25 March 2020 16:30
US playwright and librettist best known for Kiss of the Spider Woman, Ragtime and Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune Of the several outstanding contemporary male dramatists whose work has charted the homosexual experience in a society blighted by prejudice, and then by Aids, Terrence McNally, who has died aged 81, from complications to an underlying pulmonary condition due to coronavirus, was the most prolific and multifaceted. In a theatrical career spanning five decades – his place was on the stage, not in films or on television – he produced three dozen plays, books for 10 musicals and libretti for a quartet of operas, and won four Tony awards. He may not have enjoyed the defining zinger of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart, or Tony Kushner's Angels in America, but his work brought joy to Broadway and touched all but the stoniest of hearts. Two of his musical libretti best illustrated his skill and flair for editing and adaptation: Kiss of the Spider Woman, with music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, which played at the Shaftesbury in London in 1992, transformed Manuel Puig's novel about two cellmates in a Latin American jail into a pulsating face-off between a gay window dresser and a straight Marxist firebrand. He managed to convey the historical sweep of EL Doctorow's "birth of a nation" novel Ragtime in a 1998 version (music and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens), with sharp scenic vignettes, pop-up vaudeville items and a real sense of the American cultural melting pot.
I preferred the musical to Miloš Forman's 1981 film, not least because of one of the truly great opening numbers in which three factions – white society, black workers, Jewish immigrants – gather like storm clouds to the gloriously syncopated ragtime beat. McNally had been alive to the visceral power and transformative ecstasy of theatre since the age of eight, when his paternal grandfather took him to see Ethel Merman in Annie Get Your Gun on Broadway. Facebook Twitter Pinterest Chita Rivera in Kiss of the Spider Woman, 1992. Photograph: Robbie Jack/Corbis/Getty Images He was born in St Petersburg, Florida, where his parents, Dorothy (nee Rapp) and Hubert McNally, ran a bar and grill on the beach. The family moved to Corpus Christi, Texas, where he attended the high school – an experience channelled through his provocative play Corpus Christi (1987), in which Jesus and the apostles are depicted as gay Texans – and then enrolled at Columbia University in New York.
His first stage work included a contribution to a Broadway staging of The Lady of the Camellias in 1963, a full-length debut with And Things That Go Bump in the Night (1965) – a flop that gained McNally a certain notoriety with its monstrous family portrait and explicit gay seduction scene – a few one-act plays and, at last, a hit: The Ritz (1975), for which Rita Moreno won a Tony award for her performance as an over-the-top bathhouse singer, Googie Gomez, a sort of Latin American Bette Midler. "I write plays for actors and I need actors I can trust." These included such elite names as Rivera, Nathan Lane, Tyne Daly, Zoe Caldwell, Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon. Facebook Twitter Pinterest Terrence McNally in 1974. Photograph: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images These last two starred in last year's Broadway revival of a 1987 two-hander, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, a barbed and feisty shake-down after a night in the sack for a waitress and a short-order cook in Hell's Kitchen (played superbly in London in 1989 by Julie Walters and Brian Cox). And it also indicated, said the New York Times, how McNally was moving from his default mode of the comedy of insult "to a mature compassionate playwright increasingly aware of the ache in the human heart and the terrifying voids between people". (1995), a spikily entertaining play directed by Joe Mantello which anatomised issues of love and happiness among eight gay men over three acts, set on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day. Facebook Twitter Pinterest Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci in the Broadway revival of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune in 2002. Not that bitchy waspishness was absent from that piece any more than it was from two tribute plays to McNally's favourite operatic diva, Maria Callas, whom he loved for her unconventional voice and apparent dramatic spontaneity: The Lisbon Traviata (1985) in which two Callas devotees squabble over the singers and arias in their lives and loves; and Master Class (1996), starring Patti LuPone in the West End, a teaching session which Callas inevitably turns into a raucous exercise in self-justification. McNally found a new home from home in the Manhattan Theatre Club, New York's new plays factory. For Anastasia (2017), McNally reunited with his Ragtime collaborators Flaherty and Ahrens on a retelling of the film about the lost Grand Duchess. His last and extended adventure was a version of Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Visit with Kander and Ebb, his last great effort for Rivera, born to play any musical version of the richest woman in the world, though the first casting idea was Angela Lansbury. There was a happier culmination in 2019, when McNally was awarded a fifth Tony for his lifetime achievement. • Michael Terrence McNally, playwright, born 3 November 1938; died 24 March 2020 Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally has died in Florida following complications from coronavirus. The 81-year-old, whose career spanned six decades, wrote shows including Kiss Of The Spider Woman, Ragtime, and Frankie And Johnny In The Clair De Lune. Image: Terrence McNally with his husband Tom Kirdahy last year. Widely considered one of America's great playwrights, the openly gay writer put same-sex relationships under the microscope, with his witty plays and musicals delving into how people connect - or fail to. McNally's 1975 work The Ritz was one of the first plays with unapologetic gay characters to reach a mainstream audience, while his 1991 play Lips Together, Teeth Apart was landmark in its portrayal of the AIDS crisis. He told the LA Stage Times in 2013: "I like to work with people who are a lot more talented and smarter than me, who make fewer mistakes than I do, and who can call me out when I do something lazy. Accolades during his career include Tony Awards for his plays Love! and Master Class, and the musicals Ragtime and Kiss of the Spider Woman. Also the winner of an Emmy, McNally won a Tony lifetime achievement award in 2019, accepting his gong with the words: "The world needs artists more than ever to remind us what truth and beauty and kindness really are." Heartbroken over the loss of Terrence McNally, a giant in our world, who straddled plays and musicals deftly. Stars of American theatre have paid tribute to McNally, with actor and writer Lin-Manuel Miranda calling him "a giant in our world, who straddled plays and musicals deftly." James Corden tweeted: "He was an absolute gentleman and his commitment to the theatre was unwavering. Actor Conrad Ricamora describe McNally as "the most kind, brilliant person to work with". Pulitzer Prize winning composer Tom Kitt said he considers McNally "irreplaceable". Born in in St Petersburg in Florida, McNally grew up in Texas, and went on to study English at Columbia University. One of his first breaks came just a year after graduating, when through a mutual contact at the Actors Studio, novelist John Steinbeck hired him to tutor his two teenage sons on a cruise around the world. During the voyage, McNally wrote a draft play that would later go on to become part of his first Broadway production in 1965, And Things That Go Bump In The Night. Saddened to hear of the passing of Terrence McNally. He was an absolute gentleman and his commitment to the theatre was unwavering. He also went on to write a musical adaptation of Steinbeck's novel East Of Eden, but the show was not a success and ran for just one night on Broadway in 1968. His 1982 play Frankie And Johnny In The Clair De Lune - about a romance between a waitress and cook - was later adapted into a film starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer. He collaborated with legendary composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb three times during his career. McNally was not afraid to court controversy through his art, with his 1998 play Corpus Christi depicting a modern-day Jesus as a homosexual. McNally thanked the theatre community for their support when picking up his fourth Tony Award later that year, saying: "You came together when I was in trouble. McNally also adapted several films for musical performance including The Full Monty, Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can and Anastasia.