For Des McAnuff, whose reimagination of The Who’s “Tommy” for the stage won him a Tony Award in 1993, Jesus Christ Superstar presented a familiar set of problems. Superstar, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s hard-driving 1971 take on the Gospels, and The Who’s Tommy are on a very short list of stage musicals that were spawned from concept albums, the go-to format for rock bands looking to stretch their narrative muscles.
But albums play by a very different set of rules than conventional musicals, which is why so few of the other major concept albums of the 1960s and ’70s (including works by the likes of Pink Floyd, Rush and David Bowie) have made their way to the stage. Probably the best-known such project after Superstar – which was a No. 1 album with two hit singles before reaching Broadway – is Tommy, which was a dream project for McAnuff.
“A concept album is sort of like a movie where the screen is inside your head,” says McAnuff, 59. “You have to fill in the details or chapters as you go.” Anyone who listens to the album, in essence, becomes his or her own director.
Lloyd Webber found fault with Tom O’Horgan’s free-wheeling take on Superstar in 1971, but he and Rice have both given their blessing to McAnuff’s new production. It began this summer at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, where McAnuff has been the sole artistic director since 2008. (He shared the responsibility with two other men the previous year.)
Among the producers to book tickets to Canada was Michael David, who co-founded Dodger Theatricals with McAnuff 35 years ago and today calls the director “a well-earned friend onstage and off.” They have collaborated on everything from tiny fringe shows to most of McAnuff’s Broadway shows, and David says the one constant is the director’s meticulous attention to detail. “In the Broadway theatrical trenches,” he says, “with everything at stake and where irreversible missteps stalk the best of us daily, Des gives me comfort. … He thinks big but works, sometimes maddeningly, small, carefully, precisely.”
Thanks to McAnuff’s skill and imagination in approaching Superstar, David says, the show “was born anew: anew for those who can sing every word, and also for those who’ve only heard those six notes [from the title song] and have no idea, yet.”
Not long after the Stratford run closed, Superstar capitalized on a last-minute cancellation at California’s La Jolla Playhouse, where McAnuff had previously served as artistic director; it opened there in November and will play through the end of the year before transferring to the Neil Simon Theatre on March 1.
(The end of 2011 has been a hectic time for McAnuff. In addition to fine-tuning the La Jolla and Broadway stagings of Superstar, he was also putting the final touches on a new production of Gounod’s Faust at the Metropolitan Opera and rehearsing the second national tour of Jersey Boys, which he directed to universal acclaim in 2005.)
McAnuff, who spent much of his childhood in Canada and tried writing his own rock musical in high school, says Broadway audiences will see more or less what Stratford audiences saw. “You never know for sure until you get back into the room,” he says, “but the dramaturgy on Superstar is quite strong. So very little should change between now and then. We’ll have a couple new tricks, but that’s about it.”
The role of Judas, who is far more sympathetic in Superstar than in typical scriptural accounts, has long been a controversial aspect of the show. But McAnuff feels the weight that Lloyd Webber and Rice gave to Judas as well as Mary Magdalene – these characters sing the two hit songs, not Jesus – is a crucial part of the show’s success. “I think something more elusive or non-obvious about Superstar is that it’s kind of a love triangle. A secular love triangle, but it’s part of what makes the emotions connect for audiences.”
Religion is currently represented in several Broadway musicals, although all three of the shows currently playing – The Book of Mormon, Sister Act and the new revival of Godspell – take a fairly light approach to the material. McAnuff, by contrast, says he takes the subject matter very seriously. “Our first order of business was to be true to the score,” he says. “After that, it was recognizing the burden of telling this story of Christ that we all know – or think we know.”