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2006 Tony Awards Q&A: Des McAnuff

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Nominated for Best Director for Jersey Boys, Des McAnuff is a two-time Tony Award-winning director and writer and the artistic director of La Jolla Playhouse. Under his leadership, La Jolla Playhouse has won more than 200 theatre awards, including the 1993 Tony Award as America's Outstanding Regional Theatre. Playhouse to Broadway credits include Jersey Boys; Billy Crystal's 700 Sundays; Dracula: The Musical; How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, The Who's Tommy; A Walk in the Woods; and Big River.

You've been making the rounds here at Tony Press day, how thrilled are you about the reception for Jersey Boys?

What can I say that I haven't already said? I heard Mario Cuomo once say to a reporter – 'that's a very good question, now let me see how I can evade it.'

How's everything going with Zhivago out at La Jolla?

Really swimmingly! I got a great report last night. I landed at about 1 o'clock in the morning, and was in touch with my assistant at about twenty minutes to 2, and they had pretty close to a flawless performance last night. The place was packed, and the audience jumped to their feet. I wish that it was up to me, and of course it's not but if it were, I'd give some pretty high praise for this one. It's really ambitious, and it has of course much more of a 'sweep' than what we're used to these days with contemporary musicals.

How much has the show been changing throughout its early days?

There's of course still more stuff to do and the more that you see it with an audience, the more you understand where you have soft spots that you need to work on.

And the eventual hope is to bring the show east?

I never use the B-word out there because I've found that a guaranteed way for the scenery to hit the dumpster is to start talking about Broadway. It's an absolute rule, and if I hear anybody else talk about it I get angry because I've seen it happen so many times before. As soon as someone starts saying, and thinking that they're going to Broadway, someone else says "Oh, so you think you're going to Broadway – I've got news for you!"

Back to the present then, has the Jersey Boys amazing success so far given new hope to the world of 'Jukebox Musicals?'

I think that the term "originated" back in the early 90s before Mamma Mia! There was another show in Britain that strung together a bunch of pop songs with a very weak narrative and I think that that's originally what it meant. To me, it meant an invented story.

Jersey Boys though is a biography. Once upon a time we would have used the houghty-toity phrase 'history' when we wrote about kings and queens. You can argue that celebrity has become royalty in our country so on some levels this is a history. It's a story that really happened and it involved a narration and I think in a very sophisticated way. I think for anyone to say that the show isn't sophisticated means that they're either mean-spirited, or they need to work on their perceptive skills.

Like everything else it probably comes down to taste…

I think that one of the things that I love about this country is that I came here 30 years ago this month from Canada, and there's no Ministry of Culture, there's no Canada Council and there's no salon that tells us the genre of art that we're supposed to do and like.

So if Jersey Boys is incorrect theatre, all the more power to us. We don't have to be social realists in this country to be acceptable and that's a great thing. I think it's a mistake to attack genre's and to use derogatory terms. I think it's prejudiced.

In addition to Zhivago, you've also got The Wiz in the pipeline – how's that show coming?

Robert Brill, the designer and I have been working on The Wiz for 3 years and it's stupidly ambitious. I'm not making that up, so God knows what's going to happen to us when we get in the theatre! It's fully environmental, and it's updated and we're setting it in 2006. It's a blast, and I love the show and I love the score. If you add a house beat to the score, it's contemporary music. So it's really a blast.

Also working on the project is Sergio Trujillo, who was not nominated for Jersey Boys but I think should have been. I've not seen all the other shows though, which I will concede, but we really wouldn't be here without him. He's really going to blow the roof off of the house though with The Wiz, so I'm really looking forward to working with him again, he's so brilliant.


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