Dems & Dose & DES

By Harry Haun
June 2, 2006

With Jersey Boys on Broadway and Zhivago in La Jolla, director Des McAnuff confirms his reputation as a hit man from coast to coast.



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Des McAnuff, a two-time Tony-winning director going for three this season, hails from Toronto, but you'd not suspect it from his work, which has always been all over the map.

Take today: He's at the August Wilson Theatre on Broadway, inhabiting the dems and dose burgs of the Garden State, where Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons (a.k.a. the Jersey Boys) took off, and at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, weaving through revolt-torn Russia in a musical Zhivago by Lucy Simon (music), Amy Powers and Grey Gardens' Michael Korie (lyrics) and Michael Weller (book). A director less dramatically well-traveled might trip going from Jersey Boys to Zhivago, but McAnuff juggles different worlds with ease. He just directed Palm Beach: The Screwball Musical, an affectionate bow to Preston Sturges, and in September he will ease on down the road to a Southern-fried Oz to recook The Wiz.

He arrived from the South, in point of fact, by way of Big River, a musical retelling of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," and two songs into that show, when Tom Sawyer went into one of Roger Miller's raucous countrified ditties, a hit-hungry Broadway knew he'd indeed arrived - along with a raftful of dedicated theatricals who opted to drop anchor here and stay a spell (Rocco Landesman, Michael David, Ed Strong, Doug Johnson, Sherman Warner and designer Heidi Ettinger, who still works with McAnuff, most recently on Zhivago). There were welcoming Tonys for the above producers, Ettinger, McAnuff and four more.

But Big River's big win didn't turn his head East. He returned to the La Jolla Playhouse, where he served as artistic director from 1983 to 1994 and from 2001 to present (punctuating these tenures was a two-flick fling at movie directing - Honoré de Balzac's "Cousin Bette" and "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" - clearly, the most eclectic screen career of all time!). While top honcho at La Jolla, his Playhouse has amassed more than 200 awards, including the 1993 Tony as America's Outstanding Regional Theatre.

Even this citation seems an understatement. He runs the Playhouse like a play factory, developing and nurturing new works and sending them off to win Tonys here (I Am My Own Wife, Thoroughly Modern Millie). Sometimes, he directs them himself: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Billy Crystal's 700 Sundays, Dracula: The Musical (well, nobody's perfect), A Walk in the Woods and the belated Broadway bow of The Who's Tommy, which Tony-tied Kiss of the Spider Woman for Best Score (but McAnuff wrestled Tony 2 for directing from Hal Prince's clutches).

Given the scattered course of his career, you must have deduced the "different drummer" at work here. Music is McAnuff's primary mover, and he's not picky about anything except his guitar, which he has been playing since he was 12. "I love American music," he gleefully admits. "I love Cajun, I love blues, I love bebop. Billy Crystal's show was about jazz - Dixieland. Big River was a country music show. I'm going to direct Wozzeck, the opera by Berg, at the San Diego Opera next year, and it's atonal. Musically, I'm a mess." But, ultimately, he's a rabid rocker. Joe Papp, his first boss in New York, "used to say that he was a victim of World War II, and I was a victim of rock 'n' roll."

So is it any wonder that he was primed, pleased and highly susceptible when Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice presented him with an outline for a musical book that would cover the up-and-down, 30-year doo-wop saga of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons?

Truth to tell, he tells: "They came to me with a treatment I wasn't initially crazy about and I really wasn't planning to do - then they played right into the director's ego with 'Okay. Well, you tell us: How would you do it?' So I gave them some thoughts - like the idea of Four Seasons and four narrators. They took that structural idea, came back with another outline that did fantastic things. At that moment, I felt so confident about it that I green-lighted the project. We started designing it, in fact, before it was written, changing the color schemes very subtly, going from pastels in spring to richer colors in summer.

"I think the reason the show works so well is because it wasn't just written - it was built. It was something that Ron Melrose, the music director, and Sergio Trujillo, the choreog-rapher, were working on simultaneously as the script was being written. Most writers would have fled in panic, but not Marshall and Rick. They embraced the process."

And audiences have embraced the show Big Time since its first previews at La Jolla. "I've never in my life had - and I can never remember even experiencing in other shows - people standing up in the middle of an act. The audience would stand at the end of 'Walk Like a Man' or 'Can't Take My Eyes Off of You.' I think it's a combination of the music and the story. At a certain point, the audience really believes they are The Four Seasons, and that feeds the actors. So much of the dialogue is between the actors and the audience, in a sense. People get so involved in the story they completely buy into the fiction. It's a big part of the show - and very rare."

With fingers in so many pies, McAnuff qualifies as a director-plus: "I think of the whole stage as a canvas in itself. The making of theatre is an art, not just the writing of plays. It can come from a rock 'n' roll album like 'The Who's Tommy,' or it can come from a life story like Billy Crystal's, or it can come from a great novel like Boris Pasternak's 'Doctor Zhivago.' There's no recipe. I think of the theatre as an art form, and I'm a participant in applying the paint to the canvas with lots of other collaborators."