Multiple Tony-winning playwright Terrence McNally dies at 81
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. McNally 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.
"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," he told LA Stage Times in 2013. "A lot of people stop learning in life, and that's their tragedy."
In 2018 he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He won four Tonys and an Emmy. New York University gave him an honorary doctorate in 2019.
Andrew D. Hamilton, president of New York University, told the crowd that day that McNally put a "unique stamp on American drama by probing the urgent need for connection that resonates at the core of human experience."
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.
His 2014 Broadway play "Mothers and Sons" - revisiting McNally's 1990 TV movie "Andre's Mother," which won him an Emmy Award - explores the relationship between a mother and her dead son's former gay partner. His "It's Only a Play" was a valentine to theater-making. His "The Visit" was a meditation on revenge.
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.
McNally was at the Actors Studio when 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" and lasted only a single performance on Broadway in 1968.
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), a farce set in a gay bathhouse that ran more than a year on Broadway and became McNally's first produced screenplay.
His breakout, "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune," about a romance between a waitress and short order cook, was later 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. He also contributed to opera as a librettist - "The Food of Love" in 1999 with music by Robert Beaser, "Dead Man Walking" in 2000 with music by Jake Heggie, and 2015's "Great Scott" with Heggie.