For many people, the first face of the scourge known as COVID-19 will be Tom Hanks or perhaps Prince Charles, both of whom have gone public with the fact that they have tested positive for the pandemic virus. But the theater world, and his vast mainstream audience, is in mourning over the news that four-time Tony Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally, 81, has died of complications from the coronavirus.
In a career that spanned nearly 60 years, McNally rose above the pack of writers who emerged off-Broadway during the early 1960s, to a substantial career on Broadway penning plays that blended drama and comedy, as well as adapting several films and novels into the books of prominent musicals.
I interviewed McNally twice, once in person in Toronto in 1992, as he was working on the musical version of Kiss of the Spider Woman. There the show began rising from the ashes of an unsuccessful tryout in Purchase, N.Y., on its way to a Best Musical Tony – as well as one for McNally – a year later.
And I spoke with him again in 1996, as his acclaimed play Love! Valour! Compassion!, about eight gay men flirting, talking frankly and skinny-dipping over a series of summer weekends was about to open at Boca Raton’s Caldwell Theatre, in its first post-Broadway production.
Speaking about his ability to draw laughter and tears, the soft-spoken McNally told me, “I do think life is an incredible blend of the painful and the hilarious, and you never know when those transitions are going to come. I really do believe you can be laughing as you step off the curb and the bus sends you to the next world.”
McNally never had the chance to write about COVID-19 in one of his plays, but the previous health crisis of AIDS figured prominently in such stage works of his as Love! Valour! Compassion!, The Lisbon Traviata, Lips Together, Teeth Apart and the teleplay Andre’s Mother, for which McNally won an Emmy.
Openly gay throughout his career, even as others, like an early live-in lover, Edward Albee, were still closeted, McNally wrote with equal skill about gay and straight characters. Among the latter is Master Class, a valentine to opera diva Maria Callas, and A Perfect Ganesh, about a pair of Connecticut matrons on an eye-opening tour of India.
Although his first produced play, 1962’s macabre And Things That Go Bump in the Night failed to run a week, it introduced his distinctive voice to the American theater world and has since been revived quite successfully. The same goes for The Ritz, a farce set in a gay bathhouse, a 1974 flop first known as The Tubs that was probably ahead of its time. Revised and retitled, it became a cult hit on Broadway that spawned a movie version.
The hit-or-miss mentality of the theater drove McNally to drink, as he candidly admitted, and his bouts with alcohol led to years of writer’s block and career inactivity. When he eventually achieved lasting sobriety, he wrote one of his most successful plays, 1987’s Frankie & Johnny in the Clair de Lune, about a relationship between two misfits, an overweight waitress and an insecure short-order cook, roles that have attracted many an A-list performer. Its most recent Broadway revival in 2019, for instance, starred Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon.
Two of McNally’s Tony Awards are for his musical books to Kiss of the Spider Woman and Ragtime. Not all of his forays into the potentially lucrative world of musicals have succeeded, however, like his most recent attempt, the short-lived The Visit, based on a dark comedy by Friedrich Duerrenmatt.
McNally was a lung cancer survivor who lived with chronic COPD. He died Tuesday at a hospital in Sarasota, not far from St. Petersburg, where he was born. An inductee into the American Theater Hall of Fame as well as the American Academy of Arts and Letters, McNally is survived by his husband Thomas Kirdahy, whom he wed in 2010.