Today word came out that “the bard of American theater,” Terrence McNally died at age 81, probably the first well-known victim and certainly the first multi-Tony Award winner to die from the COVID-19 virus. He was a American playwright and librettist.
McNally was born in St. Petersburg, Florida but fell in love with New York theater where his parents brought him on vacation. He decided to go to school at Columbia University where in graduated with a B.A. in English and was a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. While there he wrote for the annual varsity show. Shortly after graduation he was hired by novelist John Steinbeck to accompany the writer and his family on a cruise around the world.
McNally was gay, and one of his first relationships was with another famous playwright, Edward Albee. His first play, “And Things That Go Bump in the Night” was a flop. He worked both on and off Broadway in the early part of his career. His first play focused on homosexuality. He then turned the spotlight on the war in Viet Nam with “Next” directed by Elaine May and starring James Coco. This was followed with “Botticelli,” about two soldiers standing guard in the jungle.
My first introduction to the McNally genius was a play call “¡Cuba Si!” which focused on our relationship with the revolutionary government of Castro and starred Melina Mercouri.
McNally wrote dozens of plays and books for several musicals. He won four Tony Awards for “Kiss of the Spider Woman” (1993 Best Book of a Musical), “Love! Valour! Compassion!” (1995 Best Play), “Master Class” (1996 Best Play) and “Ragtime” (1998 Best Book of a Musical). He was nominated for “The Full Monty,” “Mothers and Sons,” and “The Visit.” He received a Special Tony for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre in 2019. His plays never hedged away from controversy and were always rich in moving characters and great moments of the human comedy.
In addition, McNally wrote the scripts for four movies and the libretto for four operas. He wrote for television as well and won an Emmy for “Andre’s Mother” for Outstanding Writing in a Miniseries or a Special. He won two Obie Awards for “Bad Habits” and “Love! Valour! Compassion!” McNally won the 2019 Dramatists Guild Lifetime Achievement Award and the Lucille Lortel Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2019, he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the highest recognition of artistic merit in the Unites States. In 1996, he was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.
Terrence McNally is survived by his partner, Tom Kirdahy, who he was finally able to legally marry in 2010 after a civil union in 2003. McNally recovered from a fight with lung cancer.
Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote on Twitter, “Heartbroken over the loss of Terrence McNally, a giant in our world, who straddled plays and musicals deftly. Grateful for his stagger body of work and his unfailing kindness.” James Cordon also expressed his feelings on Twitter, “Saddened to hear of the passing of Terrence McNally. He was an absolute gentleman and his commitment to the theatre was unwavering. He will be missed by so many of us.”
If the lights on Broadway were on tonight, they would have been dimmed in his honor. We will all miss his wit and his willingness to tackle controversial subject matter.
Sadly, I am sure that McNally will not be the only victim of our theatre community to fall victim to this scourge, and for all of us a Maryland Theatre Guide, his genius will be sorely missed.