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Playwright Terrence McNally dies of complications from coronavirus

Terrence McNally, whose many plays inclued "Master Class,"

Terrence McNally, whose many plays inclued "Master Class," received a lifetime achievement Tony Award last year. Credit: Getty Images for Tony Awards Pro/Ilya S. Savenok

Terrence McNally, one of America’s great playwrights whose prolific career included winning Tony Awards for the plays "Love! Valour! Compassion!" and "Master Class" and the musicals "Ragtime" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman," has died of complications from the coronavirus. He was 81.

McNally died Tuesday at Sarasota Memorial Hospital in Sarasota, Florida, according to representative Matt Polk. He was a lung cancer survivor who lived with chronic inflammatory lung disease.

His plays and musicals explored how people connect — or fail to. With wit and thoughtfulness, he tackled the strains in families, war and relationships, and probed the spark and costs of creativity. He was an openly gay writer who wrote about homophobia, love and AIDS.

McNally’s “Lips Together, Teeth Apart,” about two married couples who spend a weekend on Fire Island, was a landmark play about AIDS. His comedy “The Ritz” became one of the first plays with unapologetic gay characters to reach a mainstream audience.

He also explored gay themes in the book for the musical “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” for which he won his first Tony Award. His play “Love! Valour! Compassion!” earned him another Tony for its portrayal of eight gay men facing issues of fidelity, love and happiness.

Tributes poured in online from Broadway figures, including from Lin-Manuel Miranda who called McNally “a giant in our world, who straddled plays and musicals deftly. Grateful for his staggering body of work and his unfailing kindness.” James Corden tweeted: “He was an absolute gentleman and his commitment to the theater was unwavering. He will be missed by so many of us.”

Some of his Broadway musical adaptations include “The Full Monty,” adapted from the British film and scored by David Yazbek; “Catch Me if You Can,” based on the Steven Spielberg film, and scored by composer Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Wittman; and "Ragtime," the musical based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, which won four Tony Awards. In 2017, his musical reworking of the film “Anastasia” landed on Broadway.

McNally was born in St. Petersburg, Florida, and grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, listening to radio broadcasts of “The Green Hornet” and the Metropolitan Opera. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Columbia University in 1960 with a degree in English.

While at the Actors Studio, he was hired by novelist John Steinbeck to be a tutor and guardian to his sons. One of McNally's earliest theater attempts was writing the book for a musical adaptation of Steinbeck's "East of Eden" which was called "Here's Where I Belong." It ran for performance on Broadway in 1968.

McNally's first Broadway play "And Things That Go Bump in the Night" didn't fare much better in 1965. His absurdist, symbolic melodrama about good and evil confounded critics. Newsday called it “ugly, perverted, tasteless." It closed in less than three weeks.

He rebounded with the 1969 Off-Broadway hit “Next,” a two-character comedy about a reluctant draftee reporting for an Army physical. A string of successes followed, including "Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone?" (1971), "The Tubs" (1974), "Bad Habits" (1974) and "The Ritz" (1975).

His breakout, “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” about a romance between a waitress and short order cook, was adapted into a film starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer. It was revived on Broadway in 2019 starring Audra McDonald.

He collaborated three times with legendary composer John Kander and lyricist Freb Ebb — on “The Rink,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “The Visit.” Chita Rivera starred in all three. His love of opera informed his works “Golden Age,” “The Lisbon Traviata” and “Master Class,” which explored the life of opera diva Maria Callas.

McNally is survived by his partner, Thomas Kirdahy, whom he married in Vermont in 2003, and again in Washington, D.C., in 2010.

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