Terrence McNally, the celebrated playwright, librettist, screenwriter and theater thought leader, died today as a result of complications from the new coronavirus. He was 81.
Although McNally’s first play was produced when he was only twenty-four, he became universally recognized with the 1987 production of Frankie and Johnny at the Clare de Lune, a luminous play about two people, battered by life, who decide to love each other fully aware of the consequences. A student and enthusiast of opera, McNally wrote three opera plays – Master Class, The Lisbon Traviata, and Golden Age, which the Kennedy Center staged together in March of 2010 as Nights at the Opera.
McNally was also known for the forthright way he wrote about the AIDS crisis in Lips Together, Teeth Apart, about two married couples who spend a weekend at a Fire Island home of one of the two women’s brother, who died of AIDS, and Love! Valor! Compassion!, which tells the story of eight gay men vacationing together – perhaps for the last time – at the peak of the epidemic. Master Class and Love! Valor! Compassion! won best play Tonys.
McNally’s most controversial play was unquestionably Corpus Christi, a modern day retelling of the Christ story in which Christ and his disciples are gay. When it was originally scheduled at the Manhattan Theatre Club, board members received death threats. The Club cancelled production, but relented when other playwrights, including Athol Fugard, threatened to withdraw their plays if Corpus Christi was cancelled.
As a musicals book writer, McNally won a Tony for his work in Kiss of the Spider Woman. He also won a Tony for his book for Ragtime. In addition, he wrote books for the musicals Dead Man Wailing, A Man of No Importance, and the final Kander and Ebb musical, The Visit. He wrote the libretto for the opera Great Scott and wrote his own chamber opera, Three Decembers, with a libretto by Gene Scheer.
All in all, McNally write 36 produced plays, ten musicals, four operas and four television shows. In addition to his individual Tonys, McNally earned a Lifetime Achievement Tony, a Dramatists Guild Lifetime Achievement Award, and a Lucille Lorton Lifetime Achievement Award. He was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1996.
McNally is survived by his husband, the Broadway producer and civil rights lawyer Tom Kirdahy.