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Broadway or the Bard, he's right at home

Sydney Morning Herald

Wednesday February 16, 2011

Bryce Hallett

Guitarist, songwriter, actor, designer, scholar - the director of Doctor Zhivago can do it all, writes Bryce Hallett. The worlds of rock 'n' roll and Shakespeare do not ordinarily go hand in hand but Des McAnuff makes a compelling argument to the contrary. "It's about immediacy and making dreams come true," he says.Best known to Australian audiences for his staging of the hit musical Jersey Boys, McAnuff is in every sense a renaissance man. Pete Townshend of the Who said the American-Canadian director with whom he collaborated on the musical Tommy could have been anything he wanted to be: a guitarist, songwriter, actor or designer.McAnuff grew up listening to folk and rock music, played in a band in his mid-teens and began writing musicals and plays, and exploring Shakespeare before he was 20. These days, he feels equally at home directing classical theatre as conquering the mechanics of the Broadway musical."There's no recipe for directing but my love of Shakespeare and music is part of my skill set in tackling Doctor Zhivago," says McAnuff ahead of the show's much-anticipated opening on Saturday. "It's like driving a rock band where you need team work and generosity. You are only one of the architects and I love that feeling of being part of a team. Jersey Boys and Doctor Zhivago are extended families and my approach is to respond to the strongest idea in the room; it doesn't matter who it comes from."McAnuff, 58, is a formidable talent, not only for the Tony Award-winning musicals he has directed but his directorship of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario and his revitalisation of the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego. The playhouse was founded in the 1940s by Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire and Mel Ferrer; McAnuff was appointed artistic director in 1982. He was 30."They [the board of trustees] took a huge gamble and the work we were doing was dramatically different to anything else happening in LA," he says. "There was a great passion and hunger for ideas. It [the program] was never about alienating people but about welcoming and engaging young audiences."Known by colleagues as a driven, energetic, youthful-minded practitioner, McAnuff is as much a teacher as he is a director. His friend Christopher Plummer, who is starring in his full-throttle production of The Tempest in Canada, describes the director as hardworking, skilful, inquisitive and a joy to work with. The sentiment is echoed by the cast and crew of Doctor Zhivago, including its leads Anthony Warlow and Lucy Maunder.McAnuff was raised in a close-knit family in Illinois. His father was killed in a car accident in December 1951, six months before he was born. At his mother's request, the doctor who tried to save his father's life delivered him.Perhaps to compensate for the loss, he was smothered with love and attention. When his mother was away working he was looked after by his grandparents until his teens when, restless and increasingly self-reliant, he rehearsed and played guitar in a band. It gave him an outlet and a keen sense of tribalism."I didn't see myself as abnormal. I was a product of my times. When I was 14 in 1966 I was excited to be part of this international consciousness and I had an appetite for the arts and politics."After weeks of staying out late practising and playing music, his grandmother told him she could no longer look after him. "I felt bad about that. My grandmother died just before the first show I wrote opened. I dedicated it to her, maybe to assuage my guilt."Throughout the '70s McAnuff mainly worked in Toronto, which was beginning to flourish as a theatre town for new work. He experimented, composed songs, played in his band, The Choke Sisters, and directed his first Greek tragedy, The Bacchae, in 1976.By the time he made his New York directing debut a year later (a production of The Crazy Locomotive at the Chelsea Theatre Centre), his reputation for visually exciting, musically pulsating theatre was quickly gaining ground, but he never saw Broadway as the ultimate destination or prize. Instead he hankered for community and a sense of shared values."I like being part of a theatre company, looking after a great cultural resource and being part of a great tradition ... I don't think great visionaries necessarily make great theatre directors because you want the work to have a common touch. Shakespeare knew that. He is the best teacher for any student of the theatre as he's such an imaginative creator of language and spectacle."Under McAnuff's stewardship, the once-dormant La Jolla Playhouse became akin to a Hollywood dream factory. Since 2001, more than half of the plays and musicals produced by the company have been new works, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning I Am My Own Wife, Billy Crystal's autobiographical 700 Sundays and Aaron Sorkin's The Farnsworth Invention.In his final season as artistic director in 2006-07, McAnuff directed a new version of The Wiz and premiered the composer Lucy Simon's Doctor Zhivago, which has continued to evolve in leaps and bounds, and has become a star vehicle for Warlow."Doctor Zhivago has been a long haul and began in earnest in 2002," McAnuff says. "Big River went through two productions before it went to Broadway whereas Tommy and Jersey Boys seemed almost instant by comparison ... But when you're originating a book musical, an epic romance with a big cast and orchestra, there are many moving parts and when a show is invented from scratch there are many unknowns."Despite the long hours and pressure, the director is cautiously optimistic about the production's chances. He believes that it is Lucy Simon's masterpiece."The score is extraordinary and it gets steadily better ... I don't have the power to prophecy what will happen at the opening but we all have a good feeling about the show."Doctor Zhivago opens at the Lyric Theatre, Star City, on Saturday.

© 2011 Sydney Morning Herald

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