June 4, 2006

McAnuff’s Blueprint for Success

June 4th, 2006

NorthJersey.com’s Robert Feldberg notes that few things in the theater are harder than creating a hit Broadway musical; a generous estimate is 15 percent of the shows that make it to opening night are successful. Director Des McAnuff, however, has an 80 percent success rate on the Great White Way. What’s his secret?

McAnuff says he doesn’t have a formula, but he does have a blueprint. He developed all his shows at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, where he’s artistic director. Of the five musicals he’s brought to Broadway as a director (he’s also co-produced many shows), four of them — Big River, The Who’s Tommy, the revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and of course, Jersey Boys– have been hits.

McAnuff talks about how it works at his La Jolla Playhouse, He describes the his theatre as a bit of a protective environment with a rule: no one can mention the ‘B’ word. In La Jolla, he and his colleagues focus on the show without the added pressure and expectations that would come from aiming for Broadway.

The process is exemplified by the journey of Jersey Boys, which will be one of the top contenders for Tony honors next Sunday. Book writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, who’d never done a show on Broadway, came to McAnuff bearing the rights to the song catalog of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. McAnuff said,

“I didn’t like the idea of doing a conventional rock-and-roll show. I was convinced it needed a more biographical treatment. And I really insisted on having narration to help relate the story of the Newark group’s rocky road to fame.”

He also had the pivotal idea of using most of the group’s songs as numbers in concert or club scenes rather than shoehorning them into the plot, where they’d make rather dubious “theater songs.” The show thus became a kind of gritty, funny play with soaring bursts of music, avoiding the trap of being another typical “jukebox” musical.

McAnuff added,

“[Brickman and Elice] responded favorably to my ideas, and working together was a real lovefest. I think one of the reasons the show works so well is the harmony we had in creating it.”

With Brickman and Elice doing the writing and McAnuff handling the structure, the show moved along from outline to completed script. It opened in La Jolla in October 2004, got strong reviews, and only then was there public talk of bringing it to Broadway. That didn’t happen for another year, allowing plenty of time for fixing any problems that might have revealed themselves in the show’s presentation to an audience.

The Jersey Boys that opened on Broadway was notable for the consistency of style that had been achieved in its creation. Everything, including the smart writing and the sharp, rapidly paced staging, shared the same quick-witted sensibility.

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