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Director Des McAnuff Talks About 'Jesus Christ Superstar"

December 1, 2011 1:35 p.m.


Des McAnuff is the artistic director at Canada's Stratford Shakespeare Festival. He is Director Emeritus at the La Jolla Playhouse. He directed "Jesus Christ Superstar."

Related Story: Director Des McAnuff Talks About 'Jesus Christ Superstar'


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh.

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CAVANAUGH: Before Evita, before Phantom, before Cats, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber burst into popular culture with his irreverent blockbuster musical about the life of Christ, Jesus Christ Superstar. A revival of the 1970s musical has just opened at the La Jolla Playhouse, directed by one of the most illustrious members, Des McAnuff is now the artist director at Canada's Stratford Shakespeare festival. Welcome to the show.

MCANUFF: Thank you so much.

CAVANAUGH: How does it feel to be back in San Diego?

MCANUFF: It feels great. I come back all the time. I remain a big supporter of the playhouse. I come to see productions and visit with Christopher Ashley, the artistic director, and Shirley Fishman, my friend who is the dramaturge there. And I'm always participating in fund raisers and other special events for the playhouse. So I'm used to being here. But it feels great to be back in the saddle as a director of course.

CAVANAUGH: What made you decide to turn your hand to Jesus Christ Superstar? It's a musical that's been staged and produced many times in many places.

MCANUFF: First of all, I want just -- that word revival always reminds me of the trauma ward with somebody on the table getting resuscitated. And I always think of these pieces as warranting new productions. I'm not gonna do anything that I think is not worthy of a brand-new staging, which is what our production is. And there were a number of things. I've known Andrew Lloyd weber and Tim Rice for many years. And we've spoken about a production in the past. Right after Tommy in the mid-90s, we toyed with the idea of doing a new production then. And I was actually doing motion pictures at the time, and it ended up not happening. So it's always been rattling around in the caverns of my brain somewhere. Then at Stratford, we have a remarkable company of actors. They're very versatile. They do classical texts, and a lot of them are singers, and I'm talking about more than 100 people. And I felt that we were at a great point as a company to tackle this material. And then I think in addition with everything that's going on in the world, doing this story about Jerusalem 2,000 years ago was surprisingly pertinent, the connection between spirituality and political movement, and not even as far away as Jerusalem, right here in our own cities with the movements that are going on right at this very moment. It just like a time when the story would really resonate in a whole new way.

CAVANAUGH: So this is why you don't like the term revival because you're not reviving it from the original thing. You're seeing now as it plays now as a fresh piece in the context of the time we're living in.

MCANUFF: Absolutely. And that's what a classic I think is. And some might dispute that superstar has been around long enough to be called a classic, but it's 40 years. And when it was first written, we had to drag microphone cables around to do those shows. They were -- there was a kind of implicit presentational quality to those productions. And now we can do them much more representationally. So I think people will be surprised at the intimacy that we achieve in this story, you know? And there are times when it also feels very current. It could feel like you're flicking on the television and seeing CNN, and at the same time I think there's a real strong emotional relationship between Mary Magdalen, Judas, and Jesus.

CAVANAUGH: Did anything about the music seem dated to you at all?

MCANUFF: No. And again, I wouldn't use that term, classic rock and roll, loosely. But having done the who's Tommy not so many years ago. I feel that music has a kind of universality. And I just did Faust at the Met, and I wouldn't think of messing with Gounod's orchestrations. So we're very, very faithful to that album that Tim and Andrew did back in the studio in 1970.

CAVANAUGH: I do believe we have another cut from that album from the 1970s. This is what's the buzz from the original cast recording.

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CAVANAUGH: That is what's the buzz from the original cast recording of Jesus Christ Superstar. I'm speaking with Des McAnuff who is directing a new version of Jesus Christ Superstar at the La Jolla Playhouse. Our producer for this segment, Angela Carone, made a really nice piece this morning about how familiar so many people are with this music and this musical. And I'm wondering, did you see that as a challenge or an advantage?

MCANUFF: I think it's an advantage. I think when people come into the theatre knowing the melodies, it's like they're meeting old friends. I think the challenge is to take them some place they don't expect to go. And obviously to make them enjoy that experience. But my Geiger counter here is that I don't think I'm all that strange as a person. So if I like something, I think the odds are pretty good that they're going to be others that feel the same way I do. So when I -- if I'm riveted by the story, and really engaged, and emotionally connected to it, then most of the time, I feel like I'm going to be able to provide that same experience for others.

CAVANAUGH: You decided to put in a song in the stage version at La Jolla Playhouse that wasn't in the original cast recording. It was in the movie made of Jesus Christ Superstar. Could we start again, please. And is that going to be upsetting to the purists do you think?

MCANUFF: I think it's a very powerful moment in the piece. I wasn't completely obedient in the way that I staged this. I really see the story as a love triangle and a kind of secular love triangle. Although certainly if you're a believer, my experience with this piece is that it's probably going to reinforce your faith, not make you in the opposite direction. But it's by and large a treatment of Jesus as a remarkable man. And I won't give it away, but I've staged it very differently than the way it was done in the motion picture. It was actually, that song was actually added for the motion picture, which they often do with these shows because it gets them another chance to get a song on the charts. So I probably went into this with a certain amount of skepticism about whether to use it or not. But it gives Mary specifically a very strong moment with Jesus in the second half, and I felt dramatically that was worth investigating and so we put it in the show.

CAVANAUGH: Now, composer Andrew Lloyd weber has seen not the La Jolla Playhouse version but your version from the Stratford Shakespeare festival.

MCANUFF: It's essentially the same version. It's the same production. Oh, he was very, very enthusiastic. Very enthusiastic, indeed. And I've spent time with him since in Ireland and London and he's really wildly supportive of the production.

CAVANAUGH: Now, this was, as I said, composed by weber with lyrics by Tim rice. I'm not sure realize actually how young Andrew Lloyd weber was when he wrote this. Tell us about that.

MCANUFF: Well, they were babies. And they couldn't get a production mounted. So they ended up -- Tim was working for a record company. And they ended up going into the studio, and we just heard the greet Ian Gillan doing Jesus at the time, and Murray head. This was a wonderful company. Tim himself actually sings the odd line on the album. He's there as part of the chorus and has some solo lines. Now, that turned out to be a great thing because they were disciplined. They didn't have some director like me saying, well, I need 90 more seconds here for a transition. So they only had 22.5 minutes per side. So you get the four sides. And it really exposed a kind of discipline on the dramatic structure for them. And alternate my belief that they wrote in fact a great play. And it's been a joy, essentially hanging out with them in their early 20s. But I've known them as adults. But of course when you go back and work on a piece like this, you do kind of build up a -- you know, a friendship or a relationship with the ghosts that wrote the work. And it was a most precocious effort. And I know how good it was because at the time, I'd actually written a musical -- you know, I'm a little bit younger than they are. But I was in my late teens. And I remember that it took me a while to admit to liking superstar because I was clearly very jealous. I was jealous of just the great craft that went into it, but also, I thought it was just the most explosive and brilliant idea to take this week in the last life of Jesus Christ and turn it into a rock musical. I thought it was just an absolutely inspired idea.

CAVANAUGH: As you say, you have the whole ensemble cast, and the production from Stratford, here at the La Jolla playhouse. What does the fact that this ensemble has been together for a while working on this project, what does that lend to it?

MCANUFF: Well, I think there's a -- I don't want to say it's effortless because there's a tremendous amount of work that goes into these things, of course. But for a director, it's like playing with a great orchestra. You build up a kind of a shorthand. The fact that they come from doing Paul Nolan who plays Jesus was my Orlando in as you like it last season. Shalena Kennedy this very year is rose of Sharon in the grapes of wrath. So these are very talented and versatile people. Jazz Cealy, one of the ensemble was one of my guitar players and singers in 12th night this year. They have a great range, a very broad skill set. And you will hear the words, and I think see Jesus Christ Superstar acted in a way that I've never seen it before. And I'm sure never imagined it. And that has everything to do with the depth of their talent and skill.

CAVANAUGH: My last quick question to you, Des, this is broadway bound. What's your life going to be like once you get to New York?

MCANUFF: Well, I keep an apartment in New York anyway. One of the exciting things for me is that we're went to go right across the street from jersey boys, which is now gone into its 7th year. I'll have jersey boys on the north side of 52nd street, and Jesus Christ Superstar on the Neal Simon south Saturday. So I hope for at least a lot way to own 52nd street.

CAVANAUGH: That's not half bad! I want to tell everyone that Jesus Christ Superstar continues its run at La Jolla Playhouse through December 31st. I've been speaking with Des McAnuff. And thanks so much for coming.

MCANUFF: Thanks, Maureen.