Podcast Episode 53 Transcript – Des McAnuff

Ken: Hey, everybody, Ken Davenport here. You are listening to The Producer’s Perspective Podcast. I’m super excited to have yet another superstar Broadway director with us today. This one is so special . . . from what I hear he’s a citizen of two countries, in fact. Welcome to the American and Canadian Tony Award-winning Des McAnuff. Welcome, Des!

Des: Thank you so much.

Ken: So, some of Des’s credits . . . Big River, The Who’s Tommy, revivals of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which was such a thrill, I loved that production, Guys & Dolls, 700 Sundays with Billy Crystal and that little, teensy-weensy hit called Jersey Boys. But the credits go on. Go check out his IBDB page if you want to learn more. In addition to all that stuff, Des was the artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse and also the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. He’s directed opera, a few movies, directed everything except traffic. That’s my big joke, so we’ll just stop there. How did you get started in the business? Let’s go way back to the beginning. Where did it all begin for you?

Des: I more or less backed into the theater, and I certainly backed into directing, and I think that’s common with directors. Perhaps it’s happening now, that young people might set out in high school to be theater directors, but I think that’s probably still quite rare. I grew up mainly, of course my teenage years happened in the ’60s and into the early ’70s, and at that time everyone, every guy, had to be in a rock and roll band.  That was essentially the only way to meet girls, so I played guitar and I started composing music and one thing sort of led to another and I ended up auditioning for Hair when it came to Toronto, which is where I grew up. I didn’t get into the company. I got fairly far along in the process and actually did a couple of workshops. I suppose in the most arrogant way I thought to myself, “Well, I write songs.” I had done some high school plays. “I can do this.” And so I wrote a musical, I composed the songs. I went to a very, very large high school which was really musical, a lot of great musicians, and I went to my high school teacher in the spring and I said, “I’m going to write this musical over the summer. If I come up with it, will you produce this instead of Mame?” which is what they were planning to do as the school show, and he said “Sure, I’ll look at it,” not believing for a second that I would actually do it. So the first day of school in September I came in with my script and my guitar and he got the music teacher and a couple of people together and I auditioned the score for it and gave them the script and, God bless them, they decided to do it. So that’s how I really got involved in the theater. There was no decision beyond that.

Ken: What was the show called? What was it about?

Des: It was called Urbania and it was about a kind of city of the future. This was at the time of the Vietnam War and so on, so it was about a group of, I suppose, rebels inside the city, underground, rebelling against a kind of totalitarian regime. So that’s what it was about. I think it had a cast of 50 and I had a spectacular band and I see many of these people today. We get together socially once in a while so I still see them, and I think for all of us it was a kind of life changing experience, even for those who had nothing to do with the theater beyond that. It was that moment in high school when a bunch of people come together and do something. I guess it’s the equivalent of a championship football team or something.

Ken: MTI, if you’re listening, there’s an original Des McAnuff musical waiting to be put into a catalogue and licensed to high schools all over the country. So what was the first directing job that you had?

Des: Well I started, as I say, as a composer and a writer. That went on for a while and I went through a period in Toronto . . . this is hard to fathom now but in Toronto there was a really vibrant theater scene, it was an explosion in the 1970s and there were a number of reasons for this. Canada was developing its national identity. There were grants from the liberal government at that time and they managed to seed a lot of arts organizations, so almost overnight in Toronto there must have been 15 or 20 Equity theaters, small theaters, and so it was possible to actually make a living as a writer. I also worked a little bit for the CBC, for the television network, but I was only about 20 or 21 and I in fact intentionally stopped writing music for a while because I felt like I was getting too many opportunities as a composer and not enough as a writer. I know, again, it sounds far-fetched but if you had leadership skills of any kind, if you could basically string a couple of sentences together and you were a composer, maybe even an actor, a leading actor, it was almost expected at some point that you would direct, and so I directed a production of The Bacchae and I also did an adaptation of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and when I arrived in New York, at the tender age of 23, I had a resume as a writer and so I immediately got a job at what was then called the Chelsea Theater Center and it was only because I was so hideously young compared to other people on the scene and that had everything to do with Toronto and probably not an awful lot to do with me.

Ken: We’re going to go back into your background in a bit but I want to digress because you talked about Toronto. I actually worked for Livent for three years so I certainly know about the vibrancy of the Toronto market, or what it was. It obviously has changed a lot. It’s just not what it was, certainly 10-20 years ago, never mind 30-40. What do you think happened? Why isn’t it the way it used to be?

Des: The not-for-profit scene, the so-called “alternative” theater scene, again, exploded at the time. There were resources, and tremendous resources, and an appetite. I remember a time when you could mention Young Street in a play and get applause from the audience, so I was very “in” at that point. We passed through that quite quickly and then, like any art scene, you require young people, students, certainly, and others that have an appetite for such things, and that went on for a long time. The other explosion that happened in Toronto had much more to do with the commercial theater scene and that happened really more in the ’80s and ’90s, and that was Garth Drabinsky, who was an entrepreneur and saw an opportunity in Toronto to develop shows for New York and London and other places in the world. And obviously I should mention the Mirvishes too and Aubrey Dan was involved for a while. Toronto is a fairly large market so that made sense for a while. I’m not sure that it was tremendously lucrative, the commercial theater, unfortunately. It’s supposed to be about hopefully creating art, but certainly creating quality work. Hopefully art, but it’s also the halls of commerce so one is required to pay investors back and, although this happens quite rarely, we both know, there’s a goal to actually make money for those investors, and I’m not sure that happened all that successful in Toronto even though there were certainly some notable successes. I think you have to have a lot of passion to produce theater and I think Toronto continues to be an extraordinary art scene, I want to say. It is a fantastic place for the arts. I think the commercial theater and maybe the alternative theater have gone back into balance. I believe Toronto is considered one of the four largest art scenes in the world, along with London, Paris and New York, so that in itself is, I think, pretty astonishing. I think at one point the alternate theater and the commercial theater overshadowed some of the other forms, and I don’t know whether they’ve caught up or that theater has fallen behind. I’d like to think that the others have caught up.

Ken: Let’s get back to you. So you arrive in New York at the tender age of 23, you’re working at the Chelsea Arts Center . . . how do you go from that to Broadway? What was the first Broadway gig that you got?

Des: Just a step in between . . . I worked at the Chelsea Theater Center and then we started Dodgers, so that would have been 1978, so I was still quite young, I would have been 26, and partnered with Michael David and we have done many, many shows together and we are still close friends. I actually have an office about 50 feet from his to this day. So I started working for Chelsea and then went to the Dodgers and, while we were a not-for-profit organization, my partners definitely had ambitions in commercial theater. One of my partners at that time was Rocco Landesman who ended up being one of the producers, along with Michael, on my first Broadway show, which was Big River. So I met those guys the first summer, the first year I was in New York. I think I met Michael David in July – I moved here in the end of May – so that definitely opened some doors, and that I worked for Joseph Papp. And I worked for Mr. Papp both as a playwright and as a director. I suppose it was . . . I don’t want to say it was inevitable, but it was not unusual that I would end up doing a Broadway show and Rocco, basically, it was his first Broadway show and he came to me and said would I like to do this adaption of Huckleberry Finn and I said, “Well, yeah,” and so we did.

Ken: So talk a little bit about how the Dodgers were formed. I find that so many artists come to New York and it’s a collaborative art form and it sounds like obviously those relationships were a big springboard for you, Rocco going, “Hey, do you want to do this?” because you were in that organization. How did it come about?

Des: Michael David doesn’t even remember this conversation, but we were working for another organization and I was actually the dramaturg, as we say here in America, as well as being a director. I directed for the company and so on. And Michael was the executive director for the Chelsea and, basically, one night . . . I don’t even know if we had a car . . . we were in Brooklyn at the Brooklyn Academy and we went out for this drive and he said, “What do you think of starting a theater?” with our other colleagues, Ed Strong and Sherman Warner, and, again, it was a life changing moment for me, one that he doesn’t even remember, and it just seemed to make sense. We called ourselves associate directors, I think he more or less took the role of producer, I more or less took the role of artistic director because I happened to be the one that directed plays, and we started. I think we made $170 a week each, when we were working, which was probably about 10 or 12 weeks of the year, and we started producing theater as a group and, again, because I was the one who directed, I got a number of projects, projects that I wanted to develop or that others wanted me to develop. That was a very exciting theater and then, as I started working for Joe Papp, they started branching off into the commercial theater and we’ve kept this association all these years. When I went to La Jolla we continued to maintain close ties and we come together when we have an artistic reason to do that, it’s never really been motivated by, necessarily, feeling like we have some huge commercial opportunity. Tommy is a great example because I remember somebody from one of the foundations saying to me “What do you think when you’re doing something commercial like that?” and I said, “Wait a minute, we did a stage version of a rock and roll album that’s 20 years old, more than 20 years old, and when we did it there was no sense that we were going to Broadway.” We were doing it because we happened to love this particular piece and it turned out that it touched a nerve, but if I knew how to do that I would be in a different kind of business. I would be doing that all the time, if I knew how to say, “Hey, I know how to create a huge show.” So you do things that you want to do and that’s always been the case with my partners.

Ken: It’s such a great point. Every time I’ve sat down and thought, “Oh, I should do this project because it will make money,” it usually never does, actually. You have to do what you love and then, out of that, is born something like Tommy. I was in rehearsals, my first job as production assistant on My Fair Lady with Richard Chamberlain in ’93.

Des: I remember.

Ken: We were rehearsing right underneath you.

Des: Oh my God, I’m sorry!

Ken: Everybody was talking about the excitement upstairs. I remember you guys got show jackets as a gift as you were leaving to go to Broadway and we were all very jealous. You’ve developed a lot of new musicals like that. When do you like to get involved with a show, a new musical? Early in the process? Do you like drafts to be done?

Des: First of all, I just want to say I do love doing musicals but I also love doing new plays and I particularly love doing classical plays, and one of the things that took me to Stratford in Canada is that I love to do Shakespeare and that’s a very large company of actors, so musicals, it’s like part of what I want to see on my dinner plate but I think it’s always been around 15-20% of what I’ve managed to do, which is about right. I think they all kind of inform each other. The thing I would say about musicals, to answer your questions, I don’t think there’s a recipe for developing them. I’m working on a project, or hooking up a project, with a writer named Robert Cary. He once came to me with a project called Palm Beach, a very good musical, which was more or less complete, it was a complete script, it had a score. I don’t think we added a song during the time I worked with him. I did chop it up some, in terms of moving locations around, because we could do that at La Jolla. It was in a huge palm beach mansion and we wanted to go all through the mansion over the course of the play. But, other than that, I think that was a directorial contribution, it was his project and the composer’s, it was his play. I’m perfectly happy doing them. If somebody comes along and asks me to do a musical and it’s more or less complete, I go, “Wow, look at this, here we go! Rehearsal!” and we’ll go into auditions. A lot of the time that doesn’t happen and sometimes you do want to get involved – often you want to get involved as a storyteller. Musicals have to be very efficient, as you know. You’ve got probably about 45 minutes of real storytelling, of real play. Everybody says the musical numbers move the plot along. Well, they do to some extent. A lot of that is sleight of hand. They definitely expand the piece emotionally, they take you someplace that plays normally can’t take you, emotionally. There’s a heightened sense of an emotional journey. So you have to be very concise and it’s an advantage, sometimes, to have the director in on that process early on. I think that probably people who don’t create musicals – including people that write about them – have the illusion that somebody goes off to their cabin in the woods and cooks up this script, just on the word processor . . . in the old days, on the typewriter . . . hammers it out, hands it to the director, the director goes to the designer, and anyone who does this really understands that that is not the case. It’s never that neat and tidy, there’s an awful lot of overlap, it truly is collaborative, and sometimes it’s an advantage to have the director in right from the get-go, from the point that you’re storyboarding or creating outlines. I’ve done musicals that have come from so many different directions, from great novels, from rock and roll albums, a how-to book, the Flaming Lips, we did a piece called Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, a wonderful band, a brilliant guy, Wayne Coyne, and that show came together from three different rock and roll albums, so sometimes it’s a circuitous route that takes you to the musical and, depending on that route, you may find it helpful to be involved as a director.

Ken: So you’ve actually directed a number of shows that have come with pre-existing catalogues, if you will, or pre-existing music. Some people may call Jersey Boys one of the most successful jukebox musicals of all time. I actually don’t use that word, “jukebox musical,” I think it is wrong. I think it is a bio-musical, if anything.

Des: I think that’s true.

Ken: But the music came . . . it wasn’t like you were you going to be like, “Ah, that one’s not good enough. Go write something else. Come up with a different song, rewrite the second verse, and what about a different bridge?” So you did have stuff to work with. How much more challenging is that than working on something new, where you can send the writers off to write?

Des: First of all, on that particular project, I did have Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice writing and so it was very much a new musical in that way. You’re quite right, I would call it a biography as well. There may be such a thing as a jukebox musical. I always associate that with the idea that you make up a storyline, you’ve got existing songs and you just make up a story, which has been going on forever . . . I mean people have been doing this for a very long time, and, by the way, even with so-called new musicals I can tell you with great certainty that most new musicals involve, with new compositions, songs which have come from the trunk, songs that have been rejected for other shows, songs that have never been recorded by the composer, so you’re always doing a little bit of that, I think there’s always a little bit of borrow and steal in all of these shows. I think you have to have a pretty strong idea. Marshall Brickman said something very smart about Jersey Boys. He said “If it was about four physicists there wouldn’t be a score. They wouldn’t sing, there wouldn’t be any songs.” So it happened to be about a band and that gave us a great excuse and it’s actually fairly simple the way it operates as a show and it seems to still be pretty effective after ten years. The songs in the first act, when they’re basically, I suppose I would almost describe them as hoodlums, they’re certainly juvenile delinquents, and I think two of them had spent a total of 16 years of time in reform school, in the penitentiary, before they took off, so you have these really innocent songs and meanwhile they’re dealing with the mafia. There’s a juxtaposition there that’s really delicious. As the band gets more experienced, more successful, more jaded, the songs start to advance the piece in a kind of thematic fashion, so you get into songs like “Beggin” and “Stay” and “Let’s Hang On” and all of the songs from the second act until the end of the show have some kind of thematic relationship with the storyline so I think if you’re dealing with anything that’s pre-existing, if you’re actually inventing something, a biography or some other story, then you have to have a way into that experience that’s going to be meaningful to an audience and I don’t know if I’ve done it. I guess I did it on Yoshimi, which was a completely different experience because I just listened to a bunch of music by the Flaming Lips and, based on an indent in their lives, I got this notion, listening to the songs and they were kind enough to let me develop that. Very, very different experience from Jersey Boys. Tommy, of course, was conceived as a story, even though it’s more of a concept album in many ways. There is story implied there, so I already had a lot of architecture to work with with that one. I think any time you’re working with a classic musical you’re working with something where somebody has already done that work for you, but when you’re doing the classic you obviously have to pay attention to the original intentions. So I find all of these experiences different. The one thing I wouldn’t want to do is I try not to repeat. It’s a dilettante’s paradise, being a director, because you can enter a new solar system every time you come out of the box and it’s great to take advantage of that. I’m not sure I would be all that good at trying to repeat something anyway, I don’t think I’d have the gumption. It’s hard work and the thing that makes it a privilege and exciting is, of course, that it’s an adventure.

Ken: You’ve been an artistic director as well, to these behemoth regional theaters, Stratford and La Jolla. Do you enjoy heading up these giant institutions? The other artistic directors I’ve talked to, it’s not just about “Oh, I pick some plays, I direct some plays when I want to.” You become a producer of these theaters, in a way, even though you have managing directors.

Des: Sure.

Ken: What’s that experience like?

Des: I have enjoyed it tremendously. I would say that the La Jolla Playhouse . . . this is complete institutional egotism . . . I do think it is one of the great theaters in North America. It was just a fantastic opportunity to be there from the get-go. There was really no organization when I started that. They hadn’t produced a season for twenty years so that was a fantastic thing to go through as a young director. I was only 30 when I went there, and I really considered that my greatest role in launching that theater. There were many others involved, of course, and many other directors, but it probably is my greatest accomplishment. That’s the accomplishment I’m perhaps most proud of. I think it’s a whole spectrum of experiences. I think you have to have a sense of duty to run a theater. I think if you’re running it for opportunity, for your own opportunity, you’ll probably figure out pretty quickly that there might be better ways to fulfil yourself. As artistic director you always have to be responsible for what’s going on with the institution. When you’re a freelancer and you’re sort of a guest at a theater you don’t have to worry too much about the bottom line, but when you’re running a theater the audience become your family, in a sense, and the donors and the staff, and so you have to worry about people’s healthcare, or you should be doing it. I think you have to look at it as if you’re doing your duty and you’re supporting others, you’re not just doing it so that you can get to direct that revenge tragedy you’ve always wanted to do. What’s great about it is that you get to support other people and I think that the people who brought me to La Jolla wanted to help me fulfil my dreams as an artist and so it was very easy for me to translate that into fulfilling other people’s dreams, so when directors came to me I wanted to do my best to fulfil their dreams and so I didn’t just choose plays off of a menu and pick hirelings to come in and do them. If you’re going to do a play you need to have some vision, you need to have a reason to do it, and so it makes much more sense to ask directors what they want to do and so I did spent a lot of time trying to encourage people to come up with ideas and then to support then when they were executing their ideas. It was great, I really enjoyed it. I’m very happy, though, to wake up in the morning and, for the most part, get to concentrate on my own projects. Because I’m so used to the other thing, sometimes that feels a little selfish. Sometimes I feel like I should be going off to talk to the Rotarians or doing the various things that you do running the theater, but ultimately I really enjoy it. My beautiful wife is an artist and a sculptor and she has a studio that’s close to where I work and I love that, not having to go off and make sure that, whatever, the telemarketing people are being well taken care of or whatever it happens to be. On the other hand, I don’t regret a single minute of the time I spent running the theater. It was just fantastic.

Ken: One of the things that I will also say I think is one of your greatest accomplishments is that, at La Jolla, I really credit you with helping create the structure of the bridge from the regional theater to Broadway. La Jolla has pumped out so many shows, many of them directed by you, that have gotten here and developed this idea of the enhancement model of producers going to regionals. How did that begin for you there and how important is that to Broadway today, do you think?

Des: I think that it’s important and I think it can be dangerous and I’ll tell you why but I’ll answer the question first. In the early ’80s, when we started the Playhouse, it was unusual to give birth to a new arts institution. This, again, was something that was coming back to life but we had been dormant for so long it was a clean sheet project, as they would say in the airline industry, it was a brand new airplane. There was a lot of talk in those days about an artistic deficit and there was a sense that Broadway had become very expensive and there were a lot of theatrical producers and entrepreneurs that were waiting for “product,” would be the term at the time, and that the resident theaters were often waiting for Broadway hits from two years ago. They were waiting for the rights to be available so that they could put together a season of plays. So there was a sense that everybody was kind of waiting for everybody else. I think with the Playhouse we had a little bit of a financial legacy that had been left us – not an awful lot but a little bit – and we had no habits, I think is one way to put it. We had no habits, we hadn’t developed any institutional habits, and that can be a great thing when you’re starting something up, so I think we were able to follow our impulses, to do what we really believed in, and it became very clear that if you were going to do work, particularly with musicals, that the resources of a not-for-profit theater were kind of inadequate and so, because I was working with people like Rocco, who was one of the first producers to support work that way, I felt comfortable doing the not-for-profit thing and inviting people that have rights to commercial shows to work with us to develop these pieces. The thing is, we had very strict rules about responsibility. When we produced a show, we called the shots in terms of what happened at our theater, the artistic decisions that were made. We didn’t expect to call the shots once the show moved on and someone else had the first cause rights. They had to then call the shots. So you have to have a certain amount of trust going into a situation like that because, needless to say, people are going to have strong opinions. I think we managed to do that very successfully. I can remember one or two occasions during the time I was there when it was uncomfortable that people thought of it as just an out of town tryout, but I can only honestly think of one or two times. I think the downside for the not-for-profit organizations is you don’t want to become addicted to that kind of funding. Now, anyone who’s run a theater will tell you that people who work in for-profit are not necessarily more opinionated than people who come from other kinds of funding. People from foundations can have awfully strong opinions and they can be telling you what you should be doing. The National Endowment for the Arts has been known to do that, to say “This is the kind of work we’re going to fund,” so everybody’s got some sort of an agenda. I think it’s really important for all theaters to make their own decisions, and even if that million dollar enhancement . . . or in this day and age it’s more like two or three million dollars . . . even if that looks really juicy to you, be aware, because integrity’s not something you can just have Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. If you have artistic integrity it’s got to be a full time thing, so if you’re taking funding from anyone, be sure that they understand that you are actually making the artistic decisions.

Ken: That’s fantastic advice coming from you to all of these regional theaters and for me to hear because I’ve spoken to so many of these regional theaters and I’m taking calls from people saying “Hey, Ken, do you have anything that you can bring to us that you would enhance?” because they are looking to fill that void budgetarily rather than artistically.

Des: And I have great sympathy for that. The whole co-production thing can be really difficult and you end up feeling like a car salesman, not to disparage car salesmen, but you feel like you’re calling up, saying “I’ve got a four character. I could send you the four character in March,” and suddenly you’re not really making decisions for the right reasons and it’s really hard. Many of the resident theaters have small auditoriums, they don’t generate an awful lot of so-called “earned” income. All of the other contributed stuff is earned too, believe me. So it is a struggle. I guess the most important thing, for all of us, is to try to be involved in one way or another, philanthropically, and to really put back. The thing I love about partnership with a Rocco Landesman or a Michael David is that, when you have a success, that creates a whole new income stream for the not-for-profit theater and that money, in turn, creates more plays, more musicals, more new work, puts more artists to work and it becomes a perfect circle when that happens. And this is what, of course, Joe Papp did so brilliantly, he got LuEsther Mertz to contribute all of the underwriting for A Chorus Line and A Chorus Line created an entire theater scene. I had the privilege of enjoying productions that were based on the profits from A Chorus Line and I thank Michael Bennett and Joseph Papp and LuEsther Mertz and everybody that contributed to it, so it can be a really good thing. It’s dangerous, though; it can be dangerous, those relationships can be perilous and you need to have very clear rules about how it works. And sometimes the opposite works – you’ve produced a show, you’re very proud of it, you go to Broadway – I’ve had this happen too – and the commercial producers take over, maybe it’s even a director that’s a friend of yours, and you just look at them and go, “What are you doing? What have you done?” but you don’t really have the right to say, “You know what, you can’t do that,” because you entered into that relationship, so once they’ve taken it over . . . you have to be careful. You don’t want to sleep with just anybody.

Ken: Be safe!

Des: Be safe.

Ken: Practice safe enhancing.

Des: Safe enhancement.

Ken: You’ve talked about your love of classic plays, but you also do musicals, new and revivals. Is there a project you have not done, a play or musical, that you have not done that you would drop everything for? If somebody came to you and said, “I want you to direct this on Broadway.”

Des: Well I have a certain gargantuan thing I would love to do. I would love to do Othello. Not to name drop but I’ve become good friends with Christopher Plummer and I happen to think he is the great classical actor of our time, certainly one of them. Within North America I would say he is, without question, a great classical actor and I got to see him, with James Earl Jones, do Othello years ago, which Fran and Barry Weissler produced, and it was an astonishingly good piece of work and Mr. Plummer was transcendent. So I would love, now that that’s far enough in the past, and I don’t think he would want to play it again so I would love to tackle that. The thing that I would really love to do, at some point in my life, if I get the chance, is to do Richard II through Henry V, which of course includes the two parts of Henry IV in the middle. The great tetralogy. We don’t get to see it done very often. Certainly the great tragedies are the pieces that you really grow up worshipping – Othello, Macbeth, these are, without question, the greatest plays. You think about Shakespeare with other artists – you get sculpture and painting and so on – if you take the ten greatest creations you’re generally going to have nine or ten artists. With plays, I think, you’ve got the ten greatest plays and probably seven of them are by Shakespeare. But the one I think we don’t get to see very much is this huge historical mural, this great tetralogy that he wrote right towards the end of the 1590s when he was a young dramatist, and I think that is just a work of genius that is beyond human comprehension and I would find it very daunting and humbling to tackle it. With the right company I would love to do that, and there are even a couple of directors that I’m sure that I would enjoy doing that with if it became too much. Maybe you would divide the plays up in some way. So that would definitely be a dream. I would also love to do a film of Shakespeare. I did an adaptation, some years ago – actually a writer named Chip Hand, more accurately, did an adaptation, and I worked on this, of Romeo and Juliet. The nice thing about being a director is maybe you can only play Romeo until you’re 34 or 35, but you can direct it until you’re 90, or beyond, I suppose. So I’d still like to do that.

Ken: That’s so true. For so many people out there, if your acting career isn’t going the way you want it to, think about directing.

Des: That’s right, or switch to Macbeth and then Lear. That’s what you have to do.

Ken: I was also thinking about those Henrys and all of those histories. It’s like the original Game of Thrones, that Shakespearian series there. Okay, the last question, which I call my Genie Question. I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin comes and knocks on your door and says, “As you’ve done such a fantastic job, such a diverse, amazing selection of material, from the classics to Jersey Boys to the work you’ve done in the regional theaters, building these institutions, I want to grant you one wish, a reward for all of your hard work and dedication to the American and Canadian theater.” The one wish is this – I want you to think about what drives you so crazy about Broadway, gets you angry, gets you mad, keeps you up at night, “Oh, if only this were different.” What’s the thing you would ask this genie to change with this one wish?

Des: I would wish that it was less expensive. I think great work is being done, this has been a most encouraging time, I think Jeanine Tesori is a wonderful composer and I think Hamilton is very exciting, I think there are some really good plays going on. I think it’s become so expensive that there is a tendency to want to go to stars, to people that can attract ticket buyers at an outrageous level so that you can get the investors’ money back. I don’t know what the solution is to that, ultimately, because it’s not like the working actor is becoming wealthy working on Broadway, as we know. Stars can make very good money but the chorus woman who is doing eight shows a week and understudy rehearsals and the whole deal, they’re making perhaps a living but not a great living. So I’d love to see that, and if the genie would really sit down and talk to me I would say to the mayor’s office that they could do things that would really help. We kick and scrape to get rehearsal space. The commercial theater brings in an astonishing amount of money to this city – in the billions – and it would be really nice if there was some attention paid to that, a beautiful place to work, a nice rehearsal facility, maybe that was affordable for producers and perhaps not-for-profit groups too. There are a lot of things I think one could do to improve the whole Broadway culture that would affect the art and it might ultimately affect the ticket prices. I think there are lots of great things. I think groups coming together and saying, “We’re going to pay for tickets for students and we guarantee that students can get them,” and for a lot of students $10 is an enormous amount of money but I think that kind of work really needs to be done so that it doesn’t become elitist, so that Broadway remains of and for the people.

Ken: Well I’m certainly not a genie but I’m very thankful that you sat down to talk to me today. I’m sure everyone out there is just as thankful. Thank you so much for spending time with us. Thanks to all of you out there for listening. We’ve got some great guests coming up so don’t forget to subscribe – you don’t want to miss them. Thanks so much, we’ll see you next time.

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Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.