Des McAnuff needs the Stratford Shakespeare Festival as much as it needs him. A documentary about the Canadian director’s career and work, Des McAnuff: A Life in Stages (airing on Bravo! on Feb. 7), shows him balancing Stratford, where he’s been sole artistic director since 2008, with the big U.S. productions he’s best known for, like Jersey Boys. His Stratford post may save him from being typecast by the popularity of Jersey Boys: “When you do a successful musical,” he told Maclean’s, “suddenly it’s like that’s the only thing you’ve done.” And since big Broadway shows—including McAnuff’s own short-lived revival of Guys and Dolls—haven’t done well lately, the real future in theatre might be in what he calls “setting the bar high on classical work.”
McAnuff, whose Stratford productions this year include The Tempest with Christopher Plummer, had a more commercial background than most Stratford bosses. He originally shared the job with two traditionally Shakespearean directors, and had to make “a larger time commitment than I expected” after they left. What he calls his “outside interests” were appealing to the festival, and so was the slickness and polish of his work: the film dwells on his spectacular gimmicks in shows like The Who’s Tommy, and McAnuff sees it as part of his job to bring such techniques to Shakespeare. “We’ve really raised the production standards on the Festival stage,” he says. “I think we’re doing far more ambitious things visually.” His Broadway background, along with what he calls his ability to “make international friendships and relationships,” is part of what Stratford wanted him for.
Yet one surprising thing the documentary emphasizes is that his hits have originated in non-commercial theatre. In 18 years at the La Jolla Playhouse, a non-profit theatre in San Diego, he directed many shows that went to Broadway, like Jersey Boys and the Huckleberry Finn country-musical Big River. Though he left La Jolla in 2007, his time there is a major presence in the film; Billy Crystal and others talk about working with McAnuff in the California theatre. McAnuff likes the kind of control Stratford or a playhouse like La Jolla gives him: “In my four walls, I’m in charge. Once it becomes a commercial production, the producer takes on that kind of authority.” And it seems like big hits are more likely to be born in that setting.
Part of this has to do with a changing theatrical economy. “In the golden age of the American musical, musicals were developed on the road,” McAnuff says. “That’s financially impractical today.”
That’s why repertory companies like La Jolla have taken the place of pre-Broadway tryouts, and McAnuff sees no reason why that can’t happen here: “I would love to see an income stream for Stratford coming from the birth of a new musical, or the success of a classical production, or a new play.” He points out that there are plans to move his Stratford production of A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To The Forum to Toronto, and that this year’s production of Evita is the Festival’s first rock-influenced musical: “That could pave the way for the premiere of a new musical,” he says, which could be “a great calling card for Stratford,” the way musicals were for La Jolla.
Non-commercial theatre may also be better for one of McAnuff’s core interests: attracting young theatregoers. When he talks about how to do this, he refers less to Broadway and more to things like the rock ’n’ roll Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by David Grimley at Stratford last year, or the Metropolitan Opera’s high-definition films (which inspired Stratford to bring McAnuff’s c to cinemas). And it’s at Stratford that he hopes to do more multicultural casting, showing kids a stage that “looks like the population of the high school they come from.” Classical revivals can create what he calls “an edgy, youthful sensibility.”
Not that McAnuff wants Stratford to be completely audience-conscious; he says it’s “not right to treat Stratford like a commercial theatre. It’s too important to Canada.” That’s why the company may need to build more relationships with commercial producers—it needs more money to “take the kinds of artistic risks that we need to be a leading theatre in the world.” Based on his La Jolla years, McAnuff thinks he has what it takes to “protect the festival” while creating these partnerships. And as he continues to operate two directorial careers at once, there’s one big advantage he has now: “New York’s a lot further from La Jolla than it is from Stratford.”