SECOND FLOOR OF SARDI'S: A Glass of Wine With Superstar Director Des McAnuff
By Robert Simonson
Jesus Christ Superstar director Des McAnuff reveals his rock 'n' roll heart over a glass of wine at the upstairs bar of Manhattan's famed theatre-district restaurant. Turns out, his heart has been on his sleeve since he was a teenager.
Nobody — not Pete Townshend, not Frankie Valli, not the writers of Jesus Christ Superstar — had to school Des McAnuff on rock 'n' roll when he was hired to direct their musicals. The American-born Canadian — whose career has straddled the theatre scenes of both countries for the past four decades — was a rocker before he was a director. "I remember where I was when I first heard the album," he said over a glass of Chardonnay at Sardi's second-floor bar. He was speaking of The Who's classic rock opera "Tommy," the stage musical version of which he directed on Broadway in 1993 as The Who's Tommy. "I was in a rock 'n' roll band called Isaac. I was 16 or 17. We were at our roadie's place. His name was Dennis Blunt. We had finished rehearsing and went upstairs, and he had just acquired this album of 'Tommy.' I don't think we had any intention of listening to it all, but we did."
The album had an impact. A few years later, when McAnuff wrote his own rock musical, a dystopian, anti-war tale about a domed city called Urbania, a reviewer commented that some of the music was reminiscent of The Who. "Years later, when I worked with Pete Townshend, I had to confess that I had been ripping him off," said McAnuff. "The reason for that review is I had been using a lot of suspended fourths. That's the main lick from 'Pinball Wizard.'"
McAnuff never worked up the nerve to show Townsend any of his music. But he was brave enough to play beside the legendary guitarist during a couple of Tommy-era gigs at New York's China Club. "I still strap on the Telecaster from time to time," he said. "I actually co-wrote the music we did for Twelfth Night this [past] year with Michael Roth," at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where McAnuff is artistic director. "I still play and croak out a song from time to time. When there's a show that's right, I love to do it."
McAnuff also remembers the first time he heard the original 1969 studio "concept" album of Jesus Christ Superstar, the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical that he is currently reviving on Broadway, a production that also began at Stratford, Ontario, in 2011. "I can remember listening to it," he said. "I remembered how much I liked it. I know how good it is as a composition, because, when I first heard it, I wouldn't admit I liked it, because I was so jealous.
"I think that album they did in the studio was just a brilliant accomplishment," he continued. "I think the performance of Ian Gillan" — the rock front man of Deep Purple, who sang the role Jesus — "is astonishing. When I started doing it in Stratford, those voices were in my head."
"I was watching daytime television — and I like to think I was at the gym or sick, or terribly depressed, because I don't watch daytime television," he recalled. "I was channel-surfing and came across Tim Rice doing an interview. He was talking about Superstar and he described the story as a love triangle. I thought I knew the story well. But somehow when he said that, I saw the story in a different way and very vividly."
Lloyd Webber's suggestion, naturally, had to do with the music. "I was so used to the idea that when you stage a work, it's the orchestrator's job to take the songs and vocals and expand them into new orchestrations," said McAnuff. "I would have had a hard time getting my head around the idea of going back to another [existing] orchestration. But now I've done opera, where they do things somewhat different. I've found it liberating to go back to the original recording and use that as The Bible for the show." And, so, when it came time to do JCS, he chose to use the original orchestrations, which are familiar to generations of fans who own the original Superstar recording, which was released before there ever was a staged production. "It presses buttons in people when they hear that music."
Superstar is playing at the Neil Simon Theatre, directly across from the August Wilson Theatre, where the McAnuff-directed Jersey Boys has been running since 2005. McAnuff has had his share of hits in his long career, but he will freely admit that nothing approaches that international smash, the popularity of which never seems to flag.
"I had the privilege of enjoying some success as a director, starting when I was relatively young, with Big River, which ran for a long time and had a national tour," he said. "And other shows like Tommy. I got to do 700 Sundays with Billy Crystal, which, for a solo show, was pretty much unprecedented in terms of the success. But nothing compares to Jersey Boys. I knew it was very good and people were loving it. But no one could have anticipated it. It's allowed me to do something, which is go back to my homeland and run this large repertory company [Stratford]. I'm not sure I would have done that without Jersey Boys. It gave me the freedom to do something I really love. I owe that not to just William Shakespeare, but the Four Seasons."
And Canada is appreciative. McAnuff was recently awarded the National Arts Centre Award as part of Canada's Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. He was honored for "work of an extraordinary nature and significance in the performing arts by an individual artist and/or company in the past performance year," according to NAC.
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.")
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."
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