Published in KPBS On Air Magazine June 2001

McAnuff and the Kid: The Latest Showdown

Des and Billy go way back. That would be Des McAnuff and Billy the Kid. While they didn’t exactly hang out together in the Old West, the La Jolla Playhouse artistic director and the infamous outlaw have squared off on many stages. This month, the Kid rides into town once again, for the Playhouse production of Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid.

A Booker Prize-winning poet/novelist, Ondaatje wrote the loosely structured, free-form prose/poetry novel in 1970, and shortly thereafter, it was adapted for the stage. In 1974, a 22-year-old McAnuff was assistant artistic director of the Toronto Free Theatre, which was remounting the play. As resident composer and playwright, McAnuff was the logical choice to write a new score for the production. Both McAnuff and Ondaatje had grown up in Toronto, and they gladly worked together.

The next fall, the Folger Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. brought McAnuff in as composer for their production of Billy the Kid. It was the first work he’d done in the U.S.

“They were completely responsible for my coming to this country,” says the affable, articulate McAnuff, happily back from Hollywood to resume the job of Playhouse artistic director, a tour de force role he played from 1983-1994. “That trip introduced me to American theater, and I immediately decided to move to New York.”

Des and Billy were destined to meet again in 1975, when McAnuff was chosen as composer and music director of a Billy production at the Manitoba Theatre Center.

“I had just been in a rock ‘n’ roll band called The Choke Sisters,” McAnuff recalls. “It was a small cause celebre years before in Canada. I played guitar, sang and wrote the music. Meanwhile, in this production, the kid who played Billy turned out to be dreadful, and they asked me to step into the role. I was terrified. I only had ten days rehearsal. The first day, I spent 14 hours locked in my hotel room, learning the script.”

It wasn’t as if he’d never acted before. McAnuff had studied acting at Ryerson Theatre School in Toronto, one of Canada’s primary theater training programs. But this was a surprise and a challenge.

“Being Billy turned out to be great. We were all friends, almost like a little rock ‘n’ roll band up there onstage. It was very spirited. The music? It’s hard to describe. It’s very much an acoustic score. Sort of folk, with some country and a bit of bluegrass, written around Michael’s poetry.”

Now, 26 years, two Tony Awards and five films later, McAnuff is facing down Billy again. He has reworked his score, which has been used in a number of other productions, and is co-directing with young Kate Whoriskey, his assistant director at the Playhouse. Whoriskey, a new talent Vogue Magazine recently considered to be “on the verge of reshaping theater as we know it,” is working with Ondaatje on tweaking the script, which has been revised many times over the years.

“Here then is a maze,” says narrator Billy in the book. “Find the beginning, the slight silver key to unlock it, to dig it out.”

The imagistic story is indeed a maze, wending its nonlinear way from past to present and back again, from a reporter’s to an artist’s perspective. In this language of violence and poetry—ranging from wistful to vicious memories, from eyewitness journalistic accounts to comic book excerpts—the aesthetic vision is all that matters. Sensory perception overrides the ferocity: “Blood a necklace on me all my life,” says Billy.

“I would certainly call it a journey,” McAnuff says. “In a sense, it’s about somebody trying to tell a story, fueled by peyote, violence, revenge and the heat of the West. There is a jagged structure, not a conventional one. These days, we’re more used to deconstruction than we were in the early ’70s. The piece can turn on a dime; casual events spark violent memories, then careen back to the scene …

“But at the core is our fascination with the outlaw. That has everything to do with how we see ourselves as Americans. And it’s at the root of this very violent society. Through his poetry, Michael managed to shine a psychological light on it, to explain it from the inside out. I think the myth of Billy will be with us forever.”

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid begins previews on June 12, and runs from June 17-July 15 in the Mandell Weiss Forum on the campus of UCSD. For tickets and more information, please contact (858) 550-1010 or visit

©2001 Patté Productions Inc.