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Writer and director Des McAnuff on “The Donna Summer Musical”

Interview by Diana Saenger

Des McAnuff, a director, writer and composer was born at Princeton, Illinois in 1952. He is a former artistic director of the Stratford Festival in Ontario, director emeritus of La Jolla Playhouse and director of Broadway musicals including  Big River, The Who's Tommy and Jersey Boys. McAnuff returned to San Diego to bring The Donna Summer Musical at the La Jolla Playhouse and took a moment to talk about the show.

Q. What drew you to this project?

DM: I was asked to do it by my producer friend Michael David and Tommy Mottola who used to be in music at Sony. I had been aware of a Donna Summer project but I didn’t know much about her personal life. I took a few months to do some research before I agreed to get involved. Then I came up with a couple of notions for the piece, kind of a sketch, and then discussed it with the producers and Donna’s husband Bruce Sudano. They liked the piece so we started on the journey about three years ago or maybe the year before that, it was around this time of the year. I started to work on it at the beginning of 2014.

Q: You have some great talent in this show with the actors, musical staff, the orchestra and more

DM: There are some really terrific people attached as well as a wonderful cast that I went through. We have a Tony-award winner, and Ariana DeBose from Hamilton, a young woman named Storm Lever. We have three Donna’s and they share the role and all of them are spectacular. The term Casting Director is my friend Tara Rubin, who is more of a facilitator. Ultimately it’s the director’s responsibility to work in tandem with the choreographer, the music director, and producers. So I was responsible for choosing every single person in this show.

Q. Why are there three actresses?

DM: Part of it is to play her at different ages, but also on one level it’s an important concert where she is looking back at her life. And then it becomes kind of a memory play. Some of it involves inner conflict, and several contradictory people. She starts this journey feeling like she has had more than one life and that seems to be an exciting way to approach the piece. It’s kind of a blueprint between the three. It also allows us not to be linear with the storytelling and for this particular piece I think that it’s an advantage and helps that we can tell this story thematically so we can use theme as a way of organizing the material.

Q. You were also part of choosing the music, correct?

DM: Yes I was a writer and also working with other writers and Ron Millrose. We started together by listing to every song Donna ever recorded. There were songs we wanted to include; others that were not as obvious that would simply help us tell the story.

Q. You have done so much in the entertainment world. What keeps you going and what do you like best about what you do?

DM: I like to answer different universes on each project. That’s kind of what gets me up in the morning. Being a director it’s a dilettantes paradise, and you can kind of go into a completely different field. You don’t have to be any kind of expert answering the project and hopefully you can pick some expertise on the journey so that you come out the other end with a deep knowledge of the subject. So I like not to repeat myself, although I have another musical about the Temptations that’s running up in Berkeley. But that’s just a coincidence that these two projects came up at the same time. I do like to bounce around from different kinds of projects, a contemporary play to musicals to Shakespeare, that’s what really keeps me going to take on new challenges.

Q. You have also made some interesting films a few years ago; do you intend to make any more?

DM: I would love to. I actually had a conversation yesterday with a colleague about that. I’ve been pretty busy the last few months. We’ve been in rehearsals since the middle of May. I haven’t thought too much about movies at the moment, but coincidentally I did get a phone call yesterday about one.

Photo: Des McAnuff, Director and Book for SUMMER: The Donna Summer Musical, playing November 7 - December 17 at La Jolla Playhouse. Book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary, and Des McAnuff. Musical Supervision by Ron Melrose. Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo. Directed by Des McAnuff.

Photo Credit: La Jolla Playhouse