The theatre community, already hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, has been dealt a painful blow with the news that Terrence McNally, the 4-time Tony winning playwright whose work portrayed a rich range of human emotional experience and broke barriers in its depiction of gay life, has succumbed to complications from COVID-19 at the age of 81.
McNally, who was a survivor of lung cancer and lived with chronic COPD, died on Tuesday at the Sarasota Memorial Hospital in Florida.
Born in St. Petersburg, Florida, McNally grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, where his New York-born parents instilled in him a love for theatre from an early age. After earning a BA at Columbia University in 1960, he developed a relationship with author John Steinbeck, who hired the young playwright to accompany his family on a worldwide cruise as a tutor to his teenage sons. Steinbeck would later enlist McNally to write the libretto for “Here’s Where I Belong,” a musical stage adaptation of the author’s classic novel, “East of Eden.”
During his early years in New York, McNally also developed a relationship with fellow playwright Edward Albee, whom he met when the two shared a cab; the pair were essentially a couple for four years, during the period in which Albee wrote “The American Dream” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” two of his most important works. It was a romance that would cast a shadow over McNally’s early career, when some critics dismissed him as “the boyfriend” after the premiere of his Broadway debut, “And Things That Go Bump in the Night.” The play, which was McNally’s first effort in three acts, flopped due to poor initial reviews – attributed by author Boze Hadleigh in his book, “Who’s Afraid of Terrence McNally,” to homophobia from conservative New York critics – even after subsequent critical reaction and audience response proved to be more favorable.
After the failure of his initial foray onto the Broadway stage, McNally rebounded with an acclaimed one-act, “Next,” which featured James Coco as a middle-aged man mistakenly drafted into the army and was directed by Elaine May, and was presented Off-Broadway in a double bill with May’s “Adaptation” in 1967. Several other one-acts followed, and the playwright gained a reputation for tackling edgy subject matter with sharp social commentary, biting dialogue, and farcical situations. He also attracted early controversy for featuring onstage nudity (from actress Sally Kirkland) for the entire length of his kidnapping drama, “Sweet Eros.”
Success came his way in the seventies, when he racked up an Obie award for 1974’s “Bad Habits,” and a Broadway hit with “The Ritz,” a risqué farce set in a gay bathhouse where a straight middle-aged business man unwittingly goes into hiding to escape his wife’s murderous mafioso brother. Adapted from his own earlier play, “The Tubs,” it was subsequently turned into a 1976 film version (directed by “A Hard Day’s Night” filmmaker Richard Lester), starring original stage cast members Jack Weston, Jerry Stiller, F. Murray Abraham, and Rita Moreno (reprising her Tony-winning role as bathhouse chanteuse Googie Gomez), as well as featuring a blonde-dyed Treat Williams in an early appearance as an undercover cop.
After another series of career setbacks, McNally rebounded again in the eighties with more Off-Broadway acclaim for his play, “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” which starred Kathy Bates and F. Murray Abraham. The playwright has said that it was his first work after becoming sober, telling the New York Times in 2019, “There was certainly a change in my work. It’s hard to know who you are if you’re drunk all the time. It clouds your thinking. I started thinking more about my people — my characters.”
It was in the nineties, however, that McNally blossomed into a master playwright, with plays like “Lips Together, Teeth Apart,” which placed AIDS squarely in the backdrop of its story about two married couples spending a weekend on Fire Island, and “Master Class,” a tour-de-force one-woman show about Maria Callas which featured Zoe Caldwell in a widely acclaimed performance.
It was also during this period that McNally wrote “Love! Valour! Compassion!,” an expansive play about a group of gay friends who spend three successive holiday weekends over the course of a summer together at a lake house in upstate New York. Transferring to Broadway after a successful debut at the Manhattan Theatre Club – with which McNally had a long association, and where he developed several of his important works – in a production directed by Joe Mantello, it was a pastoral, introspective, Chekhovian drama that offered deeply-drawn, non-stereotypical portrayals of gay characters confronting the various issues in their lives and their relationships; it was also a snapshot of life at the height of the AIDS crisis, exploring the ways in which the spectre of the disease was an unavoidable part of day-to-day life that encroached upon every aspect of gay experience. McNally’s script, bolstered by the richly human performances of a, ensemble cast that included Nathan Lane, John Glover, John Benjamin Hickey, Anthony Heald, and Justin Kirk, countered the potential for moroseness with warmth and humor, and the play is now widely seen, alongside plays such as Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” and Paul Rudnick’s “Jeffrey,” as one of the most important theatrical works of the AIDS era. A film version in 1997 reunited most of the original stage cast, though the notably straight Jason Alexander replaced Lane in the role of Buzz, the most outwardly flamboyant of the play’s eight gay characters.
It was in the nineties when McNally also established himself as an important figure in the musical genre, contributing the libretto for John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “The Rink” (a short-lived musical drama starring Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli) before going on to collaborate again with the legendary score composers on “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” their musical version of the Manuel Puig novel about the unlikely friendship that develops between a political revolutionary and a gay window dresser as they share a cell in a Mexican prison. The musical (which also starred Rivera) was a smash hit and won McNally his first Tony (Best Book for a Musical) in 1993.
In 1998, he won another Tony in the same category for the libretto of “Ragtime,” a widely-acclaimed musical adaptation of the E.L. Doctorow novel exploring racism against the backdrop of the turn of the 20th Century with a score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynne Ahrens.
His other two Tonys were for “Love! Valour! Compassion!” and “Master Class,” in 1995 and 1996, respectively.
In his later career, McNally courted controversy once again with “Corpus Christi,” a 1998 “passion play” that queered the biblical story of Jesus and the Apostles by reimagining them as gay men living in modern-day Texas. At the time, the production was met with protests (McNally himself received death threats), although reviewers found its content to be surprisingly uncontroversial, with Jason Zinoman of the New York Times calling it “earnest and reverent” and “more personal than political.”
Other notable dramatic works included “The Lisbon Traviata,” “It’s Only A Play,” “A Perfect Ganesh,” “The Stendahl Syndrome,” “Mothers and Sons,” and his last, 2018’s “Fire and Air.” He also wrote librettos for the musicals “The Full Monty,” “A Man of No Importance,” “Anastasia,” and “The Visit” (also with Kander and Ebb, and also starring Rivera), and for the operas “Dead Man Walking,” “Three Decembers,” and “Great Scott.”
He also wrote for television, including an Emmy-winning teleplay for the 1988 AIDS drama “Andre’s Mother.” For film, he wrote the screenplays for the film adaptations of his plays, “The Ritz,” “Love! Valour! Compassion!,” and “Frankie and Johnny at the Clair de Lune” (retitled as simply “Frankie and Johnny”).
Besides his Tony and Emmy wins, he also earned three Drama Desk Awards, two Lucille Lortel Awards, and two Obies, as well as a Pulitzer Prize nomination.
In addition to his four competitive Tonys, he was awarded a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2019.
He was also the recipient of two Guggenheim Fellowships and a Rockefeller Grant.
McNally is survived by his husband, Thomas Kirdahy, whom he wed in 2010 after a long relationship. Other survivors include a brother Peter McNally, and his wife Vicky McNally, along with their children and grandchildren; also listed among the survivors are Mother-in-Law Joan Kirdahy, sister/brother-in-laws Carol Kirdahy, Kevin Kirdahy, James Kirdahy, Kathleen Kirdahy Kay, and Neil Kirdahy.