Tony Award-Winning Playwright Terrence McNally Dies at 81

Obituaries   Tony Award-Winning Playwright Terrence McNally Dies at 81
 
Among his celebrated works were Love! Valour! Compassion!, Master Class, and the books to Ragtime and Kiss of the Spider Woman.
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Terrence McNally Marc J. Franklin

Terrence McNally, a five-time Tony Award recipient whose plays often featured explorations of contemporary gay life and a reverence for classical music, died March 24 at Sarasota Memorial Hospital in Florida. He was 81.

The playwright, who just last year received the Tony Awards' Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre Honor, faced complications due to coronavirus; he was a lung cancer survivor and lived with COPD.

Zoe Caldwell and Audra McDonald in <i>Master Class</i>, 1995
Zoe Caldwell and Audra McDonald in Master Class, 1995 Jay Thompson

Mr. McNally won two Tony Awards for penning books for musicals—Kiss of the Spider Woman in 1993 and Ragtime in 1998—but his love for the musical form shined on the dramatic stage as well. His other two Tonys are for Love! Valour! Compassion!—a character study of eight gay friends, including a Broadway choreographer and a musical-loving costume designer—and Master Class, a fictional depiction of soprano Maria Callas and her students.

"I’m tone-deaf; if I try to sing, it’s horrible," he told Playbill in a 2019 interview. "But I consider myself a musical person. I responded to opera at a very early age. It was like ice cream; I just heard it when I was 10 years old, and I loved it. It’s been a great companion in my life, and I hope my writing can, in a sense, be operatic. I’m very aware of musical form when I’m writing."

Opera and the classic arts remained themes in many of his other works, including The Lisbon Traviata, Prelude and Liebestod, Golden Age (set during the premiere of Bellini's I Puritani), and the last to appear on Broadway: Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (the 2019 revival starred Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon). He also penned libretti for three Jake Heggie-composed operas: Dead Man Walking, Three Decembers, and Great Scott. The first will make its Metropolitan Opera premiere next year.

Heggie is not the only composer to find a frequent collaborator in Mr. McNally. Of the playwright's nine Broadway musicals, four were with John Kander and Fred Ebb (The Rink, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life, and The Visit) and two feature a score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (the aforementioned Ragtime and Anastasia). His other musicals included The Full Monty and Catch Me If You Can.

READ: The Theatre Community Remembers Terrence McNally on Social Media

Love! Valour! Compassion!, 1995, Nathan Lane, Stephen Spinella, Justin Kirk, John Glover, Stephen Bogardus and John Benjamin Hickey, Martha Swope.jpg
Nathan Lane, Stephen Spinella, Justin Kirk, John Glover, Stephen Bogardus and John Benjamin Hickey in Love! Valour! Compassion! Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts

Just as prevalent throughout Mr. McNally's oeuvre is an understanding of queer culture, and perhaps more specifically and metatheatrically, the contemplation of what it means to be a gay man in today's society. Works like And Things That Go Bump in the Night and Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone? touch on a loss of innocence and the effects of oppression; his 1998 play Corpus Christi sparked protests for using the story of Jesus and his Apostles to explore the various dynamics of gay men and the marginalization they face; Lips Together, Teeth Apart and Mothers and Sons show the loss felt by members outside the LGBTQ+ community when the AIDS crisis took thousands of their siblings, children, friends.

Mothers and Sons, a sequel to his 1990 American Playhouse one-act Andre's Mother, centers on a woman whose son died of AIDS 20 years prior as she attempts to reconnect with his partner Cal, who has since remarried. It was the first Broadway play to depict a legally married same-sex couple, commemorating both the progress that had been made for LGBTQ+ individuals and the hardships they had weathered.

"I can’t believe the New York I came to in 1956 as a freshman at Columbia, when there were maybe two gay bars, and you made sure no one would see you before you darted in," McNally said last year. "There’s a long way to go for America, but I think we’ve made huge steps for gay rights, and I’m not worried about them being pushed back into the closet. People are out for good, and I hope it makes adolescence easier for a lot of young men and women. I think it already has."

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Terrence McNally and Tom Kirdahy at the 2019 Tony Awards Marc J. Franklin

Six weeks later, as he took the stage at Radio City Music Hall to accept his Lifetime Achievement Tony Award, he said, "I love it when I remember the artists who try to help us understand the devastation of AIDS even when they were stricken with it themselves. I love it when I remember theatre changes hearts—that secret place where we all truly live."

"I love my playwright years: past, present, and especially future."

Mr. McNally is survived by his husband Tom Kirdahy (a Broadway producer who frequently produced his works); his brother Peter McNally and his wife Vicky McNally, their son Stephen McNally and his wife Carmen McNally, and their daughter Kylie McNally, as well as his mother-in-law Joan Kirdahy and siblings-in-law Carol Kirdahy, Kevin Kirdahy and his wife Patricia, James Kirdahy and his wife Nora, Kathleen Kirdahy Kay, and Neil Kirdahy and his wife Sue.

The family asks that donations in his memory be made to the Dramatist Guild Foundation and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Mr. McNally was on the Board of Trustees for the latter, championing the organization since its formation. "Terrence gave voice to both the voiceless and those who can stand tall, not only through his art but also his actions," shared Broadway Cares Executive Director Tom Viola. "He was a steadfast champion for civil and LGBTQ rights onstage and off. He gave us unforgettable characters who told delicate, brilliant, courageous and unforgettable stories that reflected the lives and dreams, joys and heartbreak of us all."

Every Act of Life, a 2018 documentary chronicling Mr. McNally's life and career, features such artists as Kander, Ahrens, Flaherty, Chita Rivera, Nathan Lane, Audra McDonald, Patrick Wilson, Angela Lansbury, Marin Mazzie, Christine Baranski, and Tyne Daly. It is available on digital streaming and VOD platforms.