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Our Boy Goes Back To Broadway

La Jolla Playhouse’s director emeritus, Des McAnuff, drops by en route to the Great White Way


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71% of readers say Jersey Boys is their favorite Des McAnuff musical to date 

It only took three words—Jesus Christ Superstar—to get Tony Award-winning director Des McAnuff back to La Jolla Playhouse. His revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock musical opened in November at the Playhouse. In March, it launches a Broadway engagement. 

Superstar is the latest hit for McAnuff, who completed two stints as the Playhouse’s artistic director (1983-1994 and 2001-2007) and built his rep on musicals ranging from Big River and The Who’s Tommy to Jersey Boys. He is currently artistic director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, and he has given an imaginative kick to the Metropolitan Opera’s Faust, which arrives on local movie screens this month. We caught up with him while in San Diego.

What made you want to try Jesus Christ Superstar, which premièred on Broadway 40 years ago? I’d been talking to Andrew and Tim on and off since about 1996. Tim had described the story as a love triangle between Jesus, Mary, and Judas. And whether or not you are a believer, you have to accept that Christ was a remarkable man and that the last week of his life was a remarkable week. We’ve taken a fresh and contemporary look at a classic rock show. That may explain why people are wildly enthusiastic. 

Does someone have to be a Christian to fully appreciate the production? I don’t think so. There can be little argument about Christ’s impact on the planet. I honestly believe that you can come into Superstar as a Christian fundamentalist or as an atheist and have a terrific experience. 

You just referred to Jesus as “Christ.” Does that mean you consider yourself a Christian? I’m probably somewhat of a fallen Christian. I’m more of a skeptic than I was as a schoolboy. I grew up Anglican in Canada so I’m quite well versed when it comes to the New Testament. If you ask me about some things, such as whether Mary was a virgin, I’m dubious. I’m a wimpy agnostic on some level. 

As a director, you’re deeply involved with music. What do you listen to for fun? I listen to all kinds of music. These days I’ve been hearing the bands Iggy & the Stooges and The National, and lots of opera. Bryna (longtime girlfriend Bryna McCann) and my daughter (Julia McAnuff) keep me hip. I have an iPod, an iPad, and an iPhone so I’m well connected. 

Where do you like to go when you’re not busy at the theater? Bryna and I will visit my old haunts. We’ll walk around La Jolla Cove. We’ll see movies downtown and hang out at Balboa Park and maybe even go to Borrego Springs. San Diego has a terrific choice of restaurants. What I really love is great Indian food, the hotter the better. If someone tells me it’s too hot, I say, “Go ahead, make me cry.” 

Des’s Tony Awards

  • Jersey Boys, Best Direction of a Musical (2006)
  • Into the Woods, Best Revival of a Musical (2002)
  • 42nd Street, Best Revival of a Musical (2001)
  • Titanic, Best Musical (1997)
  • The King and I, Best Revival of a Musical (1996)
  • The Who’s Tommy, Best Direction of a Musical (1993)
  • Guys and Dolls, Best Revival of a Musical (1992)

Now Playing: Jesus Christ Superstar is at La Jolla Playhouse from November 18 through December 31. 

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