Say the name Bartlett Sher and many theater-goers think of acclaimed Broadway revivals of South Pacific or The King and I or the exquisite staging of The Light in the Piazza. Yet Sher, who directed all three, is far from the theater-nerd stereotype: the kid who grew up obsessed with Rodgers & Hammerstein cast albums, who cranked up Flower Drum Song and sang along to all its tunes about San Francisco, where he grew up.
His big-family childhood in the San Franciso Bay Area was not that of 1950s musicals but of the late 1960s and early 1970s political and rock-music ferment. “ My childhood was really countercultural,” Sher, who is 57, told me recently in his office at Lincoln Center Theater, where he is resident director. “It was completely wild. And I lived it as a child because I had older brothers and sisters.”
His family occasionally went to the theater – to ACT, to the Curran – but it was not, Sher says, “a hard-core theatergoing family.” Sher, whose production of J.T. Rogers’ play Oslo at Lincoln Center Theatre won the Tony this past year and whose production of Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette premiered next door at the Metropolitan Opera last New Year’s Eve said that “my first influential theater experiences occurred when my other brothers took me and my twin brother to Grateful Dead concerts at Winterland.” Those concerts, he said, were “true pure bacchanalian rituals being acted out with music. They were my introduction to unmediated, communal experiences. They marked me fundamentally for theater.”
The San Francisco of Sher’s childhood was, he said, very different from the tech- and food-oriented metropolis of today. “It was an old city, with a specific working class, middle class, and upper class. If you went to Nob Hill you had the upper class, on the docks the working class, and in neighborhoods like mine the middle and upper-middle class.”
Sher, known to familiars as “Bart,” was raised on the other side of Twin Peaks, over the hill from the Castro. “I knew the Moscones growing up,” Sher said, referring to the family of Mayor George Moscone, who was murdered in November, 1978, along with Supervisor Harvey Milk. “Harvey Milk was a big part of our growing up. I remember him vividly in the years before he was shot.”
Just as Sher places his own life in an historic time and place so does he find it essential to locate his productions within a social context. The core of his work, Sher told me a few years ago, when he was directing J.T. Rogers’ excellent Afghanistan play, Blood and Gifts, “has been political and discursive.” He has directed Shakespeare’s history plays – his resume includes work with Sir Peter Hall, the founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and with the epic-adept Garland Wright at the Guthrie – and whatever the project, large or small, musical or straight-play, he will research it with an historian’s thoroughness and a Jesuit’s dogged pursuit of the dialectical.
My mention of the Jesuits is not casual. Although Sher’s father is Jewish, he sent his children to Catholic schools. Sher’s alma mater is St. Ignatius Prep, an all-boys Jesuit academy. (Today, it’s coed.) “When I was a student at St. Ignatius, the kids’ parents were cops and firefighters – normal middle- to –lower-middle-class kids. My father was in insurance so he did a little better.” The school’s signature sport was hoops, whose importance was more than athletic. “When I was growing up, I understood the map of San Francisco by its Catholic parishes,” Sher said. “And you knew the city by the schools you played in basketball.”
St. Ignatius so marked Sher that he taught there after graduating from Holy Cross College in Massachusetts. “Jesuits were great educators. I felt very lucky that they taught me. They encouraged you to connect all the disciplines. They didn’t push a conservative, evangelical point of view about Catholicism. They were there to help you discover your apostolic mission. Mine turned out to be theater.”
Sher’s theatrical vocation may have emerged primarily from Jerry Garcia and the Jesuits, but his early professional experience was at one of those playhouses that he and his family visited in his childhood: the Curran. “One summer during college,” Sher said, “I got a job working there on a pre-Broadway production of Oklahoma!.” It starred Jamie Farr, Christine Andreas, Laurence Guittard, and Mary Wickes. “I was on the stage door,” Sher said, “which was right off stage left. I loved working there, because I could watch the whole show from the wings. I remember the guys on the crew – World War Two vets, some of them – singing ‘Okinawa’ to the tune of ‘Oklahoma.’”
Of his Curran experience, Sher said: “I remember the spirit of the company, the warming-up, the entourages of friends who would come back to see people and go out after. I learned about both the rigorousness and the routine of running a show.”
Sher brings rigor to the routine of theater-making. Having watched Sher in rehearsal with seven shows – South Pacific, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Golden Boy, The King and I, Blood and Gifts, and Oslo, I can state that while his presence is reassuring he does not shower people with loads of fake praise. His rehearsals are investigations into the material. While he is extremely helpful at guiding people through the inevitable anxiety of developing their performances, he isn’t in the room to sit back and applaud. He’s very hands-on. As an observer, I sometimes find rehearsals monotonous; Sher’s are not.
Nor is his career. It brims with variety. In March, his production of My Fair Lady, starring Lauren Ambrose, Dame Diana Rigg, Harry Hadden-Paton, and Norbert Leo Butz will bow at Lincoln Center Theater. In late 2018, Sher will be directing the Broadway premiere of To Kill a Mockingbird, adapted from the Harper Lee novel by Aaron Sorkin. And his enthusiasm for new work is undiminished. “I’m interested in many things,” Sher said. “That’s one of the benefits of a liberal-arts education.”