Des McAnuff first heard Tommy in the summer of '69. He had been practising with his rock band in the basement of a friend's house in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough. The band's roadie had just bought the new double album by The Who. After the rehearsal, they went up to the living-room and put it on the turntable. "It was a big event," McAnuff recalls. "We sat there and listened to it right through - on God knows what, my guess is pot or hash - and I remember being really struck by it. Here was a prominent rock 'n' roll songwriter [Pete Townshend], the creator of My Generation, who was writing music that seemed suspiciously like theatre. I remember being sort of jealous, thinking, 'I wish I could do that.' He wasn't that much older than me. I was 17, he would have been 23."
A quarter-century later, the rock fan and the rock star are partners. As director and co-writer of Tommy the musical, McAnuff helped Townshend resurrect his opus - a pinball portrait of the artist as a young autistic - on the Broadway stage. And for McAnuff, Tommy's success marks a crowning achievement in a brilliant career. A dual citizen of Canada and the United States, he was born in Princeton, Ill., but raised and educated in Toronto, where he first won acclaim as a composer, playwright and director. Now, he returns to his home town in triumph, unveiling a new, Canadian production of Tommy , which premières this week at The Elgin Theatre.
At 42, McAnuff has racked up an impressive score in the arcades of American theatre. The last two musicals he directed - Tommy and Big River (1985) - won a combined total of 12 Tony Awards, including Best Director in both cases. The San Diego-area La Jolla Playhouse, where he has served as artistic director since 1983, has become one of the most celebrated stages on the continent - in 1993, it won the Tony Award for Outstanding American Regional Theatre. Meanwhile, McAnuff has been revamping another vintage musical on Broadway, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. And, with Townshend, he is taking on Hollywood. They are negotiating with Warner Bros. to turn Townshend's Iron Man, a children's musical, into an animated feature.
It is just five days before the first preview performance of Tommy in Toronto. At The Elgin, positioned through the theatre, technicians are bent over computer screens, fiddling with lighting cues. Cast members mill about. A pianist doodles. A vocalist swoops through her warm-up scales. McAnuff sits down for an interview, choosing a seat halfway up the aisle. Dressed in a blue-denim jacket and jeans, he has the casual, good-natured manner of someone who makes his living putting actors at ease.
As he begins to run through his life story, it becomes apparent that in his case, as in Townshend's, there are some striking parallels with the story of Tommy , beginning with the backdrop of the Second World War. Like the hero of the musical, McAnuff is the son of a Royal Air Force flyer who fought in the war. When Tommy is born, his father (Captain Walker) is presumed killed in action. And the director's father, a veterinarian named William McAnuff, was killed in a car crash three months before Des was born. Des was named after a friend of his father, an R.A.F. pilot who died in combat. His mother, Ellen, later married a salesman named John Boyd, another former R.A.F flyer. And he, like The Who's John Entwhistle and Tommy's Uncle Ernie, played French horn - "I grew up with the smell of Brasso on Sunday afternoons," recalls McAnuff.
There are a few other odd flight patterns in his life. He spent some of his early childhood living with his grandparents near Buttonville Airport, on the outskirts of Toronto, and his first memories are of single-engine planes and gliders coming in to land. His output as a playwright, meanwhile, includes something called The Death of Von Richofen as Witnessed from Earth, A Play with Flying and Songs. McAnuff hesitates to connect the dots of his destiny with too much cosmic import. "A lot of it's just coincidence," he says. "But there must be something to it. I made a very personal connection to Tommy ."
A precocious talent, McAnuff was performing folk music in coffeehouses at 14. He soon graduated to rock, forming a succession of garage bands. Meanwhile, he was discovering musical theatre, acting in The Sound of Music, The Pajama Game and Annie Get Your Gun at Scarborough's Woburn Collegiate. At the end of the 1960s, with the arrival of Hair, McAnuff suddenly saw how his two passions, rock and theatre, could be combined. Auditioning for the Toronto cast of Hair, he failed to survive the final cut. Then, inspired by Tommy , he decided it was time to write and direct his own rock musical - at the age of 19.
Titled Urbania, it was a science-fiction fantasy about a domed city, an Orwellian dictatorship of pleasure. McAnuff mounted the piece at his high school with a rock band and a cast of 50, then secured a six-week run for it at a downtown alternative theatre, the Poor Alex. Toronto Star reviewer Urjo Kareda called the script "really dreadful," but praised Urbania's "original conception" and "raw power."
After high school, McAnuff enrolled in the theatre program at Toronto's Ryerson Polytechnical Institute and cranked out three plays in his first year. One of them, Leave It to Beaver Is Dead, made his name. Director Paul Bettis, then a dramaturge at the Factory Lab Theatre, plucked McAnuff's play from a huge stack of scripts submitted in a contest involving students from across Canada in 1973. "It was quite sensational," Bettis recalls. "It stuck out a mile from the rest. The dialogue was extremely vivid in a slangy, poetic way. It was like a Sam Shepard play." Awarding the student prize to McAnuff, Bettis vowed that if he ever opened a theatre, he would inaugurate it with Leave It to Beaver Is Dead.
He made good on his promise with the opening of Toronto's experimental Theatre Second Floor, in 1975. The trippy mayhem of McAnuff's play struck a sufficiently experimental chord. "The play is essentially about a drug clinic that turns into something called the Show where people come to act out their fantasies," says McAnuff. "It ends with the inevitable early-1970s bloodbath when the wrong person walks in off the street at a sensitive moment."
The play made a splash and drew good reviews. By then, McAnuff had seen three more of his plays staged around town. He had also composed the score for Michael Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1974), which was mounted in Toronto, Washington, and at the Manitoba Theatre Centre - where McAnuff starred in the title role. And as a director, he began to make his mark with daring local productions of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus and The Bacchae by Euripides. Meanwhile, recalls Bettis, "Des seemed mostly interested in being a rock 'n' roll star. He was always trying to get you to sit down and listen to this song he'd written. And he always had beautiful looking girlfriends."
With a remarkable résumé under his belt for a 23-year-old, in 1977 McAnuff was invited to direct a 1920s Polish play, The Crazy Locomotive, at New York City's prestigious Chelsea Theatre Centre. And suddenly, he found himself auditioning the likes of Sigourney Weaver and Glenn Close (he cast Close). In Manhattan, McAnuff found his niche. The next year, at The Public Theatre, he directed his own version of Leave It to Beaver Is Dead - an award-winning production starring Diane Wiest, Mandy Patinkin, Saul Rubinek and Maury Chaykin. His career now in full flight, he went on to co-found a theatre company called Dodger Productions, to join the faculty of New York's Juilliard School and to direct an eclectic range of productions, including Shakespeare plays in Central Park and Ontario's Stratford Festival - finally touching down in La Jolla, which would later serve as the launchpad for Tommy .
McAnuff first met Townshend in 1991, through pace Theatrical Group, the New York-based company that had acquired the rights to Tommy . "They brought us together in London, around a big table," he says. "We had one of those private conversations in a public meeting. I said, 'I don't want to do it without your blessing,' and he said he was very skeptical about how involved he would be." But after meeting McAnuff, says Townshend, "I realized that I was going to be a co-author, that Des is a team man the same way I am a team man. I actually felt that when I waffled on, as I do, Des was hearing what I really meant."
In the end, they spent hundreds of hours together discussing the project, McAnuff estimates. "I've spent as much time talking to Pete as almost anyone in my life," he says, "and some of it was deeply personal - obviously we were trying to draw on that to create the piece." Adds the director, who has a four-year-old daughter with his wife, actress Susan Berman: "Being the father of a child the same age as the young Tommy, I feel profoundly different about his parents now than I would have at 20. Everyone who has children has, at one time or another, done something stupid that could have inadvertently caused damage."
Realizing that the central conflict in their story was between Tommy and himself, McAnuff and Townshend made a mirror its central motif. And they subdivided the title role into three Tommys of different ages, who would sometimes appear all together. Leaving most of the original music and lyrics intact (and adding one new song), they focused on telling the story visually, through the staging. And that is where McAnuff's virtuosity becomes most apparent. The overture kick-starts the action at a breakneck pace. With rear projections flashing up and scenery flying in and out, Tommy zips through a wedding, a war, a birth and a murder in 12 minutes flat without a pause.
After mounting Tommy in La Jolla and New York, the structure was set. "But we're always looking for new wrinkles," he says. "That's what got Pete excited, when he realized the extraordinary detail you have at your fingertips when you're doing theatre."
Detail, of course, demands precision. And as the rehearsal resumes at the Elgin, McAnuff goes back to his job of fine-tuning the show. The cast runs through the Acid Queen scene, featuring Philippine-Canadian Jinky Llamanzares in the role that Tina Turner made memorable in Ken Russell's film version. Artificial smoke drifts across the stage. Against a magenta backdrop, in a junkyard setting of trash-can fires, Llamanzares slinks out of the shadows wearing hooker heels with tights and a T-shirt. Her voice uncoils with a scary power: "I'm the Gypsy - the Acid Queen ... guaranteed to tear your soul apart!" McAnuff requests a subtle lighting adjustment. They run the scene again, up to where the Acid Queen spikes her arm with a needle - the "Jinky jab," as the crew call it. McAnuff asks Llamanzares to be "a little wilder" with her pirouettes. She runs through it again. Wilder. And again. Until it is perfect - an impeccable pantomime of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. The smoky Scarborough basement where Des McAnuff once trained to be a rock star seems far, far away.
Maclean's March 6, 1995