PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Terrence McNally
By Harry Haun
The Tony Award-winning playwright and librettist has Catch Me If You Can and Master Class on his Broadway calendar. We catch up with him.
Terrence McNally's 20th Broadway production arrives July 7 at the Samuel J. Friedman, under the auspices of Manhattan Theatre Club — a revival of his Tony-winning Best Play of 1995, Master Class, starring Tyne Daly as Maria Callas.
Still playing, no doubt, will be his 19th — which he wrote with Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, Catch Me If You Can, now on the runway at the Neil Simon — doubling the theatre-going pleasure of his company.
Having two hits simultaneously charging away on all cylinders is no novelty for McNally, but it is a nicety eminently worth celebrating: On March 28, The Acting Company has hired a hall — the Longacre, in all its pink La Cage aux Folles plumage — so the writer can see his career pass before his eyes in scenes, songs and anecdotes from "Angela Lansbury & Friends" (the aforementioned La Daly, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Edie Falco, Emily Skinner, Jason Danieley, Marin Mazzie, John Glover, Stephen Bogardus, Barbara Walsh, Alan Cumming, Raul Esparza, Bobby Steggert, Roger Rees, Malcolm Gets, Alexandra Silber and Joyce DiDonato).
Off-Broadway has been the venue for many a McNally play, and he has even made it to New York City Opera — via his libretto for Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking, an outgrowth of his lifelong personal passion for opera. Last spring, that passion prompted a Kennedy Center mini-festival called "Terrence McNally's Nights at the Opera" — three in all: revivals of The Lisbon Traviata with Glover and Master Class with Daly, plus a new play: Golden Age. The last two of this festival are currently angling for New York dates, and the Kennedy Center will get him back in 2012 (June 1-July 2) with his version of Pal Joey. It's about time that Playbill.com checked in with McNally.
What's keeping you busy these days?
So much goes into getting shows on these days — the right cast, the right director, the right theatre, blah, blah, blah. The availability of people just seems to move glacier-like at times. We first talked about doing Catch Me If You Can six or seven years ago, whereas Ragtime — from the idea to the opening night in Canada — was, I think, a year. That's how it has changed so much.
You were on the Ragtime Express.
Scott and Marc told me a lot of their songs in Catch Me If You Can were specifically cued by lines in Jeff Nathanson's screenplay. Did you use a lot of the dialogue from the original film in your book?
A lot of my inspiration came from the book, "Catch Me If You Can," by the real person. It's his life story. We're the only musical on Broadway that's a true story.
Frank Abagnale Jr., who passed several million dollars in bad checks and posed successfully as a Pan Am pilot as well as a doctor and a lawyer, was a 16-year-old runaway from Scarsdale, NY. He went to jail and did his time, but they shortened his sentence so he could come to work for the FBI. He's still connected with the FBI and very involved with developing all sorts of new security techniques. It's much harder to forge a check today than it was back in 1962. He'll be there on opening night.
Can you believe it's happening after so long?
And I'm assuming you busied yourself playwriting during all of this.
TM: Well, that's nice to hear because I truly love musicals, and I respect the form. Some people write a musical book and then leave a blank saying, "Song here." I don't do that. I write a full scene and hope Marc and Scott are going to find a song suggested by my dialogue that inspires them to write a song that will render anywhere from 15 percent to 80 percent of my dialogue unnecessary. The song does it. I have never written parenthesis "Song Here" end of parenthesis. Frank Abagnale sings a song about leaving home, so you write a scene about him leaving home and see how they musicalize it. A playwriting life is a very different art form. The main job a librettist does is structure a musical.
Do you have a favorite show that you've done?
So it doesn't necessarily get easier the more you do it?
Are you pleased that Master Class is coming back?
Was it easy for you to write Callas? It seemed like you were so connected to that character.
But when you sit down to write it, you don't know if anyone else is going to enjoy it or be interested in it. I'll never forget the first time we ever did it for anyone. Zoe and I and Lenny Foglia, the director, went to Big Fork, Montana, and read the play in a Town Hall sort of auditorium just to see how Normal People — non-opera, non-Callas fanatics, non-New York theatregoers — would react to the play. We took three planes and still drove for quite a while. It was a very long trip, but they loved it. When it was over, one of the questions was, "Is Maria Callas a real person?" Then the woman turned to her husband and said, "Ya see, I told you she was a real person." Someone else asked Zoe if she was a professional actress. Zoe said, "Yes, I am." The woman said, "You're very good." Zoe said, "Thank you." So we thought if the play works for an audience that doesn't know that, my God, this is the legendary Zoe Caldwell with 85 Tony Awards, then maybe the play has a chance elsewhere.
It seems as though I've been writing about your adaptation of Pal Joey for 20 years.
Did you bring songs in from other shows?
The book has always been problematic. The biggest challenge on Pal Joey is to make it an enjoyable show even if you don't morally approve of the two leads. I mean, Brooks Atkinson famously said, "Can you draw sweet water from a foul well?" He was so disapproving of both Joey and Vera as human beings that he found it hard to enjoy the show. I think they're human, and I'm attracted to them because of that. I don't think they're paragons of how we should all live our lives, but neither are some of the characters in Guys and Dolls or Gypsy. Some characters in famous musicals are maybe not the most perfect, moral people. The trick will be to make it a good show, and it's really a different version. I definitely don't want to talk about it. Maybe the biggest change is it's set very firmly in the World War II era.
That's not a big jump, though, is it?
Tell me about your Acting Company salute.
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