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COVER STORY : Can This Man Save the Theater? : 'Tommy' has made Des McAnuff a hotter property. Now, can he continue to lure the Boomers to the stage with rock 'n' roll?

July 18, 1993|SEAN MITCHELL | Sean Mitchell is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles.

Last month Des McAnuff, artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse, left his three-bedroom ocean-side apartment about four miles south of the theater and flew to New York to celebrate his 41st birthday at a party given for him in the East Village by Pete Townshend, the former airborne guitarist of the Who and more recently Tony Award-anointed composer. The next night, at another party given for the Broadway cast and crew of "The Who's Tommy" at a Manhattan nightclub, McAnuff, who recently won a Tony for directing "Tommy," performed the 1962 Rick Nelson rock 'n' roll ballad "Teen Age Idol" and the Buddy Holly anthem "Not Fade Away" backed by none other than Townshend on rhythm guitar.

"I was joined by some of the girls from the (show's) chorus, who sang, 'Um-bop, um-bop, um-bop,' which helped a lot," the director said. "It was a great thrill, really."

The next day he checked up on "Tommy" at the St. James Theatre, then flew back to the West Coast to spend a couple of days in Los Angeles meeting with actors and discussing an independent film project with a Canadian producer. He returned to La Jolla to look in on final rehearsals of George Bernard Shaw's "Arms and the Man" at the La Jolla Playhouse, then two days after opening night, flew to London to see Townshend again and scout the West End for a theater to house the eventual London production of "Tommy."

Then it was back to New York for meetings about the upcoming cast album release and national tour of "Tommy," scheduled to begin in October, then up to Stockbridge, Mass., to inspect a new musical revue at the Berkshire Theater Festival, back to New York and finally back to La Jolla in time for the opening tonight of "The Hairy Ape," by Eugene O'Neill. This stretch of his life covered a little more than three weeks.

It has been that kind of year for McAnuff, whose reputation as a leading resident theater director is well established, but whose name is now invoked more loudly as the guy who successfully chaperoned the former mod guitar-smasher Townshend down the red-carpeted aisle to a Broadway hit. Their kinetic, video-injected staging of "Tommy," which Townshend composed in the late 1960s as a "rock opera" but had never officially dramatized until collaborating with McAnuff, is perhaps the most highly pedigreed rock musical on Broadway since the term tumbled out from the credits of "Hair" in 1967.

Originally an abstract concept album about a traumatized English boy who transcends the miseries of childhood by achieving mystical fame as a pinball genius, "Tommy" became in this new incarnation a more specific story set in post-World War II London, although McAnuff and Townshend decided to keep it largely an oratorio with a backbeat, forgoing a traditional book. It was awarded five Tonys in May, including McAnuff's second as a director.

Not everyone in the theater (or the rock press) has been wild about "Tommy," but whatever its flaws the show has made history for bringing cheek to cheek the long-separated sensibilities of rock and American musical theater. For those in McAnuff's generation who grew up listening to the Who and the Rolling Stones on the radio but also found the theater a pretty interesting place (except for most musicals), it has been a long, strange wait.

Why is it that the theater took so long to hear the music that has been the soundtrack of the nation for more than 30 years? And why were the best rock and pop composers so blind to the appeal of writing music for the stage? The answer to the second question can probably be located at the cash register and in the theater's diminished role in society, but if anyone can speak to these matters it may be McAnuff, who grew up in Toronto in the '60s taking every quarter note of the British Invasion to heart while simultaneously setting out to make a life for himself writing and directing plays and musicals.

"We've been terrible snobs about what we do," McAnuff said one evening during a recent visit to Los Angeles. He was sitting in the bar at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel sipping a glass of white wine with a bottle of mineral water on the side. He had on a dark shirt, dark jacket and a broad black tie with large crescent moons and stars on it.

"Broadway was an insulated community from the '40s through the '60s--both in terms of the artists and the audiences. It was threatened by electric music, what Elvis was doing with his hips, race, sex. And in the resident (not-for-profit) theater movement there was a lot of prejudice against any musicals for years--the idea that musicals weren't serious enough."

Through the '70s and '80s, on Broadway and in London's West End, there were Andrew Lloyd Webber and other younger composers influenced by the energy and pulse of rock, but to purists they were hardly the real thing, and even the rock-alikes were overshadowed by Broadway's preponderant remembrances of things past.

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