Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Expect Ballroom on Broadway, tips NY director

Bartlett Sher

Ahead of its time: Bartlett Sher says South Pacific taps into fears of the "other". Photo: Tamara Dean

New York theatre director Bartlett Sher, whose acclaimed Lincoln Centre production of South Pacific returns to Sydney this week, says there is still a healthy audience for Broadway musicals.

Sher also rates highly the Broadway prospects of Baz Luhrmann's forthcoming stage version of Strictly Ballroom. ''I think it will be great,'' he said, adding that Sydney qualified as as an ''exotic location'', one of Rodgers and Hammerstein's factors for success with South Pacific.

Nobody has ever sung Emile De Beque better than Teddy sings it. 

Sher's Lincoln Centre production, staged in 2008, played for 2½ years and won seven Tony awards. It was the first Broadway production since the original in 1949.

Some enchanted evening: Teddy Tahu Rhodes and Lisa McCune have a cuddle on set.

Some enchanted evening: Teddy Tahu Rhodes and Lisa McCune have a cuddle on set. Photo: Eddie Jim

South Pacific has become the Opera House's highest-selling show ever, since premiering in Opera Australia's 2012 season.


Lisa McCune reprises her role as Nellie Forbush, alongside baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes. Joining the cast are Gyton Grantley as Luther Billis, replacing Eddie Perfect, and Christine Anu as Bloody Mary, replacing Kate Ceberano.

The Australian version is ''close in spirit'' to the Lincoln Centre production, Sher said, but is ''one quarter improvisational spirit''. The cast is given the story's "spine and the circumstances, and then encouraged to play".

Happy talk: Christine Anu takes over from Kate Ceberano as Bloody Mary.

Happy talk: Christine Anu takes over from Kate Ceberano as Bloody Mary.

Sher was in Sydney on Sunday to oversee the first preview of South Pacific at the Opera House. "We had a very nice moment with Lisa today," he said.

In the radio shack scenes, up to Some Enchanted Evening, "really for the first time since I've seen it, she really unlocked how much Nellie goes through, and what she has to learn", said Sher, 54.

"And that's pretty good. [Russian director and acting teacher] Stanislavski used to say it takes 100 performances to get a performance right; to really get underneath the character."

Tahu Rhodes, meanwhile, who sings 10 numbers, brings "gravity, intelligence, and a beautiful kind of modesty. I'm talking from a character point of view; from a singing point of view, nobody's ever sung better than Teddy sings it."

The Lincoln version was created in co-operation with the estates of the late composer Richard Rodgers and the late lyricist Oscar Hammerstein and the pair's daughters, Mary Rodgers and Alice Hammerstein, who were "very generous" in supplying Sher with text from the original book, co-written by Joshua Logan, that had been cut before the original Broadway run.

South Pacific had been ahead of its time in dealing with anxieties over interracial marriages and mixed-race children, said Sher, who is married to actor Kristin Flanders and is a supporter of progressive issues. But the composers had nervously removed some of the racial references, which Sher reinstated.

In a 2008 New York Times profile, Sher, born and raised in San Francisco the fifth of seven children, discussed the discovery his father was a philanderer who had a second family with another woman. His mother met a Chinese-Hawaiian man, who moved into the family home and brought stability.

Dominant cultures retain a fear of the "other", including race, says Sher now, explaining why, apart from the strength of the music and story that South Pacific still resonated now.

"It's why when we talk about gay marriage now, the gay community is seen as the 'other' by the straight community. Any time you cross that divide, you're talking about the matter of drama."

Australians, he said, are "still dealing with issues of race, and otherness, and who gets to be in the family".

Sher, incidentally, liked what he saw of Julia Gillard as prime minister, but was not enamoured with Kevin Rudd's election-losing concession speech on Saturday night: "It's no wonder Tony Abbott, who's at least who he is, appeals to people, when you have a sort of pious monsignor in Rudd."

Sher's next musical is an adaptation of The Bridges of Madison County, which opens on Broadway in January. South Pacific runs until November 2.

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