SECOND FLOOR OF SARDI'S: A Glass of Wine With Superstar Director Des McAnuff

By Robert Simonson
12 Mar 2012

Des McAnuff
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN
Desmond McAnuff was born to Canadian parents in Princeton, IL. He never met his father, a spitfire pilot who had survived World War II but was killed in a car crash before Des was born. "Like a lot of pilots, he was a little bit wild. Probably more than a little bit." Before moving her son back to Canada, McAnuff's pregnant mother made certain that the surgeon who had tried to save his father was also the doctor who delivered him. "It's sounds kind of morbid," said McAnuff, "but I guess she wanted me to be as close to my father as was possible."

Young McAnuff's interest in music didn't veer into theatre until his teenage girlfriend suggested he audition for a Canadian production of Hair. "When you were in a rock 'n' roll band it was simply understood that you had to audition for Hair when it came to town. It was 1968 or '69. I didn't ultimately get into the company, but I got very close. I got into the final cut. But it had a big impact on me. I think that's what inspired me to write Urbania. Hair was the keyhole I could peer into to see the theatre."

After some years writing musicals and plays, most produced in Toronto's 1970s alternative theatre scene, he began to direct when in his early 20s. "It was kind of understood that if you were a writer, if you had leadership ability of any kind, that you would start directing. It was very common. It was a great training ground." (He has no illusions about his talents as an actor. "I couldn't shine Christopher Plummer's shoes.")

Josh Young in Jesus Christ Superstar.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Though raised a Protestant in the Anglican Church, McAnuff doesn't think of himself as religious. "At a certain point, the arts started taking over my point of view. Not just dramatic literature, but painting. I guess the theatre became my religion."

When Superstar debuted on Broadway in 1971, some of the faithful thought the Religion of Theatre was supplanting the genuine article to a degree that made them uncomfortable. The opening was greeted by noisy protests from all sorts of the religious groups crying "blasphemy." In the decades since, however, the tables have turned, and Christians theatregoers all but embrace the show as their own unofficial musical.

"I observed this myself," remarked McAnuff. "I think back in the early '70s, rock 'n' roll at that point was relatively young. Rock 'n' roll — which is essentially a euphemism for sex — was new. Older people were very suspicious of it. The idea of combining Jesus and rock 'n' roll seems blasphemous. It's clearly a secular take on Jesus. To Tim and Andrew, Jesus was a remarkable man. That's what they gravitated towards. But when you look at the story, I don't think there's anything that offends. If you come into the show as a believer, I think the show is likely to amplify your faith. Jesus is absolutely the hero."

On top of that, the new show just plain good entertainment, he added. "It's got visual storytelling. And there's text. It's like watching a combination of a music video and CNN."