If Broadway theaters weren’t already shut down because of the coronavirus, all of them would have surely turned their lights off Tuesday night in ritualized remembrance of the great American playwright Terrence McNally, who died at 81 from complications related to COVID-19.
McNally put out an extraordinary body of work, with favorite topics including gay life, opera, shifting sexual mores, and seemingly mismatched partners going at it in close proximity. His 1987 play Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, revived just last year starring Audra McDonald, paired an aggressive and possibly nutty short order cook with a damaged waitress who’s afraid to love again, but might give this weirdo a chance.
Master Class (first on Broadway in 1995) had imposing opera diva Maria Callas instructing students on how to perform properly, complete with all kinds of tirades, anecdotal monologues, and directives. (“No applause. We’re here for work” is how McNally’s Callas starts the session, though the applause was certainly earned by the end.) Deuce (2007) had two female ex-tennis champs reuniting and gabbing about sports and gossip while trying to work out old issues.
McNally also wrote the books for various hit musicals, like Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993), which put an idealistic activist and an effeminate fantasist in a prison cell together, where they hauntingly found common ground, and The Visit, which opened on Broadway just in 2015 starring an indomitable Chita Rivera.
From one of Terrence McNally great musicals, which is also my favorite Kander & Ebb musical, The Visit:— Lin-Manuel Miranda (@Lin_Manuel) March 24, 2020
Watching @Chita_Rivera dance with her younger self was one of the most dizzying, heartbreaking highs I’ve had in a theater ever. https://t.co/QaJmshd5TS
All these roles have provided meaty opportunities for actors (McDonald and Zoe Caldwell won Tonys for the original Master Class and Brent Carver and Chita Rivera did the same for Spider Woman). And with Nathan Lane, McNally found his best interpreter of all, someone who could capture the wit, high-flying poetry, and poignancy of his work.
Lane enlivened McNally plays like 1995’s Love! Valour! Compassion, a funny, bittersweet study of eight gay friends’ interaction, and It’s Only a Play, a reworked 2014 version of an old McNally theater-world satire, dotted with some very funny inside jokes. (One character talks about a bad actor who got booed for his Hamlet. The actor allegedly responded by yelling at the audience, “I didn’t write this shit!”)
With his more serious 1998 play Corpus Christi, McNally painted Jesus Christ as a gay man and as a result was met with massive controversy and even death threats. When I asked the author about all the hoopla at the time, he replied, “I keep telling myself, ‘If you just say No Comment, they can’t quote you.’” I referred to the play then as Love! Valour! Confession!, but when I saw it, I was amazed that it was so tame—hardly an experience that could anger anyone except lovers of great theater. Like all acclaimed artists who are continually productive, McNally had a few missteps—Deuce happened to be another of those—and then it was right back to the hits.
I saw McNally again the next year, when we were speakers at a Judy Garland tribute called “Judy in June,” which benefitted a gay TV show called In the Life. In my speech, I made a joke about one of Judy’s daughters, and McNally looked seriously anguished. “Leave her alone!” he moaned. But later that evening, when a Judy impersonator took the mic and cracked that that same daughter was illiterate, McNally laughed his head off!
Oh, well. He was a man of textures, but if you sat him down to talk about his craft, he was articulate and passionate, with a firm grasp on the history of the LGBTQ movement, AIDS, opera, and theater. And he had become the go-to guy for interjecting smiles and tears into plays, musicals, and even operas, among them Great Scott, which managed to pit an opera diva character against the football world.
Married to Broadway producer Tom Kirdahy, McNally long ago was in a relationship with playwright Edward Albee, who primarily wrote about straight people, sometimes infusing them with campy bitchery. McNally, on the other hand, bravely wrote about openly gay topics from the beginning, with a candor and skill that overcame objections. And he encouraged the newer versions of himself, too.
When he was starting out, Matthew Lopez was hired by McNally as an assistant on the 2002 musical A Man of No Importance. In the process, McNally encouraged Lopez to keep pursuing his own playwriting, and this season, Lopez’s two-part gay epic The Inheritance made it to Broadway partly as a result.
McNally happened to love the play, as one of its stars, John Benjamin Hickey, told me. “There are comparisons to Angels in America," he recalled. "But I feel Matthew’s writing is closer to Love! Valour! Compassion! It’s a warm-hearted comedy.”
McNally’s legacy lives on.
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