Terrence McNally, Trailblazing Titan of American Theater, Dies of Coronavirus Complications at 81

Terrence McNally OBIT - Getty - H 2019
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The five-time Tony recipient behind 'Kiss of the Spider-Woman,' 'Ragtime,' 'Love! Valour! Compassion!,' 'Master Class' and 'The Ritz' never shied away from relevant cultural issues.

Terrence McNally, the admired playwright and librettist who received five Tony Awards while bringing his perspective on the world to such productions as Kiss of the Spider-Woman, Master Class, Ragtime and Love! Valour! Compassion!, has died. He was 81.

McNally died Tuesday at a hospital in Sarasota, Florida, due to complications from coronavirus, publicist Matt Polk told The Hollywood Reporter. McNally battled lung cancer since the late 1990s, and the disease cost him portions of both lungs. He had lived with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ever since.

With 25 Broadway productions, nearly 40 plays and 10 musicals, McNally was a prolific writer whose work moved seamlessly from comedy to drama and from downtown avant-garde to the mainstream Great White Way. "He probes his characters’ deepest fears — of illness, intimacy, betrayal or death — while making them manageable for all audiences, leavening the dread with his rat-a-tat dialogue and well-timed jokes," The New York Times noted.

Perhaps most notably, he was a major artistic force in portraying the lives of gay men onstage, dating back to a time when LGBTQ characters still had only the most marginal visibility in mainstream culture. 

McNally won his first Tony in 1993 for his book for the musical Kiss of the Spider Woman and followed with trophies for Love! Valour! Compassion! (best play) in '95, Master Class (best play) in '96 and Ragtime (best book of a musical) in '98.

In 1994, he was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for A Perfect Ganesh and last year was presented with a special Tony for Lifetime Achievement, "not a moment too soon" he said in his acceptance speech. "I love being a playwright. The hours are flexible, and you don’t have to wear a tie — unless you’re invited to the Tonys."

McNally impacted the lives and careers of such notables as James Coco, Doris Roberts, John Glover, Nathan Lane, Tyne Daly, F. Murray Abraham, Chita Rivera, Zoe Caldwell, Christine Baranski, Joe Mantello and Audra McDonald.

Lane starred for McNally in 1989's The Lisbon Traviata; 1991's Lips Together, Teeth Apart; 1994's Love! Valour! Compassion!; 2005's The Stuff of Dreams; and the blockbuster 2014 Broadway production of his theater-biz farce, It's Only a Play, with an all-star cast that also featured Abraham, Matthew Broderick, Megan Mullally, Stockard Channing and Rupert Grint.

"There is no better collaborator in the world," Lane wrote in 2015 in Playbill. "He said he wrote better when he knew whom he was writing for and that he wanted to create plays with me in mind. [That is] an unbelievably generous and monumental gift for a young actor, especially coming from a writer of his caliber and stature."

Baranski also starred in Lips Together and noted that the cast were treated as partners.

"Much of the time that would normally be spent as actors working on scenes was spent talking about what the scene would be or what or where or how long a speech should be," Baranski told the Times in 1991. "In a way, the actors became partly dramaturgs and co-directors."

McNally shifted between writing plays, musicals and even operas, and from exploring the AIDS crisis in the telefilm Andre's Mother to the immigration struggles at the turn of the century in Ragtime; he never shied away from topical and relevant cultural issues.

"Theater is a deep reflection of the human community," McNally wrote in his foreword to the published text of his 2002 musical A Man of No Importance. "Theater is not a place to hide from the world but instead the very place where we may finally discover our true selves."

Michael Terrence McNally was born on Nov. 3, 1938, in St. Petersburg, Florida, where his parents, Hubert and Dorothy, ran a seaside grill before a hurricane destroyed the business. The New York transplants eventually brought Terrence and his younger brother, Peter, to Corpus Christi, Texas, where they were raised.

McNally's folks were theater lovers — he got to see Ethel Merman in Annie Get Your Gun, a formative experience, when he was 6 or 7 — but also alcoholics. "There wasn't a day when my parents weren't drunk," he said in the documentary Terrence McNally: Every Act of Life, which premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. "Peter and I would be sometimes hungry at 6 o'clock and my mother and her friends would be drinking."

McNally was introduced to opera through one of the nuns at school, and he would spend his Saturday afternoons watching TV's Live From the Met. When other kids in the neighborhood were playing football, he was staging operas in the family garage.

His high school English teacher, Maurine McElroy, was the first person who encouraged him to write, and he ended up studying journalism at Columbia College in New York. There, he and Edward Kleban (future lyricist of A Chorus Line) penned the senior varsity show, a comedy about "cannibals and celebrities who deserved to be eaten." he said. McNally also attended shows and operas throughout the city almost daily.

When he was 21, playwright Edward Albee invited him to his apartment for "a nightcap" after a party. "I remember saying this, spontaneously: 'Are you sure your wife or family won't mind?'" he recalled. "He looked at me like I was crazy. I just didn't think he was gay." (McNally never chose to remain closeted.)

They went on to live together for four years, during which time Albee would write and bring to the stage The American Dream and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

After graduation in 1960, McNally worked as a stage manager at the Actors Studio, then accepted an offer from John Steinbeck in 1961 to travel with the author around the world for a year as a tutor for his two teenage sons. Steinbeck would become a valued mentor.

McNally's first produced full-length play, The Side of the Door, ran at the Actors Studio Workshop in 1962, starred a young Estelle Parsons and followed a young boy in a power struggle with his father. His first original play on Broadway, And Things That Go Bump in the Night, also about a dysfunctional family, opened in 1965 to brutal reviews and lasted less than two weeks. It is remembered chiefly as one of the first American plays to depict a romance between two men.

After Albee, McNally dated Bump in the Night actor Robert Drivas, and he wrote many plays featuring him, including 1968's Witness (also starring Coco), 1971's Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone (also starring Abraham) and 1974's Bad Habits (featuring Abraham and Roberts).

Drivas also directed the Broadway production of The Ritz, the broad 1975 comedy set in a gay Manhattan bathhouse that earned McNally his first Drama Desk Award nomination. The playwright then adapted his work for Richard Lester's 1976 film, which had Tony winner Rita Moreno reprising her stage role of third-rate entertainer Googie Gomez, alongside fellow Broadway carryovers Abraham, Jack Weston and Jerry Stiller. (The play was revived on Broadway in 2007, with Rosie Perez as Googie )

Drivas and McNally broke up but remained close until Drivas died of AIDS-related complications in 1986 at age 50. The HIV/AIDS crisis would fundamentally change McNally. To those familiar with his life, work and the activism embedded in both, it seems a brutal irony that an artist who lost numerous friends and lovers to the disease while himself surviving it, was ultimately taken down by another pandemic.

McNally brought heartfelt personal investment to several works in which AIDS was a dominant theme. He wrote and won an Emmy for the American Playhouse 1990 production of Andre's Mother, revolving around a woman (Sada Thompson) unable to come to grips with the death of her son (Richard Thomas) from AIDS. His AIDS-related works for the stage include Lips Together, about two straight couples who spend a weekend in the gay community of Fire Island; Love! Valour! Compassion!, about the weekend gathering of a group of eight gay friends at a lakeside cottage in upstate New York; and Mothers and Sons, a 2014 Broadway play that expanded on Andre's Mother and starred Daly as the same character played by Thompson, paying an awkward visit years later to her dead son's former partner.

McNally, though, rejected the label of "gay playwright."

"Gay theater doesn't exist anymore," he wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 1996. "There is good theater and there is bad theater. Gay playwrights either write a play as worthy of your interest as Mr. Arthur Miller or they don't. You can't get away with a bad gay play any more than you can with serving up lousy food in a gay restaurant."

His first break into the mainstream came in 1987 with his off-Broadway hit Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, a play about a one-night stand starring Abraham and Kathy Bates. (A longtime drunk, McNally said it was the first play he had written sober.) He also did the screenplay for Garry Marshall's 1991 film adaptation that starred Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer. The play was revived on Broadway in 2002 with Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci, and again in 2019 starring McDonald and Michael Shannon in what would be the final Broadway production of McNally's work in his lifetime.

McNally's first Broadway musical was 1984's The Rink, starring Rivera and Liza Minnelli, which he wrote after John Kander and Fred Ebb came up with the score. He also collaborated with the legendary songwriting team on Kiss of the Spider-Woman and The Visit in 2015.

Rivera starred in both Spider-Woman and The Visit, and McNally, alongside collaborators Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, wrote Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life for the star in 2005. (He had previously collaborated with Ahrens and Flaherty on Ragtime and would work with them again on Anastasia in 2016.)

Opera remained a passion of McNally's throughout his life. He wrote libretti for four operas between 1999 and 2015, three with composer and pianist Jake Heggie. Master Class, which bowed on Broadway in 1995 and starred Caldwell and McDonald, is a character study of famed soprano Maria Callas.

He insisted on the untested Mantello, who was an established actor, to direct Love! Valour! Compassion! in its original Broadway production. Mantello would also direct McNally's screenplay adaptation for the 1997 movie, as well as Broadway revivals of The Ritz and Frankie and Johnny.

McNally had an artistic home at the Manhattan Theatre Club, but controversy struck surrounding a 1998 production of his play Corpus Christi, which depicted Jesus and his disciples as gay men in contemporary Texas. The theater was going to cancel the production until other playwrights from the season threatened to pull their works if it were not produced.

Despite the firestorm, "as an artistic experience, it's one of he things I most treasure," he said, and he partnered with the theater again for a 2011 revival of Master Class, starring Daly.

McNally met future husband Tom Kirdahy in 2001 when the public interest attorney organized a panel called "Theatre From a Gay Perspective" that featured McNally, Albee and Lanford Wilson. They formed a civil union in 2003 and married in 2010. Kirdahy served as McNally's producer on every revival or new show since Some Men, a sprawling chronicle of a century of evolution in gay culture, politics and relationships in America that was produced off-Broadway in 2007.

McNally is also survived by his brother Peter and nephew Stephen, among other family members. Donations in his memory can be made to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids and the Dramatist Guild Foundation.

The playwright leaves a legacy, as he put it, of "slowly changing people's minds by changing their hearts first."

"To me, the most significant thing a writer can do is reach someone emotionally," said McNally. "Theater is an emotional medium, and [through it] we've expanded people's acceptance of our fellow man. And this is what you write for, to reach other people."

Mike Barnes, Evan Real and David Rooney contributed to this report.