Tony Nominee Sher Envisioned an Emotionally Overwhelming South Pacific

Tony Awards   Tony Nominee Sher Envisioned an Emotionally Overwhelming South Pacific
Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater has been a perfect match for director Bartlett Sher, who earned Tony nominations for his direction of The Light and the Piazza (in 2005) and again in 2008 for the acclaimed revival of South Pacific.
Bartlett Sher
Bartlett Sher Photo by Team Photogenic

Sher returns to familiar territory not only with his cast – including Light in the Piazza Tony nominee Kelli O'Hara and co-star Matthew Morrison – but also with the expansive Beaumont thrust.

"It's the only place where you can make a movie and a play at the same time," Sher explained at the May 14 Tony nominees press reception. "It has enormous depth and plasticity – it can expand and contract really beautifully. And with something like South Pacific, getting that space in motion and transformation was really a joy. It led to the kind of epic quality of the story."

Pacific's Szot and O'Hara
photo by Joan Marcus

The Lincoln Center Theater production – featuring O'Hara as nurse Nellie Forbush alongside Paulo Szot as French plantation owner Emile de Becque – nabbed 11 Tony nominations, including Best Revival of a Musical, Best Direction of a Musical and Best Leading Actress and Actor for O'Hara and Szot, respectively. Re-staging a seminal work like South Pacific – touted as its first official Broadway revival in 60 years – was a large undertaking for Sher, who said, "It really felt like we had to get it right. I felt a responsibility that if people came to see it, it had to better than they remembered it somehow. So, a lot of work went into looking at the original script and the original orchestration and then creating a mise en scène, which would overwhelm them emotionally."

To achieve his vision, Sher re-teamed with Tony Award-winning set designer Michael Yeargan — who collaborated on The Light in the Piazza — to transform the Beaumont stage into a lush tropical environment, replete with palm trees, endless beaches and a 1940's bomber plane. South Pacific, starring Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza, earned nine Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for its 1949 Broadway debut. The musical – which opened only four short years following the end of WWII – not only defined an era on Broadway, but also a moment in American history.

Sher remarked, "A lot of people who come are whole families where the grandmother was engaged on the day they first went to see South Pacific in 1949, and everybody's coming for her. That's a big experience to live up to in people's memories, and we had to make something that was good for them."

While the 1949 production and its themes of racial intolerance were progressive for its time, many within the industry had a skeptical eye on South Pacific and how the work would play for 2008 audiences. Sher and the South Pacific team held an initial workshop that reinstated some text from an original 1948 draft of the script and found "it's extremely beautifully made, and with the right casting it just opened up and we were really lucky. I think a year-and-a-half of work didn't hurt.

"I've spent all my life doing Shakespeare," Sher adds, "and those are imperfect plays as well, which if you dig in enough you find what their muscle is. That's what I tried to do [here]."

The Tony-nominated director confirmed that South Pacific will launch a national tour in fall 2009; a launch city and full tour itinerary will be announced at a later date.

As with Light in the Piazza, will Sher adapt South Pacific's ambitious staging to accommodate the proscenium stagings that are more common on the touring markets?

"Those spaces are different, and the show will expand and contract in a different way," Sher responded. "Strangely enough, a bulk of our set is in that upstage area, and when you pull down you lose that intimacy you gain from the thrust area, but it's definitely possible to do it and have it look as gorgeous as it does in the Beaumont."

Matthew Morrison and Li Jun Li in <i>South Pacific.</i>
Matthew Morrison and Li Jun Li in South Pacific. Photo by Joan Marcus
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