“When I met Otis Williams of The Temptations over lunch, he asked me to direct the musical,” Des McAnuff says. “And when Otis Williams asks you to do something, it’s hard to say no. First of all, he’s a legend. He’s an incredibly charming, deep man. And he’s six-foot-five.”
And so, McAnuff—who already tackled the bio-musicals of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons with Jersey Boys and Donna Summer with Summer—took on the challenge of directing what is now Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations. The musical, currently playing the Imperial Theatre was nominated for 11 2019 Tony Awards, including one for McAnuff’s direction. (Sergio Trujillo won for his choreography.)
To date, McAnuff, 67, has won two Tonys as best director of a musical, for The Who’s Tommy in 1993 and Big River in 1985. He was nominated for the 1995 revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and for Jersey Boys in 2006 — as well as for Best Book of a musical for The Who’s Tommy. As artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse in California from 1983 to 1994 and 2001 to 2007, he put La Jolla on the map as one of the best regional theatres in the country, winning the Tony for Best Regional Theatre in 1993. In 2008, he served as co-artistic director of the renowned Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada, and then sole artistic director to 2013.
In his half century in the world of the stage he has directed hundreds of plays and musicals. And as a member of the famous Dodger Theatricals producing team, he has also co-produced many Broadway shows, including Titanic, Urinetown, Matilda: the Musical, A Bronx Tale, and Groundhog Day, as well as revivals of The King and I, 42nd Street, Into the Woods, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
As Jersey Boys continues a successful run Off-Broadway at New World Stages, a national tour begins October 11, 2019, in New Haven, Connecticut. The national tour of Summer is at Playhouse Square in Cleveland through October 27. A staged concert performance and reunion of The Who’s Tommy is set for La Jolla, the launching pad for the Broadway production, on Monday, October 14. A benefit for the playhouse, the concert features The Who’s Pete Townshend—Tommy’s composer-lyricist and co-book writer—and original cast members Michael Cerveris and Norm Lewis, who made their Broadway debuts with the rock musical.
Here, McAnuff spoke about how he fell into directing, his greatest memory from Tommy, and working with stars like Glenn Close and more:
Why he became a director:
“Like most directors I fell backwards into the profession. I started out as a composer, as a songwriter. I continue to play to this day. (I expect to strap on the Fender Telecaster for a couple of songs at La Jolla Monday night.) I wrote a couple of musicals when I was very young. I wanted to prove that I could write without including songs, so when I was a young theatre artist in Toronto, I wrote a couple of plays that, fortunately, were produced. In Toronto, it was more or less understood that if you were a writer and you had leadership skills of any kind, inevitably you would be asked to direct. That’s exactly what happened to me. It was simply expected.
“The thing about directing is that it’s seductive. Because it’s very social. It’s harder to spend time writing when you’re directing because you become addicted to the people, and being in a group. It’s extremely satisfying and entertaining. So I found that after a while I was doing more directing than writing. That’s how I entered the field.
“I moved to New York when I was very young. I was just 23. But in Toronto I had managed to build up a résumé of 10 or 15 directing projects before I came to New York. I got two very good opportunities: one with Michael David and Rob Kalfin at the Chelsea Theater Center. I was directing [The Crazy Locomotive] at 24, and it had actors like Dwight Schultz and Glenn Close in it. And then I also submitted a play of my own to the Public Theater and developed a relationship with Joseph Papp. The play [done in 1979] had a wild title. It was called Leave It to Beaver Is Dead. Mandy Patinkin, Dianne Wiest, Saul Rubinek, the late Maury Chaykin, and Brent Spiner were all in it. I also played in a band, and after, we threw open the doors to the lobby of the Public Theater and entertained our own audience and the other audiences that were pouring out of other plays.
“I was lucky enough to start directing before I knew it was difficult. Joe got me to direct that play at the Public, and one day I woke up and discovered I was a director.”
His directing principles:
“The most important thing is to inspire the people you’re working with. JoAnne Akalaitis, a wonderful director from Mabou Mines and the Public Theater, has referred to a director as a kind of aesthetic general. I think you have to understand that your real job is to get the best out of all the people you work with. That requires creating a safe environment. I always try to remember that the artists, the actors in particular, only do their best work if they feel safe and protected. If they feel like they can make mistakes. I think that is my major guiding principle.”
In the rehearsal room with an actor:
“There’s no recipe. Actors have their own unique approaches to their work. And while I might have ideas or even philosophical approaches to a particular text or play, I always try to learn about the actors and get some sense of what works for them. For example, I’ve worked with the great Christopher Plummer on several projects, and he does so much preparation on his own, particularly with classical texts, that I don’t feel it’s necessary to lead him through a dramaturgical process, where one’s doing text analysis or what I like to call sleuthing. With most young actors, I spend an enormous amount of time on the text, trying to crack it open for them.
“So I think the biggest thing with actors is to not treat them as if they’re all identical. Give them the freedom to bring their own mark of divine inspiration to the part they’re playing. People have to feel invested in their own work. They can’t feel like they’re simply doing what you ask them to do.”
A mistake he made that he learned from:
“When I was very young—actually it was the first play I directed in New York—it had been a particularly bad performance, a disappointing performance. I went backstage to a group of actors and I told them that. And they were clearly alarmed by this comment. It was right after the show. And one of the actors took me aside and said, ‘You know, Des, you don’t ever want to do that. We’re fragile, and we know that what we went through was disappointing to you and to us. And you don’t need to tell us. We already know.’ And that was a great lesson.
“There is a time to be firm with people, particularly if you feel they’re not doing an adequate amount of homework, or they’re not properly prepared. or if they bring something into the room that they should check at the door. But most of the time you need to be gentle, sensitive, responsive. That was a mistake that I learned from. I’ve never forgotten it.”
A memory of The Who’s Tommy:
“I met Pete Townshend in November of 1991. I spent some time looking at the project. I remember that the critic of the Los Angeles Times saw The Who in concert doing Tommy and said this is the greatest rock opera of all time and we could never live up to this in the theatre. And I remember thinking, ‘Oh yes we could.’ I researched the music and got to know it—I knew it very well anyway. But I didn’t really engage until I sat with Pete. I wanted to hear what he had to say about it.
“We were sitting together in the lobby of the Portobello Hotel [in London]. We were alone, just the two of us. We talked for about four hours. And at one point he stood up and he illustrated how he injured his right hand. And he did one of his famous windmills for me, and I thought to myself, this is the coolest of cool. Pete Townshend normally does this for 30,000 people, and he’s doing it just for me. So this is a project that I just have to take on.”
About Ain’t Too Proud:
“I’ve done three of what I like to call biography musicals, starting with Jersey Boys about 15 years ago. So I had a little bit of skepticism. They managed to get quite a bit of attention, and they’ve been commercial successes. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back to that genre. When you have a show that’s a hit, you get pegged a little bit. Even though I’ve only done three of these, some people have the impression that I’ve spent my career doing them. Which is of course not true.
“I played a number of the Temptations’ songs as a kid when I was in a band, so I knew the music quite well. But I didn’t know the story. Two things happened that inspired me to do this: One was I got to know the story. I read Otis Williams’ book, which was enlightening ; I realized I didn’t know much about the actual history of the Temptations. And I was very complimented that he wanted me to take on the story. I came to understand that the story was very much from his point of view. It’s somewhat of a memory play. But he had something to work out, and I think with any story that is critical—that you go into it with emotional stakes. In this case I think spiritual stakes, too. That’s what inspired me to take on the project.”
“We haven’t done a new production of Tommy for a long time. I’m very excited about being with Pete. That would be a great journey. We’ve been talking about it for some time. I don’t know what will come of that but we’re definitely on it.
“We’re hoping Ain’t Too Proud will proliferate. We expect a tour will go out relatively soon. I’m casting that. Summer is in Cleveland beginning a tour and it looks awfully promising. I have a project with Marshall Brickman and T-Bone Burnett, and we’re developing that. I’m happily busy as a beaver.”