Nothing like ‘South Pacific’

Throughout his award-winning career as a director, Bartlett Sher has staged dozens of classic plays and musicals. Yet, he says he’s never directed a show quite like “South Pacific.”

“It’s one of the greatest musicals ever written,” says Sher, who’s in town to remount his Tony Award-winning revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein masterpiece. The production, created for New York City’s Lincoln Center in 2008, opens its national tour Friday at the Golden Gate Theatre.

Based on James Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific,” the show depicts Americans stationed in the South Seas during World War II.

The score, with hits including “Bali Ha’i” and “Some Enchanted Evening,” is thrilling. 

“There isn’t a song in it that isn’t just incredible,” Sher says. “You know them all by heart, even if you don’t think you do.”

Sher, a San Francisco native based in New York, admits he wasn’t that familiar with the show when he agreed to direct it in 2008. Then, he read the script and was amazed.

“I read it like it was a play,” he says, “and was so moved by the writing. It won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, which a lot of people forget.”

“South Pacific,” he says, explores hard-hitting themes such as wartime trauma and racism. “At that time, the South Pacific was an incredibly faraway place. For these young men and women, it was a life-changing experience. It was the first time that Americans encountered what I call ‘otherness.’”

He was also impressed by the show’s treatment of mixed-race families. “It’s what happens when a girl from Arkansas falls in love with a French man and finds he has these kids who are another color,” Sher says. “That seemed an extraordinary thing for Rodgers and Hammerstein to write about.”

His production, which opened in New York on April 3, 2008, represented the musical’s first Broadway revival since its 1949 premiere.

Now, says the director, entire families are coming. “Grandparents who saw the show are bringing their kids, grandkids and great-grandkids,” Sher says. 

The director-in-residence at Lincoln Center and artistic director at Seattle’s Intiman Theatre counts “South Pacific” among the high points of his professional life. Winning a Tony for best direction with the revival was icing on the cake.

“I felt that someone had passed me the baton and I hadn’t dropped it,” Sher says. “These works need to be reimagined for each new generation. I think we have served it well.”

 

IF YOU GO

South Pacific

Presented by Best of Broadway

  • Where: Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco
  • When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 25
  • Tickets: $30 to $99
  • Contact: (415) 512-7770, www.shnsf.com

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