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BWW Interview: Bartlett Sher Talks MY FAIR LADY at the London Coliseum

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The award-winning director discusses bring the hit revival to the West End!

BWW Interview: Bartlett Sher Talks MY FAIR LADY at the London Coliseum
The Lincoln Center company
of My Fair Lady

Bartlett Sher is a multi-award-winning director of productions including The Light in the Piazza and the recent revivals of To Kill A Mockingbird and The King & I. Sher's Tony Award-winning Lincoln Center production of My Fair Lady will transfer to the London Coliseum for a limited summer engagement in May 2022. We spoke with Sher about bringing the show to the West End.

How have you been during this crazy time?

Strangely, I have been actually really busy in the last year. I have a family of two kids and we decided to leave New York as the pandemic hit to go up to Vermont for four months - a friend let us use their house so we could get out of the city.

I then went to Prague and made a movie called Oslo, so I spent all of last fall there, then I came back to the US in December to start post-production work. In February, I came to London in February to finish filming and then the film came out in May - you can see it on HBO or Sky. So I was largely kept busy during the last year.

My Fair Lady is coming to the West End! How does it feel to be returning to London with another one of your productions?

It feels really great. I love My Fair Lady so I'm excited about it. I think it's a really good time for us to have that show running. It'll be fun to reinvestigate it and look at it again, given how different everything is now. All the material will feel different, sound different, so it's going to be fascinating to see what it's like to re-explore the text.

Speaking of that, is there anything that's crossed your mind already that you think will land different with audiences?

I don't know, really. I think the idea that we can break class barriers, and rearrange our perceptions of what's possible, are more and more acute now than they ever were, so I think that's kind of part of it. I'm keeping it in the time period so I'm not trying to make any associations about things happening now, so that's helpful.

George Bernard Shaw is one of those amazing artists who can take big political ideas, and then somehow build a dramatic structure which proves their significance. So, if you take the idea of his show Pygmalion - to transform a person - and then you apply to it the questions of class, language etc., you have this extraordinary person, Eliza Doolittle, who virtually becomes a princess. It's an incredible kind of theatrical accomplishment.

These are the things that make the show pre-feminist, but it's also about class and all kinds of social realities and hierarchies of privilege, and where privilege lives. So I think all those things are resonant.

I'm certainly more acutely aware of those things, not just from the pandemic, but from the Black Lives Matter marches and things we've seen on both sides of the pond and around the world.

Previously, you brought Kelli O'Hara and Ken Watanabe with you when you brought The King and I to London. Are you able to tell us whether we might we get to see Lauren Ambrose or Laura Benanti, or if you'll be casting UK talent?

We don't know for sure yet, but that would be fun. Casting involves a lot of discussion around schedules and different things so you'll have to keep guessing!

This is the first revival of My Fair Lady in the West End since 2001. What do you think London audiences particularly love about this show?

It's a weird hybrid of a show, you know? Of all the shows I've ever worked on, having worked in the UK and the US, it's the weirdest hybrid of both cultures. On one side you have George Bernard Shaw, this extraordinary playwright, and on the other side you have the great American writers of musical theatre, Lerner and Loewe. Yet, somehow, they're in the same show.

My Fair Lady sort of mixes these two traditions, the great American musical tradition and the great British playwright intuition, and they're smashed into the same piece. It's almost like if you took a great piece of British BBC drama, and suddenly made a musical out of it - say you brought over Pasek and Paul and said, "Here's Pride and Prejudice, go." I think that's one of the show's great fascinations.

I also think the history of the piece is fascinating from Pygmalion, to a musical, to what we have now. I've tried to address that with tweaking the ending in terms of women's rights in terms of how it changes.

My Fair Lady also just sits in that beautiful place of a kind of mixture of a pre-war/1950s nostalgic way of looking at England, and it captures a certain sound. It also deals with the struggle between the lowest classes and the upper classes. It checks a lot of boxes.

Speaking of your comment on the ending, does a show centring on telling a woman she needs to change to be accepted in society have a place in 2021?

I don't see it as a show about telling a person what to do. I think there's a difference between telling people what to do and the genuine dramatic stakes between two characters.

Obviously, you can't make sense of Henry Higgins' behaviour - it's appalling, he's quite forceful and quite determined. On the other hand, Eliza is an incredibly powerful person.

You end up with this great dramatic battle between them. I wanted to make sure that she won the battle and that it didn't end with submission. This is not what Shaw was trying to write. I think he was trying to write something in which she was free, into a new world.

It's kind of weird to say but you know in Shaw's time it was almost unthinkable that somebody like Eliza Doolittle would ever even open a flower shop, let alone appear at the most illustrious ball in the land.

Do you have any other upcoming projects you're excited about?

I'm excited to bring To Kill a Mockingbird to London. I think that will be next spring. It's a great American story. I'm doing an opera and things like that too, and then it's all about trying to get these shows back up on stage.

That's one of my main goals: having survivors and getting people back to work; getting people who love this work back into rehearsal rooms; back on stage; back into situations where they can practise their craft and be in relationship to each other. That's my highest goal right now.

Have you got any advice for any aspiring directors - for example, people who've just graduated and are trying to make their way into the industry at this difficult time?

Patience. The thing about directing is, it takes a long time to get good at it. It's good to become an apprentice of someone watch them work. That's one way.

It's also good to do a lot of work, even in the smallest, strangest places - just get working and make things. You should also study the role models or artists that you love.

Aspiring directors should see as much theatre as they can; it helps you absorb influences. There's so much access to so many incredible artists in different ways. Today you can see so much more work so much more quickly.

If you see a lot and work a lot, you can then find somebody to mentor you, and that can help introduce you to ways of working better. Those are my key points.

We've certainly been able to see a lot more theatre from the comfort of our own homes of late. Do you think we'll still have digital theatre productions moving forward?

No doubt we will. I don't love them, personally, but I do think streaming will have a bigger impact than it had before. It's tricky with streaming. Why would you go into the theatre when you can watch it at home whenever you like?

I think filming shows is primarily about preserving the experience. I think that the kind of plasticity of theatre, the physical response to a live event, is hard to reproduce at home. Whether anyone's perfected that, I don't know.

I think it's all still to be determined. You can do readings, you can do certain things but for me it doesn't really satisfy me in the same way as going somewhere, being in a room and watching the dynamics of it.

I have a lot of belief in live theatre - I think it provides an experience different than any other. I think it's less acceptable to digitise than film or music. I don't think there's really much of a substitute for getting out of your house, being with a bunch of other strangers and listening to a piece of good theatre, be it a great play, musical or opera.

Why should people come and see My Fair Lady when it comes to London next year?

My Fair Lady, especially because of Eliza Doolittle, is the kind of show that gives a lot of credit and strength to people who are rebellious, who want to challenge the system, and shows that such ambition is worth it. When you watch Eliza grow and change and overcome centuries of oppressive circumstances, it's very inspiring and I think it can be a very moving piece in that way.

My Fair Lady at the London Coliseum from 7 May, 2022

Photo credit: Joan Marcus


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