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Nothing but Blue Skies : After his Tony-winning success with 'Tommy,' Des McAnuff is headed for worlds beyond the La Jolla Playhouse. His revival of 'How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying' is bound for Broadway. His next stop: Hollywood.

October 30, 1994|Barbara Isenberg | Barbara Isenberg is a Times staff writer

LA JOLLA — It's a gorgeous day, and the Pacific is so close that surf noises are distracting. Director Des McAnuff is sitting in his living room, doors flung open to the sea, explaining why he really isn't leaving La Jolla and the theater he's turned into a major national contender.

Never mind that last year he announced he was concluding 12 years as artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse to become its "director-in-residence." And put all those movie deals you keep hearing about in perspective.

"I'm not leaving the Playhouse," insists the man best known for sending "The Who's Tommy" on to popular and critical acclaim. "I'm not going anywhere. I'm just changing jobs."

Call it what you will, but all his moves are high profile now. Last year, 42-year-old McAnuff received his second Tony, for directing "Tommy." (His first was for "Big River" in 1985.) "Tommy" is currently on a national tour and will soon open productions in both Toronto, where McAnuff grew up, and Germany.

The rock musical's success lifted McAnuff to star status. Now, in his first directorial outing since "Tommy," he's doing "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," a revival of the 1961 musical sendup of corporate culture.

"How to Succeed" opens here today with plans for a Broadway opening in March. And although McAnuff doesn't officially leave his La Jolla post until early November, he's already got film projects cooking with both Disney and Warner Bros.

In fact, the list of film and theater projects McAnuff's working on right now could give many people Excedrin headaches, but the energetic writer, director and musician does not seem at all intimidated. Asked to explain the weight that each project has for him in comparison to the next, he throws up his hands: They're all great.

He's working on an animated film project with "Tommy" collaborator Pete Townshend. While he is contracted to direct one play a year in La Jolla, McAnuff has also bought a loft space in New York's TriBeCa, finished his first movie--a short called "Bad Dates"--and made the trade press for dropping out of a full-length feature on James Dean.

McAnuff was brought in to direct the Dean biography for Warner Bros. starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and did a well-received rewrite with "Malcolm X" producer Marvin Worth. But McAnuff left the project earlier this month, citing "scheduling" problems.

" 'Dean' is a project that could heat up very quickly," the director explains. "At this stage, it would have been impossible to fulfill all of my other responsibilities."

A spokesman at Warner Bros., which put McAnuff up for several months in a West Hollywood apartment to work on projects, says pretty much the same thing. Acknowledging the director's assorted theater assignments, for instance, the spokesman says, "We're grateful to Des for his contribution to the James Dean project (and) hope to continue our excellent relationship."

Meanwhile, "in active development" at Disney is the live-action "Monster Musical," which is just starting up and, apparently, easier for McAnuff to devote time to. He and producer Worth wrote an 85-page treatment--McAnuff calls it a "little novella"--based on an idea of Worth's, and composer Alan Menken was originally involved.

"Movies are mainly about conveying ideas, storytelling and working with actors, which I have spent the last 20 years of my life doing," says McAnuff, who already looks pretty Hollywood with his properly torn jeans, leather jacket and maroon sports car. "In many ways, it seems like a very natural transition."

First, however, comes "How to Succeed." About $900,000 of its $1.3-million budget here is "enhancement" money from commercial producers, and New York-based producer Michael David at Dodger Productions expects a $5-million price tag by the time the show opens on Broadway after its run here and at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

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McAnuff's choice to take a familiar musical to Broadway comes at a time when expectations could hardly be higher. Not only is he riding the crest of "Tommy," but his "How to Succeed" will follow and probably be competing with acclaimed revivals of "Show Boat," "Carousel" and "Damn Yankees."

"How to Succeed" was crafted by a team including Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows, the men best known for "Guys and Dolls" (whose long-running Broadway revival closes in January). There have already been about 2,700 other amateur and professional productions of "How to Succeed" in the United States alone.

Winner of both the Tony for best musical and the Pulitzer for drama, "How to Succeed" originally ran more than three years on Broadway at the 46th St. Theatre--now the Richard Rodgers Theatre, where it is also expected to play during this revival--and was made into a film in 1967. Based on the best-selling novel by Shepherd Mead, who died last August, "How to Succeed" lampoons a corporate America where coffee breaks are celebrated, and deception never hurts.

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