Director Bartlett Sher On Chaos, Confidence And 'Collective Genius' Tony-winning director Bartlett Sher is known for adding surprising twists to classic American musicals and dramas. He says when reviving productions you have to ask: "Why are you doing it right now?"
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One Director's Secrets To Success: Chaos, Confidence And 'Collective Genius'

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One Director's Secrets To Success: Chaos, Confidence And 'Collective Genius'

One Director's Secrets To Success: Chaos, Confidence And 'Collective Genius'

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A great sports coach knows the game, every position and strategy. A Broadway theater director is no different.

BARTLETT SHER: Good. OK. Hold on, hold on, hold on. So wait. Just stay further above her so...

SHAPIRO: That's Tony Award-winning director Bartlett Sher in rehearsal for a revival of "My Fair Lady" at the Kennedy Center, one of the stops on the Broadway show's national tour. Sher also directed Aaron Sorkin's adaptation of "To Kill A Mockingbird" on Broadway. As the resident director at Lincoln Center, Sher is known for making American classics relevant. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this profile.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: In "My Fair Lady," the poor but feisty flower girl Eliza Doolittle dreams of a better life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "MY FAIR LADY")

LAUREN AMBROSE: (As Eliza Doolittle, singing) All I want is a room somewhere far away from the cold night air.

BLAIR: That's Lauren Ambrose as Eliza from the recent Broadway cast recording. The class-conscious phonetics professor Henry Higgins teaches - or more like torments - Eliza to speak the Queen's English. The musical is inspired by Bernard Shaw's play "Pygmalion" from 1913. In Shaw's final scene, the newly empowered Eliza shows tender feelings for the professor, but leaves him. End of story. But in the musical by Lerner and Loewe, Eliza comes back. The bickering couple gets together in the end.

SHER: Shaw hated the idea that they will forever end up together.

BLAIR: Bartlett Sher.

SHER: He was anti-rom-com of any kind. He was an incredible feminist, fought hard for all kinds of equality.

BLAIR: Sher is with Shaw on this one. In his "My Fair Lady," Eliza ditches the sexist professor.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "MY FAIR LADY")

AMBROSE: (As Eliza Doolittle, singing) There'll be spring every year without you.

SHER: Whenever you do one of these, you have to look at the immediate significance of the time you're in and what's happening and why are you doing it right now.

BLAIR: It's about finding the relevance of a period piece for an audience today. For the recent Broadway revival of "Fiddler On The Roof" that's touring now, Sher looked at what his personal background has in common with the headlines. Sher's father was born in a shtetl in Lithuania, similar to Tevye's Anatevka.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "FIDDLER ON THE ROOF")

DANNY BURSTEIN: (As Tevye) You may ask, why do we stay up there if it's so dangerous?

BLAIR: In Sher's Broadway production of "Fiddler," Danny Burstein played Tevye.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "FIDDLER ON THE ROOF")

BURSTEIN: (As Tevye) We stay because Anatevka is our home.

BLAIR: For this production, Sher made a small but important change. In the opening and closing scenes, the actor playing Tevye looks like a modern-day tourist dressed in a parka. He could be Tevye's descendant.

SHER: We looked at that experience of somebody going back to explore their past, which often people who are Jewish would do with that period, or anyone who's come as an immigrant to United States, and mix that with the current refugee situation and what it means when you're driven out and who you are and how you survive that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "FIDDLER ON THE ROOF")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) May the lord protect and defend you. May he always shield you from shame.

BLAIR: A theater director researches the text, comes up with a vision and shares it with the cast and crew. Old-school directors can be autocrats. But Bartlett Sher doesn't believe in individual genius.

CELIA KEENAN BOLGER: He always talks about collective genius.

BLAIR: Actress Celia Keenan Bolger won a Tony Award for playing Scout in "To Kill A Mockingbird," which Sher directed. She says in meetings with the cast, he would source the room for input and even pushback.

KEENAN BOLGER: Working with Bart, I think I learned that the questioning is actually integral to the process.

BLAIR: Questioning also comes from the audience, especially in New York. And Sher says, he welcomes it. He remembers directing a musical of Pedro Almodovar's "Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown." It didn't go well.

SHER: I remember walking up the aisle and a group of older Lincoln Center women subscribers looking at me and all together turning their thumb over and down to tell me that it was terrible. And (laughter) I joyfully went up and said, so why are you feeling that? And we got more of an answer than I probably wanted, but that's the spirit in New York. And you have to have enough confidence, enough belief in what you're doing that it's not about whether it's good or bad. It's about this sort of thing you're making.

BLAIR: Sher admits it's taken years of practice to develop that confidence. He grew up in San Francisco, one of seven children. No one else in his family works in the arts, but he credits his older brothers with giving him his first theatrical experience when he was 11 - a Grateful Dead concert. Between the city and his family, Sher had a lively adolescence.

SHER: I had one brother at the Naval Academy and one brother at Stanford. And the difference between the two and the politics that were all - everybody was screaming and yelling about - was fun. I thought the world was pretty crazy and pretty exciting and got to be lucky enough to not have a problem with chaos.

BLAIR: Good thing. The collective genius Bartlett Sher talks about includes a lot of people - actors, writers, choreographers, lighting and costume designers. He's now working on an opera and both the London premiere and national tour of "To Kill A Mockingbird."

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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