It usually begins like this:
By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star
Philip Wm. McKinleys phone rings, he answers and a voice on the other end says, Phil, would you be interested in directing (fill in the blank)?
Once upon a time, most of those offers were to direct regional productions of The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan and other chestnuts, many of them at Starlight Theatre and other regional theaters.
But these days the calls are more likely to come from Broadway producers or international theater enterprises.
Indeed, McKinley earned at least a couple of footnotes in the theater history books when he was tagged to take over the problem-plagued Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark in 2011 after the producers fired the original director (and co-book writer) Julie Taymor.
Initially McKinley was credited as a creative consultant but in reality helped reshape the show and turn it into one of the highest-grossing productions in Broadway history. Before that, he staged The Boy From Oz, which marked Hugh Jackmans Broadway debut as Aussie songwriter Peter Allen.
So the folks at Starlight Theatre consider themselves fortunate that they were able to engage McKinley for a return trip this summer to stage the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic The Sound of Music. This was the place where he had directed ad-libbing Phyllis Diller in The Wizard of Oz and B.D. Wong in Peter Pan.
For McKinley, who was in town recently to watch auditions, its a little like coming home. When he got a call from Starlight interim president Donna Thomason requesting his services, his attitude was: Well, why not?
After you get to a certain point in your career and youre doing things that are pretty high profile, all those people I worked with in the early years think, Oh, he will never come back here because we cant afford him, McKinley said after a long, cold day of watching adult professionals and kids audition for The Sound of Music.
Im at the point now where I want to do work I enjoy and have a good time, he said. And I feel a certain obligation to go back and give back. These were producers and actors and designers who were wonderfully supportive of me. But its also to give back to the new generation coming up.
Thats one reason The Sound of Music appealed to him. He knew hed get to work with kids and adolescents just getting their feet wet in show business.
I love being around young students, McKinley said. I want to instruct them in the old way we used to do it that its work and you pay your dues. Im not of that generation where you get a trophy for showing up. I want young people starting their careers to realize that its not a 9-to-5 job. And its not about the money.
But then theres the show itself: The Rodgers and Hammerstein classic is still produced often, but not always up to the standards required.
McKinley said the sometimes negative critical reactions to NBCs live broadcast in December of a new adaptation with country singer Carrie Underwood showed how particular people can be about the show.
I really like to go back and explore the classics again, he said. And for the golden age of those musicals, theres a demographic that wants to see that. I think Starlight offers the opportunity to do something like The Sound of Music in the manner in which it was intended so it was kind of easy to say yes. And today when I walked in, all these memories started coming back. Some of my fondest memories are here.
McKinleys career has been remarkably eclectic from a small-theater production in Davenport, Iowa, to Voyage de la Vie, a Cirque-like extravaganza at a luxury hotel in Singapore. Along the way he acquired a reputation as a guy who knew how to do spectacle. One show he got on its feet was Ben Hur Live, an arena spectacle that premiered in London and toured Europe involving hundreds of actors and animals. Yes, it included a chariot race.
And that seems likely to continue. Hes helping to prepare a permanent Las Vegas version of Spider-Man. Hes also had talks with entrepreneurs who envision bringing Ben Hur Live, which never toured North America, to an arena that would be constructed in Vegas just for the show.
And hes been involved in the development of a five-part musical (as in five full-length shows) he calls the Bible project; each production would focus on a different aspect of the Scriptures, including the Old Testament, Jesus, the men of the Bible, the women of the Bible and the battles of the Bible.
People started coming to me knowing I could handle film-sized stage shows, he said. That became my brand. There arent a lot of us, and I have a good time with it. It takes an incredible amount of organization, and I think my brain is kind of wired that way. Spectacle doesnt scare me.
That brought to mind the time he assisted legendary director George Abbott, who, at the age of 100, staged a new production of Damn Yankees at Paper Mill Playhouse.
I asked him how he could continue to do it, McKinley recalled. He said there were two things: If I direct the same show twice, I never do it the same way (and) I always do things that scare the hell out of me.
A few years ago, McKinley moved to Iowa, where he has family, and at one point in 2010 he considered dropping out of show business altogether.
I was going to get out, he said. I was working all the time and I wasnt particularly enjoying the work, and that had never happened in my career.
Then a friend who ran a small theater in Davenport asked him to direct Wit, the small-scale Pulitzer Prize-winning drama.
I discovered my passion again and why I loved doing it, he said. It was that production of Wit, and I said, Oh yes, I remember this. When youre working in multimillion dollar productions, its difficult to keep your eye in the middle of the artistic compass.
Then came Spider-Man.
McKinley said he never really discussed the show with Taymor, although they did walk side by side down the red carpet on opening night. He expressed great respect for Taymor, but hes also proud of the work he did on the show, which, at $75 million, holds the record as the most expensive production in Broadway history. In spite of huge ticket sales, it closed at a financial loss, but McKinley said he was glad that after his reboot it ran as long as it did.
I saved 300 jobs, he said. They had jobs for another two-and-a-half years. It earned the highest weekly gross ever in the history of Broadway $3 million dollars. What everyone doesnt understand about that show is that it really was two productions, almost three. The first investment was $30 million, and they shut down. It never went into rehearsals. And in the building they had jack-hammered into the bedrock of the theater. They had an open pit. So there were hundreds of thousands of dollars spent before the show opened.
Then new producers came on board, raised a new budget, spent lavishly on design elements and eventually opened with McKinley at the helm.
The difficulty was they were unable to mount that production out of town and work out the kinks, shut down for a few months and then take it to New York, he said.
In some ways, Spider-Man distills McKinleys work ethic. He seems happiest when hes in up to his elbows.
I just dont say no, he said. Thats why Im here at Starlight. I just dont say no. I like to work. Im a workhorse, and Im much more productive when I have five things on my plate and not just one.