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."
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