McAnuff makes Playhouse a steppingstone to Broadway

For La Jolla Playhouse Artistic Director Des McAnuff, theater just happened. All it took was a little inspiration.

At 17 years old, he was much more into his rock band. When the musical “Hair” came to his hometown, his band tried out, and as he spent more time around the production, he thought to himself, “I can do this.”

He wrote a 26-song Orwellian-themed musical, “Urbania,” that his high school produced as his senior year drama performance. He emerged as a playwright and composer who felt inspired but not enlightened.

“I realized I didn’t know anything about theater,” he said, “and didn’t know what the hell I was doing.”

Now 53 years old with a list of credits longer than a Shakespearean soliloquy, McAnuff seems to have learned a few things about directing over the years. The most recent example: Playhouse sensation “Jersey Boys” is currently casting for a run on Broadway.

McAnuff said the phenomenal response to the musical about the Four Seasons is due to the dark, twisted, extraordinary story of the characters. Even though it was the most successful production in the history of the Playhouse - it was extended three times after opening in October 2004 - McAnuff is hesitant to call it a Broadway hit just yet. But, he’s optimistic.

And how many directors can say their musical has the blessing of the mafia? “Jersey Boys” playwright Rick Elice was asked to fax pages of the book to a mob family whose patriarch is a character in the story. They wanted to make sure the mafia kingpin was portrayed in a favorable light.

“He comes across as one of the good guys in our story,” Elice said, “so we were confident that we were going to live.”

Despite such an unexpected challenge, McAnuff has managed to maintain perspective and control over the whole process.

“He’s a great field marshal,” Elice said. “A lot of staging a musical in the theater is being a field marshal, it’s telling everybody, and by everybody I mean the 150 people who are involved in even a small musical like ‘Jersey Boys,’ ‘This is what I need from you and this is when I need it.’”

From the big picture issues, like making sure the audience is able to follow the storyline, to fine details like the color of a chair, McAnuff manages it all. Elice said McAnuff has a gift of eliciting great collaborations.

“He speaks to performers like a performer,” Elice said. “He speaks to writers like a writer. He speaks to everyone in the production with a vocabulary that they can understand.”

McAnuff attributes his abilities largely to experience.

“I’ve just been doing it long enough,” he said, “that I’ve had a chance to fail, to try various things, to learn and, I hope, to grow.”

Having earned two Tony Awards for best director for “The Who’s Tommy” and “Big River,” McAnuff has clearly improved since his days as a greenhorn. And he’s taken the La Jolla Playhouse along for the ride.

Since becoming artistic director in 1983, McAnuff has catapulted the Playhouse into international recognition, transforming the director’s theater into an institutional haven for nurturing newprojects. Sixty to 70 percent of Playhouse productions are new works.

Programs such as Page-to-Stage now enable directors, writers and actors to develop their dream projects, a luxury McAnuff was given as artist-in-residence at the Public Theater in New York and likes to pass on to others.

Billy Crystal’s “700 Sundays,” which went on to huge success on Broadway, is just one successful graduate of Page-to-Stage under McAnuff’s direction.

“I encouraged him to tell his personal story,” McAnuff said. “I felt that would make a full, rich evening in the theater and that he didn’t have to rely on stand-up material so much.”

Running a theater means McAnuff doesn’t get a chance to work on his own projects as much as he would like.

“It seems narcissistic (to stage my own projects),” he said, “and there are a lot of political issues when you run a theater and you have to be sensitive to them.”

However, he said he won’t engage in any project he is not passionate about.

“I’m not interested in relic theater,” he said. “I’m not interested in studying the past for the sake of it or doing a classic because it happens to be a great play. It has to be some kind of tool for me to explore this very short life we are all blessed with.”

The ultimate goal is to be able to call himself a master of many genres, though he is not sure if it is out of desire for refining his skills or something else.

“Maybe I’m just a dilettante,” he said. “I probably am just a dilettante. In a way, directing is a dilettante’s paradise because you can enter a new universe every time you start a new project.”

With a variety of productions under his belt including “Romeo and Juliet,” the live-action animated feature “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle,” and plans for a collaboration with rock band The Flaming Lips, McAnuff seems to have mastered several universes.