Terrence McNally, a towering force in modern American theater who died on March 24 of complications from the coronavirus, had a career that spanned five decades. He wrote farces, dramas and books for musicals. He also had a talent for dramatizing gay lives, middle-aged romances and fading opera divas in works like “Love! Valour! Compassion!,” “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” and “Master Class.” Three of McNally’s collaborators and friends share their thoughts on the Tony Award-winning playwright’s life and legacy.
“Master Class,” “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” “Ragtime”
Terrence is one of the greatest modern American playwrights. He wrote about LGBTQ people in such Technicolor. He put their lives center stage and gave them leading roles and fully fleshed-out characters. He was able to portray so many different types of people — regular people, as well as flamboyant personalities — and to find the heart in all of them.
He was so versatile because he was just incredibly curious about people and the human condition. He was empathetic, and he used his empathy to put little bits of himself into characters.
I was doing “Carousel” and he invited me out to lunch between shows to talk about “Master Class.” I was so nervous and thinking what am I going to say? He was THE Terrence McNally. But he was so kind and sweet and genuinely interested that he put me immediately at ease. He asked ‘do you know Zoe Caldwell? Because I really think you’re going to like her.’ It’s amazing to think about the impact that she and Terrence would have on the rest of my life.
He was a calming, supportive presence. He was always there to ask advice, to answer love life questions, as well as life questions and career choice questions. He was a mentor and a friend.
Terrence, in “Love! Valour! Compassion!” and his other plays, confronted the AIDS epidemic that wiped out so many people close to him. To have this pandemic come in and take Terrence, there’s something so tragic about it. The lights are out on Broadway, so we can’t even dim them for him.
John Benjamin Hickey
“Love! Valour! Compassion!”
I never really understood the title of the play “Love! Valour! Compassion!,” but now I think that is Terrence’s legacy as an artist. And the most important part of that is valor. Because to me that means courage in great adversity. Terrence was writing his truth as a gay man at a time when no one was doing that. And he was doing it without apology and without fear.
His humor could be biting and tough and filled with anger, but he also had the capacity for joy and he was so funny. He was so mischievous. We’re both from Texas and he had, what we used to call a shit-eating grin and just a twinkle in his eyes.
When we were rehearsing “Love! Valour! Compassion!,” we knew it was good, but we never in a million years thought it was going to be a commercial, mainstream success. But on that first preview, it played through the roof. I realized, “Oh, my God, this is not just going to be treated as a gay play. It’s going to be seen as a piece of art about human beings and mortality and loyalty and friendship.”
There’s a horrible irony to the fact that he died of this pandemic, when he was a man who wrote so eloquently about what a virus was doing to his fellow human beings. I feel so incredibly lucky to have lived in a time when he was at the height of his powers and to have played a small part in it all.
He gave me my career. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was such a gift that the role he gave me allowed me to make sure that I didn’t closet myself. That I didn’t hide who I am. He gave me that courage, because all I wanted was to be like Terrence. I wanted to be as brilliant and funny and capable of loving and being loved as he was. He didn’t just show me what kind of actor I wanted to be. He showed me what kind of human being I wanted to be.
André De Shields
“The Full Monty”
When I learned of Terrence’s death, I was not initially consumed with sadness. The emotion that did wash over me was immense gratitude, that I had witnessed his long service as playwright laureate of contemporary American Theatre. It seems perfectly coherent to me that the author of “Corpus Christi” —at the zenith of his calling—would eventually transcend the mundane world of temporal gravity and enter the spiritual world of infinite gravitas. Am I sounding esoteric and erudite? Well, good! You see, I lovingly embrace Terrence McNally’s literary legacy, his gift of restoring to the center of society those who had traditionally been banished to its edges.
I have been the beneficiary of that gift on three separate occasions, inspiring between us a relationship of mutual admiration and respect. In 2007, Terrence asked me to participate in a fund raising event for The Philadelphia Theatre Company, an artistic home where several of his plays experienced their nascent beginnings. After offering a musical number, it fell to me to introduce the guest of honor, Terrence’s colleague, the equally revered Edward Albee. Albee admired my red gabardine tuxedo and remarked that he was a fan of my work. My heart skipped a beat. More recently, I responded to another request from Terrence to perform in Pride Plays, a celebration of Pride Week 2019, produced by The Rattlestick Theatre in the West Village. In his play Some Men—an arc of eighty years illustrating the diverse lives of same-sex loving men—I portrayed the character “Angel Eyes,” a corrosively humorous amalgam of James Baldwin and Bobby Short. Of course, the most profound of our collaborations was “The Full Monty,” which opened on Broadway in October 2000, and resulted in my second Tony Award nomination. Most people would, understandably, refer to that production as musical comedy. And that description would not be incorrect, but it would be incomplete. You see, the book of “The Full Monty” is a play, masterfully intertwined with an eclectic score by David Yazbek, the combination of which exposes six unemployed blue collar working men as the very essence of vulnerable and complicated humanity. I portrayed the character of Noah T. Simmons, whose dilemma was how to square his ability to boogie down with his insecurity about not possessing the physical prowess to match the urban legend suggested by his nickname “Horse.” Terrence took full advantage of this opportunity to not promulgate a stereotype, but rather to create an archetype that still resonates as a character study in identity, gender and ethnic politics.
Finally, it is said that a playwright writes about what he knows best. If there’s any truth to that adage, and any then Terrence McNally excels in the knowledge of how love conquers hate. As evidenced by the longstanding marriage to his husband, Tom Kirdahy, apparently love simply conquers.