapine adds that she showed the script to her brother Seth, a Marine Corps major who's served in Iraq, and the two have discussed it in detail. "In many ways, he's been the most valuable resource I had as I went about trying to help everybody understand what it's like to be in the Navy -- an organization with so many rules and regulations."

For his part, Sher believes that South Pacific has a great deal of relevance for Americans in 2008. "I would say that, more than any single piece I've ever worked on, as an American artist I have been impressed by the depth and resonance and contemporary intelligence of the piece."

While race, and racism, play a big part in South Pacific's story, Sher focuses more on what he views as the central difference between America in the 1940s and America in 2008.

"In order to understand the world of South Pacific," he says, "you have to have an innate understanding of national sacrifice. You have to realize that as a nation in the 1940s we were all involved in the same struggle. We were all connected to the same thing. And the one thing we know now is that we are never connected to the same thing. We have almost no idea that there's a war going on, we don't feel connected to it, we don't feel any sense of shared sacrifice - none of it."

I think Sher brings up a fascinating point. South Pacific ran on Broadway for 1,925 performances, from 1949 to 1954. Memories of World War II were still fresh in people's minds, and it was a war that touched every American.

I haven't seen any of the plays, and very few of the movies and documentaries, that have been written about the war in Iraq. For most Americans, they have a very different feel - of outsiders looking in. I'm not sure that any work today - whether it's for the theater, movies or television - could create the same shared experience that the audiences for South Pacific had a half-century ago.


Mondschein said...

I am SO excited about this revival (even though LCT saw fit to give my role to Danny Burstein).

I was playing the role of Luther Billis in a production of SP in September of 2001. After the stunning event of 9/11, it transformed our production with an intensity we had never expected. For that reason, it has become one of my favorite R&H scores.

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Esther, I'm looking forward to sharing the experience of seeing this show with you.

I've now seen two productions (a third if you count my high school musical stage debut that never materialized into anything), but am very intrigued by the cast and Sher's determination to emphasize the points you've shared.

Esther said...

Mondschein, I'm sorry they gave your role to someone else. I would love to have seen you and Steve play Luther Billis and Lt. Cable!

And wow, it must have been very powerful, to be in a production of South Pacific right after 9/11. Those first few weeks and months were probably pretty close to how an audience felt seeing the show right after World War II - the feeling that as a nation, we'd all been through a traumatic, life-changing event.

Where was the production that you were in?

Esther said...

Steve, I can't wait. Will February ever end so March can finally get here? Even though it's the shortest month, for some reason it's seemed awfully long this year!

Yeah, I'm also intrigued to see Sher's take on this, given what I've read. I think the R&H organization keeps a pretty tight rein on what you can and can't do, so I don't think there'll be any big changes. Maybe just some smaller, subtle things.

I'm not familiar with anyone in the cast, so I didn't really have anything to say about them. But one of the great things about going to the theater is discovering a whole new group of performers. I'm looking forward to adding to that list, especially Kelli O'Hara as Nellie Forbush.

And I'll be eager to hear from you and Mondschein how Matthew Morrison and Danny Burstein stack up as Lt. Cable and Luther Billis. I wish I could have seen both of you in those roles!

Sarah B. Roberts said...

I'm just sad that you're seeing Lincoln Center for the first time when it's in the midst of re-construction. The main plaza and the fountain are hiding behind walls. It's going to be a long dreary journey but I know it'll be worth it. My almost weekly trip to LC over the next few months won't be quite as glorious - although I'll be happy once I'm inside, especially at the Met.

Sarah B. Roberts said...

PS I'm seeing SP on 4/4, courtesy of my boss.

Esther said...


What a great boss! And don't worry, even though I haven't been inside Lincoln Center, I did walk by in April and I saw the fountain in all its glory! As a former Newhouse employee, I just wish South Pacific was at the Mitzi. Next time, hopefully!

Sarah B. Roberts said...

Ah, but the Mitzi Newhouse is a teeny tiny space. The Vivien Beaumont has a great stage and wonderful space, but the narrow seats and rows are torture on knees.