A Life in the Theatre: Terrence McNally

Special Features   A Life in the Theatre: Terrence McNally The Kennedy Center honored playwright Terrence McNally this spring by staging three of his opera-related plays. He talks with Playbill about his past and present.
Terrence McNally
Terrence McNally Photo by Aubrey Reuben

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Terrence McNally has won four Tony Awards, for his plays Love! Valour! Compassion! and Master Class and for his books for the musicals Kiss of the Spider Woman and Ragtime. His many esteemed credits in nearly 50 years in the theatre include the librettos for The Full Monty (Tony nomination), A Man of No Importance and The Rink and the plays Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, The Lisbon Traviata, Corpus Christi, A Perfect Ganesh, The Ritz, It's Only a Play and Lips Together, Teeth Apart, which was recently bumped off the Broadway schedule after its leading lady left the show. McNally's Nights at the Opera, which comprises the McNally plays Master Class (starring Tyne Daly as Maria Callas), The Lisbon Traviata (starring John Glover) and a new play, Golden Age, is at the Kennedy Center in Washington through April 18.

What was it about theatre that drew you to it, that has made you want to make it your lifelong career?

My parents were both New Yorkers, so even though I grew up in Corpus Christi, TX, I came to New York a couple of times as a child. I saw two shows that made an incredible impression on me: Ethel Merman in Annie Get Your Gun when I was five and then, a few years later, The King and I. Both shows had children in them, so I could identify. The shows had wonderful stories, wonderful stars, wonderful performances and glorious music. My parents also had show albums at home, and I knew the scores of Kiss Me, Kate and Guys and Dolls and South Pacific. You would have thought I would have been just a musical comedy person, but I didn't write for musicals until far along in my career.

The other thing was the Texaco radio broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera. Very early in Texas, in fifth or sixth grade — I was about 12 — my teacher, a nun in my parochial school, brought into class a recording of Puccini love duets. And I remember the minute she put on the music I absolutely loved it. The other 29 kids might have been sleeping or involved in mischief, but it started me off on being a really big opera fan, which I've been my whole life. I lived for the opera broadcasts. There was no opera in Corpus Christi, but when I was a little older my parents let me take a bus by myself to Dallas where the Met Opera was touring, and I saw Risë Stevens in Tyrone Guthrie's dramatic and daring production of Carmen. When I listened to the Met broadcasts I would make a little stage with scenery. I would design it according to what I would see in Opera News magazine. And I would use cutout figures and move them around as I listened. These radio broadcasts heightened my imagination of theatre. Did you take part in theatre in high school?

No. I was the editor of the high school newspaper and founded the school's literary magazine. I was always involved in writing, but not for the theatre. I thought I would be a journalist.

And then I came to New York to go to Columbia University. I was all of 17 years old. My very first night in New York I tried to see My Fair Lady on Broadway. This was 1956. It had just recently opened, and it was sold out for months. The box office told me I couldn't get tickets. They said if I wanted to see it I would have to get standing room, which sold out when the box office opened at 10 AM. It took five minutes to sell the 30 places, they said, and I would have to get in line by the previous midnight. I would have to stand or sit on the street all night. But it was still September, warm and balmy, so I thought, 'This is great.' A few blocks away Damn Yankees was playing so I went and got the cheapest seats. And I saw My Fair Lady the second night with the original cast.

But I was really even more opera-struck; my plays have often involved music and opera. I liked female vocalists with unusual voices, like Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday, and this is what interested me in singers like Maria Callas. When I was growing up in Texas I could hear opera from Mexico City — it wasn't the strongest signal but I could hear it — and I heard a soprano named Maria Meneghini Callas [pronounced Cayas in Spanish] singing Rigoletto. I fell in love with the sound of her voice. I was really young. I had no idea. I got the Sunday New York Times and the Sam Goody record store had an ad for new opera albums featuring this Maria Meneghini Callas. I figured it must be the same name as the Spanish pronunciation Cayas, so I ordered them. By the time I got to Columbia she had become very famous. I stood in line for three or four days to see her Metropolitan Opera debut in Norma. It was my first time at the Metropolitan Opera House.

But despite my interest in musicals and opera I wasn't really involved in theatre at Columbia, at least not until my senior year. I wasn't part of the theatre group. But they didn't have anyone to write the varsity show, and I thought it might be fun to do it. I wrote it with Ed Kleban [who would later write the lyrics for A Chorus Line]. He wrote the music and most of the lyrics.

You graduated from Columbia in 1960 Phi Beta Kappa. Then you won a fellowship to go to Mexico and write for the stage, and wrote a play. How did you get your professional start in the theatre?

After college I tried writing a novel. And then I wrote that play, which I sent to the Actors Studio. Its co-founder, Molly Kazan, of the studio's Playwrights Unit, read it and offered me a job as a stage manager. It was my first job in the theatre. I thought I could observe and get some practical experience. At the studio Frank Corsaro was directing a play, and he said I would be perfect for a part. I said I wasn't really an actor but he insisted and we rehearsed for two weeks. When we did the play, I knew everyone in the room, and my knees were literally shaking, and there were tremors in my voice from nerves. I realized then that I had no desire to be on a stage.

But at the Actors Studio I learned how plays are put together, how writers and actors and directors can and should — but sometimes don't — collaborate well.

At the end of the year Mrs. Kazan and her husband, Elia Kazan, called me in and said their next-door neighbors were going to take a trip around the world and they needed a tutor for their sons, who were 15 and 16. The Kazans said the neighbors were looking for someone like me, who had gone to Columbia and didn't tutor for a living. They asked if I would be interested and would enjoy a trip like that. I said, 'Absolutely,' and they gave me the name and address. They said it was John Steinbeck. I said, 'John Steinbeck, the writer?' They said that's who it was. So I found myself spending ten months going around the world with John Steinbeck, his wife and sons.

You came back and won a playwriting award and met Franco Zeffirelli, who hired you to do an adaptation of Alexander Dumas fils' The Lady of the Camellias, which opened on Broadway in 1963. When was your first original play produced?

Steinbeck's advice to me was that I shouldn't write for the theatre because it would break my heart. I didn't listen to his advice and I wrote a play called And Things That Go Bump in the Night. It was done at the Actors Studio in its New American Plays program and then at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis and then the producer Ted Mann saw it, and it ended up on Broadway in 1965. It was pretty unusual for a playwright's first play to be done on Broadway.

The play wasn't successful. It ran for only 16 performances and was considered somewhat scandalous, in part because its themes included bisexuality and transvestitism. What was your first major success?

A comedy called Next in 1969. I wrote it for my friend James Coco. [It's about a middle-aged overweight man who is mistakenly drafted.] He said, 'How are we going to get this done? I'm not a star. No one will put on this play just because I'm in it.' Then he went off to summer stock, doing an Elaine May play at the Stockbridge Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. And then the next play of the season was canceled and he said he had a play they could do. He gave it to her and she said she would direct it, as part of a bill of two one-acts, one by her and one by me. It was a huge hit there, and it moved to Off-Broadway, where it also became a huge hit. And I've been earning my living as a playwright ever since.

You've certainly been no stranger to scandal, especially with Corpus Christi, your 1998 play about a gay Jesus. Looking back at that play 12 years later, what are your feelings?

The fact that the play is being done a lot now, and with very little opposition, means so much to me. Maybe it was ahead of its time. It was unfortunate that there was so much controversy then, which was not based on anyone having read the script, and misreporting about actually what was said and done. I'm so glad that people are seeing what was in the play and not focusing on the controversy. It really has a very simple message about love and tolerance and was never intended to be blasphemous or to make fun of established religion.

You've written librettos for several musicals and won Tony Awards for two of them. How is writing a musical different from writing a play?

There are enormous differences. For one, you really have to enjoy collaborating. And you really have to enjoy rewriting. I think people mistake book writing for playwriting. It's not playwriting lite. It's a very different craft. I've had great collaborators — Kander and Ebb, Ahrens and Flaherty, David Yazbeck. The hardest part in a musical is to make it seem as if there's only one author who wrote book, lyrics and music. I try to lose my style. It's as if I wear another hat and, for instance, think that if I were E.L. Doctorow writing a musical of his Ragtime, what would I do?

Looking back, what are your thoughts about your career?

I've had so few bad experiences. I've had plays that were not well received critically, but I think I've been pretty smart in the actors and directors I've worked with. I like collaborating. Sure, I've bumped heads with people, but I don't see rehearsing as the traumatic battleground that it's often depicted as in plays and movies about the theatre. I've worked with theatre greats like Nathan Lane, Zoe Caldwell, Kathy Bates - incredibly hard-working people who are smart and passionate about their craft. To me, what's exciting about the theatre is to get the right people in the right room to do the right script. After all, a playwright doesn't often know what his play is about. He knows the themes and the story, but the inner workings, the subconscious part, that's what gets revealed in the rehearsal. It's the process of finding the soul of the play. A play is seldom perfect when it is written. It's seldom perfect anyway, but you try to work toward perfection.

Is there anything you haven't done in the theatre that you would still like to do?

Write a play I consider perfect. I would like to be 100 percent satisfied with my work on opening night. I'm often 100 percent satisfied with the actors', the director's, the designers' work. But pretty much on opening night I'm not fully satisfied with what I've done. I'm 71, and I still think and feel much younger. There are all these plays I want to write, and I can't imagine not being around to write them.

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