Two Shows, One Director

Two Shows, One Director

Bartlett Sher is one of Broadway’s busiest directors. A Tony Award winner for the 2008 revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific, his current project is the eagerly anticipated new musical, The Bridges of Madison County, which begins previews Jan. 17 for a Feb. 20 opening night. A true man of the theater, Sher also enjoys a parallel career in opera, most notably at the Metropolitan Opera, where his productions of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia (2006), Offenbach’s Tales of Hoiffman (2009), Rossini’s Le Comte Ory (2011) and, most recently, Nico Muhly’s Two Boys (2013) have opened to acclaim. Here journalist Robin Tabachnik chats to Sher about directing a play vs an opera and the specific challenges of staging Two Boys, a crime drama set in cyberspace whose choral music, Sher says, “is the best anyone has written in 100 years.”

RT: What drew you to Two Boys and its composer, Nico Muhly?

SHER: I think he has a very particular style that is beautiful. You might almost say unique. As a composer, he has a very broad range. He doesn’t follow the rest and is interested in a lot of different subjects. He does opera, he scores films and he orchestrates for rock ’n’ roll singers. [Ed. Note: Muhly also composed the incidental music for this season’s Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, at the Booth Theatre thru Feb. 23, 2014.] Nor does he fit any of the categories that people foist upon classical composers. He seems to be able to do almost anything. His choral music is the best anyone has written in 100 years. I feel very lucky that I was chosen to direct Two Boys at the Met and very lucky that I [first] got to direct it two years ago at the English National Opera in London. There’s a chance to do it even better now [at the Met], and I think it has a chance to be great. I really love the opera.

RT: Muhly is a relatively young composer [he was born in 1981]. Does his age inform his work?

SHER: As young as he is, Nico is doing what every generation does. He writes about his experiences. He grew up on the Internet. And most of Two Boys literally occurs on the Internet. The Internet has changed the way we live, the way we communicate, the speed with which we communicate and the strange way we connect with people all over the world. That’s the story that attracted him.

RT: Did the story challenge you as a director?

SHER: From a theatrical point of view, we have to use every means possible to capture what it sounds like and looks like when you go on the Web. We have to use all the theatrical means of contemporary experience and expression that we can. That’s why video, projections, lighting, music and every type of media are involved in the production. When we hit that [computer] button, we head out into a consciousness that is very new. The Web has changed the world, but it still resonates with things that are still very much the same. That is the point of Two Boys: how we deal with this new world of the Web and how it resounds with the things that are still the same, such as the problems we have with growing up and with figuring out our sexuality. Typical things that are part of any opera are measured against this new form of delivery. So, we’re using everything we know to capture a sound that only Nico seems to be able to hear. I promise you, Two Boys is unlike anything else you’ve ever seen in opera, and yet, in a weird way, it is also a traditional story.

RT: As a director, do you approach an opera differently than you do a play or a Broadway musical?

SHER: The first thing I do when rehearsing a play is have a read-through. In opera, you never have the time to do that. You get up on your feet and go. You do a version of text work with the conductor, and sit with the singers and go through it, but only scene by scene. You don’t have the time to go through the whole opera. Singers often aren’t interested because they have done the opera many times and know the text better than I do. But I demand that they think about it. It’s [a] painstaking [process], and usually singers end up loving it because they don’t get that kind of attention normally. They go for the big gesture, but not the precise moments. I try to do both at the same time. I think you earn the big gesture, if you have the little moments all in place. Composers [often] wrote pieces with individual [singers] in mind. And I think that in opera a lot of weird interpretations are the result of an exhausted audience who has seen the operas too many times with [today’s] singers doing the interpretations of people for whom these works were written. They never analyze it their own way.

RT: Do you have an opera wish list?

SHER: I feel very lucky every time I do something at the Met. I think that Peter Gelb [the Met's General Manager] is a wonderful leader. I have lots of operas I’d like to do. A Mozart opera would be great. Anything by Rossini is always great. I have a new Broadway musical coming up: The Bridges of Madison County. At first, I couldn’t envision it as a musical, but it’s a good reason to sing and will be exciting.

Robin Tabachnik, a born-and-bred New Yorker, grew up immersed in the city’s arts and culture scene. Following a successful career as an opera and concert singer, Tabachnik is now a passionate music and arts journalist, who writes for Playbill, among other publications.



Bartlett Sher's production of Nico Muhly's Two Boys. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Bartlett Sher