Terrence McNally, the admired playwright and librettist who received five Tony Awards while bringing his perspective on the world to such productions as Kiss of the Spider-Woman, Master Class, Ragtime and Love! Valour! Compassion!, has died. He was 81.
McNally died Tuesday at a hospital in Sarasota, Florida, due to complications from coronavirus.
With 25 Broadway productions, nearly 40 plays and 10 musicals, McNally was a prolific writer whose work moved seamlessly from comedy to drama and from downtown avant-garde to the mainstream Great White Way. “He probes his characters’ deepest fears — of illness, intimacy, betrayal or death — while making them manageable for all audiences, leavening the dread with his rat-a-tat dialogue and well-timed jokes,” The New York Times noted. He was also a major artistic force in portraying the lives of gay men onstage.
McNally won his first Tony in 1993 for his book for the musical Kiss of the Spider Woman and followed with trophies for Love! Valour! Compassion! (best play) in ’95, Master Class (best play) in ’96 and Ragtime (best book of a musical) in ’98.
In 1994, he was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for A Perfect Ganesh and given a special Tony for lifetime achievement in June, “not a moment too soon” he said in his acceptance speech. “I love being a playwright. The hours are flexible, and you don’t have to wear a tie — unless you’re invited to the Tonys.”
McNally impacted the lives and careers of such notables as James Coco, Doris Roberts, John Glover, Nathan Lane, Tyne Daly, F. Murray Abraham, Chita Rivera, Zoe Caldwell, Christine Baranski, Joe Mantello and Audra McDonald.
Lane starred for McNally in 1989’s The Lisbon Traviata; 1991’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart; Love! Valour! Compassion!; 2005’s The Stuff of Dreams; and in the blockbuster 2014 Broadway production of his theater-biz farce, It’s Only a Play, with an all-star cast that also featured Abraham, Matthew Broderick, Megan Mullally, Stockard Channing and Rupert Grint.
McNally was introduced to opera through one of the nuns at school, and he would spend his Saturday afternoons watching TV’s Live From the Met. When other kids in the neighborhood were playing football, he was staging operas in the family garage.After graduation in 1960, McNally worked as a stage manager at the Actors Studio, then accepted an offer from John Steinbeck in 1961 to travel with the author around the world for a year as a tutor for his two teenage sons. Steinbeck would become a valued mentor.
McNally’s first produced full-length play, The Side of the Door, ran at the Actors Studio Workshop in 1962, starred a young Estelle Parsons and followed a young boy in a power struggle with his father. His first original play on Broadway, And Things That Go Bump in the Night, also about a dysfunctional family, opened in 1965 to brutal reviews and lasted less than two weeks.
After Albee, McNally dated Bump in the Night actor Robert Drivas, and he wrote many plays featuring him, including 1968’s Witness (also starring Coco), 1971’s Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone (also starring Abraham) and 1974’s Bad Habits (featuring Abraham and Roberts).
Opera remained a passion of McNally’s throughout his life. He wrote libretti for four operas between 1999 and 2015, three with composer and pianist Jake Heggie. Master Class, which bowed on Broadway in 1995 and starred Caldwell and McDonald, is a character study of famed soprano Maria Callas.
He insisted the untested Mantello, who was an established actor, direct Love! Valour! Compassion! in its original Broadway production, and Mantello also helmed McNally’s screenplay adaptation for the 1997 movie.
McNally had an artistic home at the Manhattan Theatre Club, but controversy struck surrounding a 1998 production of his play Corpus Christi, which depicted Jesus and his disciples as gay men in contemporary Texas. The theater was going to cancel the production until other playwrights from the season threatened to pull their works if it were not produced.
Despite the firestorm, “as an artistic experience, it’s one of he things I most treasure,” he said, and he partnered with the theater again for a 2011 revival of Master Class, starring Daly.
McNally met future husband Tom Kirdahy in 2001 when the public interest attorney organized a panel called “Theatre From a Gay Perspective” that featured McNally, Albee and Lanford Wilson. They formed a civil union in 2003 and married in 2010. Kirdahy served as McNally’s producer on every revival or new show since Some Men, a sprawling chronicle of a century of evolution in gay culture, politics and relationships in America that was produced off-Broadway in 2007.
McNally is also survived by his brother Peter and nephew Stephen, among other family members. Donations in his memory can be made to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids and the Dramatist Guild Foundation.
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Written By: Tommy Lightfoot Garrett
Photographs are Courtesy: AP
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