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Director Des McAnuff

Des McAnuff

First Published 17 April 2008, Last Updated 18 April 2008

Des McAnuff is no stranger to success. He has twice won the Tony Award for Best Director of a Musical, for The Who’s Tommy and Big River, and seen the success translate to London, winning the Best Director Laurence Olivier Award for Tommy in 1997. He is trying to recreate transatlantic success once more this spring, bringing Broadway hit Jersey Boys, the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, to the Prince Edward. Matthew Amer met the Canadian director.

Des McAnuff is a natural storyteller, in person as well as on the stage. Beside the roaring fire in the foyer of the Charlotte Street Hotel, where we meet, seems the perfect place to interview the Jersey Boys director; flames lick the chimney breast as McAnuff leans in to tell tales of unrestrainable folk musicians and legendary rockers falling off three-legged chairs, while a gathered crowd warms itself, relieving the effects of the biting wind outside.

Unfortunately a hotel foyer is a little too open for a quiet interview, so we retreat into the hotel’s modern fireless lounge. This doesn’t make McAnuff’s stories any less intriguing or diminish their theatricality.

The Canadian director is in London for the opening of Jersey Boys at the Prince Edward theatre. He has returned to the English capital for the final days of preparation before the musical he has seen progress from the germ of an idea to a Tony Award-winning sensation on Broadway is performed in front of the British press. Though he is nervous for the actors more than himself, he is aware that this particular press night could be a considerable landmark for the production which, for all its acclaim, has yet to be performed outside the United States. “This is an important moment for the show,” he states. “This is the gateway to the rest of the world, so I think the stakes are high here. I want to see the show do well; I think we have to prove to ourselves that this really has the common touch, that it really can be something that’s international.”

"This is the gateway to the rest of the world, so the stakes are high here"

After three decades in the business, McAnuff is aware that press nights and the response of critics are a law unto themselves, but the response of normal audiences has been both encouraging and surprising: “The reaction is just as exuberant, or perhaps even more rambunctious at the end, than it is in the States, which is somewhat of a shock. I’m amazed at what great listeners audience members are here. You can hear a pin drop during the book scenes. People are just completely focused. They’re actively listening. I think theatregoers here are hungry for stories and drama and theatrics in a way that they may not be anywhere else in the world.”

At the age of just 10 years old, a young McAnuff, son of a travelling salesman who had recently moved from a big city suburb to a small town, was given money to buy an album. McAnuff cannot remember why, only that it was not near his birthday or Christmas and it was a particularly rare event. His choice of music was Sherry And 11 Others, The Four Season’s first LP.

McAnuff needs little encouragement to indulge in reminiscing about his musical tastes; how he, like so many others, got drawn into the British invasion, lapping up the music of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Kinks, but always “had a soft spot for The Four Seasons”.

Yet even he, as a fan, was not aware of the group’s chequered history until the idea for the musical was brought to him. The original treatment blended fact with fiction and took a “more traditional musical theatre approach”. But it was when writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice shared their background work that McAnuff really got excited about the project. He saw a way of mixing a true tale rich in mafia connections, years spent in prison, lost loves and unbreakable loyalty, with the Seasons’ easily recognisable hits.

Brickman and Elice swiftly delivered an adjusted treatment. “I read this thing and I just went ‘There it is!’”, McAnuff explains. “I immediately hired a design team, literally within 72 hours, and put it into production.”

Though the original script did not work in McAnuff’s eyes, he is quick to praise the final result achieved by the team of Brickman and Elice, saying: “I think the thing which ultimately distinguishes the show is their writing. It’s so much material; you’ve got four guys’ lives. Even in Shakespeare generally you’re following the Scottish couple or you’re following Iago and Othello. Even for a masterful dramatist that’s tough. It’s the efficiency with which they worked that I think really made it possible to tell the story.”

When McAnuff describes the process of bringing Jersey Boys to the stage, though, the true nature of the collaboration becomes clearer. While Brickman and Elice adjusted the script, McAnuff would be working in conjunction with his design team on the staging and his vision for the show. A meeting with the writers would then see ideas flow each way before the teams went their separate ways again to make more changes.

"I think theatregoers here are hungry for stories and drama and theatrics in a way that they may not be anywhere else in the world"

It is the same way in which McAnuff created another musical hit, The Who’s Tommy, in collaboration with Pete Townshend. The pair were introduced around a conference table in November 1991 and hatched an idea for the rock opera in 10 minutes. Two days later they met again in Townshend’s hotel room and, though the British musician had his doubts about the project, a show, which would go on to win a Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Musical Production in 1997, was born.

There are more similarities between Jersey Boys and Tommy than there might seem. On the surface they are both musicals featuring the already existing music of successful bands. Both featured heavily in McAnuff’s formative years; while Sherry And 11 Others was his first LP, Tommy was an album he listened to as an impressionable teenager playing in a rock band. Then there is the confidence McAnuff had in each project: “I put [Tommy] into production, like Jersey Boys, before it was finished. It was somewhere between a notion and a script.”

“I’ve got to say,” says McAnuff leaning forward, preparing to tell another tale, “Townshend remains, of all the people I’ve gotten to work with, my favourite collaborator. He’s a tremendously generous guy. He’s been in The Who since the beginning of time, so he knows everything about collaboration; he really knows how to work with someone else creatively.”

McAnuff revels in telling how they met in Townshend’s suite at New York’s Royalton Hotel, which had an unnecessarily large lobby with three-legged chairs and little tables in the corner where they would work. “We’d sit there together for a couple of hours,” he extrapolates, “talking about the show and playing various tracks from Tommy. About every two hours one of us would go ass over tea kettle backwards off the three-legged chairs until finally, after several trips, he managed to call the architect himself and say ‘Listen, enough with the three-legged chairs.’ They were changed.”

McAnuff’s other award-winning musical hit, Big River, which the director describes as “the most eccentric experience I’ve ever been through”, also has links with his childhood, though not musical ones. It was an adaptation of The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, which he read as a kid.

The eccentricity of the experience came from the way in which songwriter Roger Miller worked. McAnuff explains how none of the songs included in the show were written deliberately for where they were placed. He is not even sure Miller read the story of Huck Finn. Instead, Miller wrote songs and McAnuff found spots in the plot where they would work. “He was an inspiration,” McAnuff says of the folk musician. “He drove me insane, as you might imagine, but I’ve got to say Roger Miller was a folk genius, and if he tried to work from assignment we’d have never ended up with the show we did.”

"[It was] the most eccentric experience I’ve ever been through"

If McAnuff had not been a director, he could have passed as a classic 1930s Chicago detective. When we leave the comfy surroundings of the hotel to walk to the Prince Edward theatre, he pulls a trench coat over his suit. A green trilby shelters his weather-beaten face and a scarf hangs loose on his shoulders. I imagine grotesquely disfigured criminals cowering in alleys as he passes.

Yet the interior monologue of McAnuff’s mind is likely to be less about bringing down powerful racketeers and more about how he can help bring people up through the business. When McAnuff was finding his feet as a young practitioner, British director Michael Langham took time to help him up through the ranks. He didn’t have to, but saw a talent to be nurtured in McAnuff. Now in a position to do the same, McAnuff sees it as his responsibility to pass on the same opportunities.

He has a great chance to do that since accepting the position of Artistic Director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Canada’s leading classical theatre. Our interview comes just days after his co-Artistic Directors, Marti Maraden and Don Shipley, resigned from their positions amid much speculation about the cause. McAnuff does not shun the subject: “I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve accomplished for our first season; I think it’s really a great season. I think everyone brought something unique to the table and I think we went through many periods when I think we were able to call on each other’s strengths. I think, ultimately, we couldn’t figure out an efficient decision-making process. We struggled very hard to solve this, and I’m actually disappointed that it unravelled now. I think if we’d managed to get through our first season together this may well have gotten sorted, because I think some of it was just communication and not knowing each other well enough.”

“There are going to be all kinds of rumours,” he continues, “all kinds of speculation and half-regurgitated gossip spewed forth. But when the board came to me I said I’m happy to stay on until you conduct a search and find permanent leadership. I’m not going to abandon you, I’ll stay here for as long as that takes. Instead they came back and asked me if I would step up and take the position. This has happened so quickly that we haven’t even really negotiated terms or anything like that. Right now the job at hand is to make sure that everybody is okay there and feels safe, and that it gets stabilised.”

At the age of 23, McAnuff left Canada to pursue greater opportunity to work on bigger stages in America – “I moved to something, not away from something,” he clarifies. Now back in the country of his birth, and working on arguably Canada’s biggest theatre with four stages and a budget reportedly eclipsing that of the Royal Shakespeare Company, McAnuff does not describe himself as excited, “because I really know what it means. It’s a gruelling, difficult job, even in a smaller institution like [previous San Diego playhouse] La Jolla. So I have no delusions about the challenges; I see it as a responsibility.”

While his work at Stratford gives him great scope to fill the quartet of stages with an eclectic programme, it is possibly not the right theatre to hold a reported collaboration between himself, lauded television writer Aaron Sorkin and Flaming Lips singer/songwriter Wayne Coyne, translating another pop album, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, for the musical stage. Though McAnuff does not want to turn his back on this commitment it is more likely to occur at his former stomping ground of La Jolla than in Canada.

"It’s a gruelling, difficult job; I have no delusions about the challenges"

Yet there is more on his mind than opening Jersey Boys worldwide and running the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. “This is a completely insane thing for somebody to be saying the week that they’ve taken over the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, but I’m going to be sad if I’m on my deathbed staring at the ceiling, thinking to myself ‘God, I wish I’d made that other movie.’” So far McAnuff has directed just two films – Cousin Bette and The Adventures Of Rocky And Bullwinkle – and produced two – Quills and The Iron Giant.

Something tells me this scene would not appear in a production of his life story. McAnuff is a storyteller; on both the stage and on the screen, he has many stories still to tell. em>MA


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