Bartlett Sher has been heralded as one of today’s greatest American theatre directors, winning a Tony award for the Broadway revival of South Pacific in 2008, and scoring nominations for a handful of other productions. Nico Muhly is a contemporary classical music composer whose fingerprints can be found on everything from indie rocks hits to modern operas. We had these collaborators interview each other, hoping they might reveal a bit of insight into their respective creative mentalities.
NICO MUHLY: When your play is in previews, does fear of failure enter the equation?
BARTLETT SHER: Yes, directing a play makes failure interesting. You don’t have enough time for rehearsals, and then you have to fix what’s wrong with the production in front of the audience. That part is stressful. What’s most stressful is that you don’t know how to fix it yet. So you end up watching it grow, but not really knowing what it is yet.
NM: Have you had any disasters?
BS: I just did Woman on the Verge, which was the greatest failure of my life. The first time was really brutal; it didn’t work at all. We were humiliated in a major way.
NM: That’s pretty crazy. Sometimes I need someone else to call attention to a problem, because even though I may know there’s a big problem, I don’t want to talk about it.
BS: Right. We redid it in London recently, but it was filled with all the trauma of the first time. When you do a new piece, it doesn’t have any parameters, which makes it more difficult than working on something that’s already established.
NM: If you’re getting close to building a solid production, it’s like walking into a room that you know and wondering, “Why is there something off here? Oh, right, it’s this thing.” It’s really hard to know until you’re seeing it with people or seeing it through someone else’s eyes.
BS: In a Broadway show, you build up to a point where you can rehearse during the day and modify at night. In opera, everything is already established the first night, because the musicians don’t know how to absorb changes that quickly.
NM: In most opera houses, the show opens and then on opening night, by 10:30 the curtain comes down. The whole set moves and turns into Tosca for the next morning’s rehearsal.
BS: Forty previews definitely make a show better. I did Light in the Piazza more than ten years ago. We performed one version in Seattle, had a different director in Chicago, and then a different version plus forty previews in New York. After that, the show was close to being really great, but still, you can’t find a process for evolution over time.
NM: You end up doing a little bit less here, a little bit more here, until you think that something is seismic. But then you realize that fucking up is seismic too. It’s the little things that will sink you.
BS: Musical theater is a honing art. You keep shaping it and shaping it. The face of failure is usually in relation to unnecessary expectation. If the expectation is outsized in relation to the event, there’s no way to squish the gap between the expectation and what you actually made, and you’re going to create a problem between those two things. But something is always going to go wrong.
NM: Last night, I dreamed that the button on my trousers popped off when I was getting dressed. And then I had to make my plane. I went to the seam- stress and she told me that she didn’t have any buttons. I said to her, “Well, how am I going to make the plane?” That’s what I dream about, really practical shit going wrong.
BS: Exactly. Something is always going wrong. Opera is at the highest level of the interpretative scale, where a piece has been performed a million times, and the experience of seeing it references the four hundred times someone has seen it. Each new viewing becomes a new way of seeing and spinning the piece.
NM: It’s interesting, that part. I feel like it’s not necessarily referencing all the four hundred times, it’s referencing that first time you saw it. What’s hard is making something new, which is the most rewarding accomplishment of all, producing something new in the cultural arena. The beautiful thing about Two Boys is that we found the sound of how we behaved in 2014. We wrapped up all those behaviors in the sound of the piece and locked inside a chest for people to discover a hundred years from now.
NM: I’ve always felt, with a piece of art, if you just tell the truth, then you’re fine.
BS: One thing is certain: if you do it correctly, if you experience some level of failure in your own time, you do this all for yourself, because perhaps no one at the time is going to be able to understand it. That’s the objective. I’ve never really had a goal. Going through the motions is all that’s asked of you. Just get up every day and make the thing. It can be interpreted in a variety of ways after the fact, but it’s not up to you to do that. You just have to keep making it, and it drives you completely bat-shit crazy.
Photography: Brigitte Lacombe for NeueJournal
Guest Photo Editor: Janet Johnson