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You can go home again

La Jolla Playhouse's Des McAnuff is headed back to Canada, but first, a trip down Memory Lane.

February 25, 2007|Irene Lacher | Special to The Times

La Jolla — THIS was one case in which "almost" did count. Des McAnuff, La Jolla Playhouse's outgoing artistic director, almost went to the Stratford Festival in his native Canada in 1983, but he headed south instead. He took up the reins of the playhouse and turned it into one of the country's most celebrated regional theaters, known for its taste for adventure and its propensity for birthing Broadway musicals. When Stratford beckoned a decade later, McAnuff was again tempted but again opted for La Jolla.

Now he's planning to join a new triumvirate that will run Stratford, distinguished by its embrace of the classics, in 2008. After two stints at the helm of La Jolla Playhouse -- from 1983 to 1994 and from 2001 to the present -- McAnuff, 54, takes his final bow April 15, leaving 25 Tonys in his wake, including the 1993 award for outstanding regional theater. As artistic director emeritus, he'll continue to help raise funds and direct plays for the theater. A replacement has not been named.

McAnuff says the move to one of Canada's most prominent arts festivals is "something I've always wanted to do. I believe in the importance of keeping pertinent productions of classics going. It only takes one missed generation to lose track of that literature, which would be an absolute tragedy. And the only way to keep it alive is to do pertinent productions about your own times. I believe strongly in this."

That might not be what some would expect from a director who made his mark creating musicals when many in the theater had declared them all but dead. Three he developed in La Jolla -- "Big River," "The Who's Tommy" and "Jersey Boys" -- went on to make a Tony splash that included two best-director nods for McAnuff. But ask him to name his favorites from among the more than 30 plays he has directed in Southern California, and the titles he ticks off are well-ripened works such as "Romeo and Juliet," "Tartuffe" and "The Sea Gull."

"When I came here, I was told by supporters of the theater that we weren't allowed to do Shakespeare because the [Old] Globe did Shakespeare," he says. "Also that Chekhov didn't play in Southern California. So the first season I did Shakespeare and the third season we did Chekhov. My answer was, 'You can't tell a symphony orchestra not to play Mozart. If you want to be a great theater, you've got to do the great plays.' "

On the eve of his swan song as artistic director -- a new Page-to-Stage production of "The Farnsworth Convention," Aaron Sorkin's work about the birth of television, running through March 25 -- McAnuff reflected on highlights of his California career.

BIG RIVER: The Adventures

of Huckleberry Finn (1984)

When McAnuff began working with Roger Miller, the songwriter had seen only one musical, "Music Man." During their first meeting, the director realized he needed to find an unconventional way of bringing out the best in his composer. The show won seven Tonys.

IN the script, which he may have read all the way through and may not have, there's a scene where [Huck's abusive father] Pap Finn says to Judge Thatcher, "Look at this hand, the hand of a hog." He's trying to convince him that he's worthy of taking his son back. Roger mistook that for "hand for the hog," in other words, clapping for the pig. So the only song he'd written when I met him was a song about applause for the pig, and it had absolutely nothing to do with Huckleberry Finn. I realized fairly quickly that if this was going to work, I had to accept that Roger wasn't necessarily going to accept assignments. What I would often do with Roger is say, "Play all the songs you've written in waltz time because we don't have a waltz time song yet." "You Oughta Be Here With Me," one of the songs of the show, came out of Roger's trunk. "Leavin's Not the Only Way to Go" is about his friend Willie Nelson. It had nothing to do with "Big River."

MACBETH (1989)

McAnuff considers this his strongest work directing a classical production of Shakespeare. It starred John Vickery in the title role. At the time, the careers of McAnuff and his actress-wife Susan Berman were on the upswing.

OUR careers were dominating our lives, and we wanted to have a child. I started to identify with the play in a different way. I understood then how with a career, you want to have a child and you don't. I said this to a journalist, and it was the only time I knew [his wife] to be really angry at me for something I said to the press. She felt it was a desecration, that I'd violated our relationship by talking about not having a child, talking about how I could relate to these characters because of career and work. On a personal level, that's what the Macbeths are about. They can't have a child, so his job becomes the child. She gives up her ability to have children to push him forward. Anyway, literally the next week, she said, "Guess what? I'm pregnant." It was almost kind of mystical.


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