20th-Century Classics for 21st-Century Audiences: An Interview with Bartlett Sher




ON THE EVE of the Tony Awards, I wanted to speak to Bartlett Sher, a great theater artist who has become the go-to director for delivering 20th-century classics to 21st-century audiences, though he also directs new works and opera on international stages. (I mean, what doesn’t he do?) This year he is nominated for Best Director for helming To Kill a Mockingbird, starring Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch, the lawyer who defends Tom Robinson, an African American in the Deep South unjustly accused of raping a white woman.

The production is a bona fide success, having garnered $55 million in gross sales and nine Tony nominations. Aaron Sorkin adapted Harper Lee’s 1960 novel and re-envisioned and enlarged the role of Calpurnia (played by LaTanya Richardson Jackson), housekeeper to the Finch household, in order to highlight an African-American character’s view of the proceedings. That Sorkin was not among the Tony nominees may reflect something of our cultural unease around the issue of a white writer adapting another white writer’s telling of an African-American tragedy. 

Having directed major New York productions of the musicals Fiddler on the Roof, South Pacific, The King and I, and My Fair Lady (for which he was nominated for last year’s directing Tony), Sher is a de facto expert in negotiating a contemporary culture war — not the one between the right and the left, but between the younger and the older, people who came of age in the last century and who were shaped by and remain protective, or even defensive, of works written back in the day. Those works, like all works, reflect the racism and misogyny of their time, even when they were created by progressive artists, the ones who tried to be on what most of us now see as the right side of history. This is certainly true of Harper Lee (Mockingbird, the novel), Oscar Hammerstein II (South Pacific and The King and I), and George Bernard Shaw (Pygmalion, the play on which My Fair Lady is based).

In My Fair Lady — still playing in a sumptuous Lincoln Center Theater production — Sher provides a new ending meant to correct the memory of the 1964 George Cukor film. You might recall that Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn), after she declares her independence from her tyrannical teacher Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) returns to him, smiling placidly as he sinks into his armchair and grins triumphantly before uttering his final line, “Eliza. Where the devil are my slippers?”

Sher believes that Harrison himself influenced the film’s man-wins-the-day ending. The actor’s close friend and My Fair Lady lyricist Alan Jay Lerner writes that he was devoted to Harrison, a man who was “unfailingly loyal, sympathetic, and generous.” “Unfailingly” might have been stretching it. Even Lerner had to admit that the actor was followed by a “trail of female fury,” though he notes “[i]t is impossible to be a ladies’ man without the ladies and none of them [there were six] married him at gunpoint.” Which is possibly in bad taste, since Harrison’s mistress Carole Landis committed suicide when the actor refused to leave his second wife, as did his fourth wife after he left her to marry her former best friend. In any event, Lerner does relay that Harrison verbally and viciously attacked two of Lerner’s own wives for the crime of mildly disagreeing with their husband over some issue at dinner. So if his Higgins seems more of a bully than, say, Leslie Howard’s portrayal in the film Pygmalion, it might have had something to do with Harrison himself.

Shaw thought that Eliza and Henry Higgins could not remain together, but audiences, made up of people who largely do not share Shaw’s horror of sexual relations, have always wanted them to. “We were pleasant together,” says Eliza, and they are certainly fun to watch together. Wanting to honor Shaw and feminism itself, Sher came up with a compromise ending, one that we discuss, among other issues, including his changes to the other classics he updated, below.

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LAURIE WINER: Seeing your production of My Fair Lady again, I noticed an audible response to the insults and bad behavior of Henry Higgins that I did not hear the first time around. Have audiences become more intolerant of him in just the past year?

BARTLETT SHER: That was there from the beginning. I don’t think it’s a question of good or bad; Higgins is harsh, misanthropic, and possibly on the spectrum. He is incapable of expressing for himself what he might feel. Certainly he is emotionally crippled, and we see him struggle with that throughout the song “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” and then he is still unable to say anything loving to Eliza even when he she returns. Higgins represents an aspect of a certain social class in 1911. That said, this is not a play about a woman’s subjugation; it’s a text that promotes the equality of women.

The story is Eliza’s story, not Higgins’s. In the film, Rex Harrison dominates the narrative, but if you follow the plot you see she’s the backbone. In all of the staging, in all of the transitions, we’re tracking Eliza; we’re not tracking him.

And the ending: Most people remember Harrison slipping back into his superiority and he sinks into his comfy chair, asking Eliza where the devil are my slippers.

I don’t have anything positive to say about that ending that was tacked on. Shaw was absolutely against the romantic comedy ending, against any notion that the pair should get together.

You do something much different here. When Higgins stammers out the line, “Where the devil are my slippers,” it seems as if his entire worldview has been upended by Eliza Doolittle.

We tried to restore Shaw’s intention, of ending with a transformed Eliza being freed into the world. The difficulty is that in 1911 she would not have had a lot of options. We spoke to historians to make sure we understood exactly what her economic options would have been. We didn’t want to say she’s sailing out into the world on her own because that would have been very hard to pull off. She exits up the aisle and through the auditorium to convey a sense of her going into the future, so we could tip our hats to what Shaw and to a feminist future without it being overstated or overintellectualized.

You have to get all the way to the end of the show to see Henry Higgins realize he was wrong. And that’s powerful, that’s a story of power and agency.

Speaking of power and agency, was it difficult to navigate just how to endow Calpurnia with a bigger voice in To Kill a Mockingbird? She probably would not, in that place at that point in our history, feel free to say precisely what she is thinking.

I’m not sure that our job is to be historically accurate. I do know Aaron was struggling with the character of Atticus and who could talk to him in such a way that he could realize his worldview may not be right, that walking around in another man’s skin doesn’t always lead to tolerance and might lead to becoming an apologist. And the person who helps Atticus through that is Calpurnia. People might say she would never talk like that, but I’m glad she took a stand. Each iteration of the story, whether it’s the original novel or the film or our version, must respond to the time we’re living in. That’s our responsibility as artists.

We’ve had a lot of schoolchildren come to the show. And their teachers prepare them beforehand because there are certain triggers in the show. We hear the n-word, a girl falsely accuses a man of sexual assault, these are difficult things. It takes a lot of extraordinary effort on the part of teachers to prepare the students for the show, so the kids can see something of their history, see where we came from, and have some perspective on it.

Our basic role is to dramatize conflict for people who are in the safe place of the theater, who can watch an experience they are not having in order to judge and learn about the past and about themselves. That’s been the theater’s role going back to ancient Greece.

I have never forgotten the power of your 2008 production of South Pacific at Lincoln Center. I felt I was experiencing what my parents did when they saw it in the early 1950s, while simultaneously understanding the text in terms of our current moment.

I made more changes to South Pacific than any other show I’ve ever worked on. Visually I represented the relationship between the African-American sailors and the white sailors in a way that had not been done in a production before — this was a segregated society and its rules were very strict. I showed a world that was built on a form of segregation. So that when you get to the question of Nellie Forbush’s own internalized racism, it grows out of something. There were a lot of very small adjustments in creating that world. The word “colored” had been cut from Nellie’s lines out of town, and we restored it along with a whole section of her dialogue there, as well as other conversations about race. All I can do is take what’s in front of me from great artists who were a part of our past and try to honor it in a way that makes sense to audiences now. They were grappling with the same questions we grapple with, but in a different way.

A lot of people argue that The Merchant of Venice is antisemitic. The world in which it takes place is certainly antisemitic, but I find it one of the most profound of all of Shakespeare’s plays. Watching it prompts important conversations about antisemitism. You have to see what that conflict is about and see how you feel about it at the end. The theater is the place where we go to experience uncomfortable, complex confrontations and then talk about them; that’s what enhances conversations and democracy at large, to lead us to questions that are important to ask. The world is filled with lots of terrible things. But this is our history, if we are allowed to have a history.

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Laurie Winer is a longtime journalist who has been on staff at The New York Times,The Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times. She is a founding editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.


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