Though his ouevre includes the plays Master Class; Love! Valour! Compassion! (both Tony Award winners); Corpus Christi; Frankie And Johnny In The Clair De Lune; The Lisbon Traviata; Lips Together, Teeth Apart and dozens of one-acts as well as libretti for the musicals Ragtime; Kiss of the Spider Woman (also Tony-awarded); The Rink and A Man of No Importance, the busy scribe admits he berates himself for not having a larger creative output.
In anticipation of his latest work, The Stendhal Syndrome — opening at Off-Broadway's Primary Stages Feb. 16 — McNally spoke of work new and old, the trials of the musical, The Visit, and other upcoming projects.
Playbill On-Line: Having written as much as you have, how do you keep going back? How do you keep writing?
Terrence McNally: I don't always. I've gone long periods without writing, maybe it seems [like more]. I berate myself for not being prolific, but maybe I'm more prolific to someone else. I just think the world is endlessly interesting and there's so much to think about and feel about. I think the trick is finding what you want to write about and then the stories and characters that express that.
PBOL: You had previously written Prelude & Liebestod — the second act of The Stendhal Syndrome. How did the entire evening come about?
TM: Prelude & Liebestod I wrote about nine years ago. It's been very much revised. I knew it had real potential [but] I was just busy doing a million other things like Ragtime and all that stuff. But I always said I want to do something with this play, it's got a lot of potential. Then I had the idea for a play to go with it and I think it was partially inspired by reading a piece in a magazine talking about something called "the Stendhal Syndrome." And I thought that's exactly what Prelude & Liebestod touches on: how art can affect us emotionally, psychological, erotically. Then I got the idea to do a companion piece which would be how the visual arts affect us. And, so I wrote [Full Frontal Nudity] what is now the first act, knowing it was going to go with Prelude & Liebestod and that the evening would be called The Stendhal Syndrome. I wrote the first act a little over two years ago and then I went back and did a lot more work on the second act. So that's sort of the genesis of it. And now I consider a full evening's work and if someone said "We'd want to do just one of them," I would probably say no at this point.
PBOL: Prelude & Liebestod seems like it was written to the original Richard Wagner piece of music, was it?
TM: I didn't time it out, no. But I know that music well and I'm sure I had the CD player on while I was writing. But I wasn't stopping and going back and timing things. That's all something [director Leonard] Lenny Foglia and [lead actor] Richard Thomas and the actors worked out. And obviously the play is longer than the music and the music kind of repeats itself, if you're listening carefully. It was always my intention that the second time he does [the piece, within the play] the music pretty much fades out and he stops conducting and we go into his inner life. The audience, you ask them to accept the conceit that we're going into this very intense interior monologue now. But he's still communicating with his wife and the young man and the concertmaster and the soprano through looks. Because I often think we do know what we're saying to one another by looks and the music amplifies that. Actually, the only actual lines of dialogue in the entire play spoken in reality are "I want to apologize for that perfunctory performance..." — the lines he says to the imaginary audience wherever he is. PBOL: This work, as many other plays you've written, includes frank language and what might be considered risque sexual references...
TM: Well, the play is very out there sexually. Someone said "Boy, you can get into a lot of trouble with this play." And I said "Well, what do you mean?" They said "Well, don't you think it's pretty out there, the sexuality of it?" I've always tried to put private behavior onstage and then you have an actor as ballsy as Richard [Thomas] whose willing to do it. He's more naked than if he took his clothes off, I think. I just try not to censor myself when I write and that's the result. I hope I don't get people mad at me. [Laughs.] I'd like to provoke them, [have them] talk about the play, but not get mad in the sense that they storm out of the theatre. No, you're trying to communicate. It's graphic and I think honest and ultimately moving: a man so lost in an impossible moment for anyone to live in which is that incredible moment of supreme ecstasy which is Liebestod, which happens to Wagnerian characters in love. They become so overwhelmed that they die, literally. It's very strange and I think that music famously is prolonged foreplay before orgasm. That chord that's started in the very beginning of the Prelude does not resolve itself until the last note of the soprano and cadenza in the orchestra. I think it's pretty clear to me what Wagner was writing about and it was shocking in its day. It just seemed the ideal piece of music to write about.
PBOL: Speaking about writing and music, you've done quite a lot of libretto work lately, what is the difference for you?
TM: A musical really has three authors — composer, lyricist, librettist — and a play has only one author, but both are works of collaboration. You work with actors, designers. I find theatre very much a collaborative effort and a lot of people give to much credit to the playwright. And if the play works, Isabella and Richard and Lenny Foglia and Michael McCarthy, the designer and everybody helped. So it's a very collaborative field. But in the musical, your main job is to provide the structure. In a play, it's all you.
PBOL: Is it easier to write librettos?
TM: No, not at all. I think a lot of people think writing a libretto is sort of playwriting lite and it's not. I take it every bit as seriously as I do my plays. I'm shocked when people say '"When are you going to get back to playwriting?" I say libretto writing is a form of playwriting. I think a lot of people mistake libretto writing for: You write some dialogue and then you write "(He sings a song about how he loves her)" and they don't do that — or at least I don't. I write a scene that I hope Lynn [Ahrens] and Stephen [Flaherty] or [John] Kander and [Fred] Ebb, or whoever I happen to be working with, find a song in a line of dialogue, a situation, a comic moment, a tension in a dramatic moment. But I've never in my life written "(Song.)" So at one point, there is a play of Ragtime, a play of Kiss of the Spider Woman, a play of A Man of No Importance and then Lynn and Stephen and John and Fred musicalize my scenes and find a song and then the chunk of the dialogue disappears. You go to a musical for the music, not the libretto. The libretto should be intelligent. It should be a strong structure on which to build song and dance, but no musical is a success only because it has a great libretto. The score is the star even over the Ethel Mermans and the Mary Martins. The songs they're singing has to be damn good ones.
PBOL: The Visit was again close to making its New York debut this year, but the show didn't happen. Does that hurt when financial matters dictate what is and isn't done?
TM: I think people say how much they like The Visit, but they're worried about its commercial potential and I can't predict that. Who would have thought, 40 years ago, a musical about warring juvenile delinquent gangs would be successful you know West Side Story. I think The Visit is such a good piece of work — from everybody and also Chita Rivera in the role of her lifetime — that I think it will eventually be done, but it's not happy-making to see another year go by without it happening. We've just got to find a brave producer whose willing to step up to the plate — the economy does not help. It's not a show you can soften, it ends with a dead body on stage in a coffin. But audiences in Chicago loved it and we got best musical adaptation over The Producers in the same season, but we haven't found the right producer yet. I really think it's day will come.
PBOL: You're also working on another show with The Visit star Chita Rivera...
TM: I'm trying to be helpful. We're trying to do a show for Chita in which she talks, sings and reflects on her life in the theatre — which is an extraordinary one. To say I'm writing it, sounds... I'm helping her, I'm helping her tell her story, let's put it that way. And I've not put pen to paper yet, we're still having meetings, interviewing, laughing. I mean to be in the room with those two Latin ladies — [director] Graciela Daniele and Chita — the energy is amazing. And then this WASP from Texas, someone told me a Catholic isn't a WASP, so I don't know what I am, but I'm white bread compared to those two. I just hope can come up with the right thing for them.
PBOL: She certainly has plenty of material to work from...
TM: Oh she does.
PBOL: What else is on the forefront for you?
TM: Dedication, a play that I wrote last year is going to be done in Williamstown this summer. I'm very excited about that. I've also been commissioned by the Theater Communication Group (TCG) to sort of be an artist-in-residence at a small theatre company in San Francisco and I'm going to write a play specifically for them. It's essentially a non-Equity company and I will spend a considerable amount of time in San Francisco in the year ahead, teaching, working and also writing and developing this play with local actors. And, I'm very excited — after the Zoe Caldwells, the Nathan Lanes and Kathy Bates and Chitas I've worked with — to just see what happens working more on a simpler level, without the high-powered pizzazz of Broadway. It's going to be challenging, so I'm very excited about that. I've also been commissioned to develop a play at Sundance and I'm working on an evening with the [New York City] Gay Men's Chorus, their spring concert called "Out on Broadway." [Performs June 22 at Avery Fisher Hall.] I'm writing the "book" for that which is going to be [exploring] the attraction of the Broadway musical for gay men or maybe debunking that myth.