Though Bartlett Sher’s star was on the rise throughout his decade-long tenure as artistic director at Seattle’s Intiman Theatre, it’s become more like a supernova since his departure in 2010.
Sher has emerged as one of the most sought-after directors on Broadway, where he’s helmed many revivals of classic works, including “My Fair Lady,” “The King and I,” “Golden Boy” and “South Pacific,” which won him a Tony for Best Direction of a Musical in 2008. Sher’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” with a new stage adaptation by Aaron Sorkin, is currently running on Broadway.
The national tour of Sher’s revival of “Fiddler on the Roof,” which ran for a year on Broadway in 2015-2016, comes to the Paramount Theatre Jan. 14-19. We spoke with Sher by phone from New York where he’d rung in the new year the night before at the Metropolitan Opera. Edited excerpts of the conversation follow.
What’s your approach to balancing the new and the established when directing a revival?
The idea of revivals — the first question is, always, “What is the immediate significance of the piece right now?”
In the case of “Fiddler,” I think it’s an interesting story when it comes to political refugees or circumstances in which people are singled out and forced to make changes in their lives from one region to another. At the time we originally did it, it was the middle of the Syrian refugee crisis. Since then, there’s been many other areas in the world where people have been driven out.
Another (theme) is the struggle between tradition and modernity within a culture. I think people can respond to that or see that happening — either here in the United States or any number of regions in the world — where traditional beliefs go up against modern and contemporary changes.
In reviving the show, was it tempting to go too far in emphasizing that theme of tradition versus modernity?
My job is an exploratory one, so I just ask the questions, and I explore them. I can’t really be sure of exactly how far I’m going to go until I get in the middle of it.
I think what’s most surprising in the Tevye stories is the situation with the third daughter, Chava, where he doesn’t accept her new husband and does reject her and chooses his faith instead. I think it’s surprising for audiences to see the strength of that. Because we’re used to “individual love wins out,” and in this case it doesn’t. Not for Tevye.
I found that really interesting, so maybe I pushed hard on that. I don’t think I pushed particularly hard. But I did want to draw out how big that was.
What’s your personal relationship to “Fiddler on the Roof”?
I have a very personal relationship to it. My father was born in Lithuania in 1920. My grandfather was a horse trader and he came over (to the U.S.) because basically, he was displaced. The Russians took away his horses and his business. He left first, and my grandmother and my father followed.
So I kind of took it on as a project from which to explore that background, which I knew absolutely nothing about. I don’t pretend to know that much more about it, but by going into that very specific universe, I was forced to do some research and some discovery of what the conditions were for people.
Does your time in Seattle and at Intiman influence you still?
I loved being at Intiman. Intiman was one of the great times of my life. I loved having a theater of my own, and I loved being able to do everything from “Light in the Piazza” to “Three Sisters” to new plays by Craig Lucas or Lynn Nottage. We did a great range of work, and it was a wonderful audience. I miss it. I think Seattle’s a wonderful theater town and a great place to live.
I don’t know if you’ve kept up with Intiman’s continued financial struggles. Do you think Intiman or Seattle is in a unique position, or are those challenges endemic to regional theater at large?
I really don’t know, but I know what’s it like to run a regional theater. It’s an enormous struggle between maintaining a strong audience that loves to come to the work consistently and raising a lot of money to support the work as well. If you can do those two things, you can keep (a theater) going.
“Fiddler on the Roof” by Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick and Joseph Stein. Jan. 14-19, Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle; tickets start at $35; 800-982-2787, stgpresents.org