Terrence McNally will be remembered best for his courage in placing the vicissitudes of homosexual life and experience on the mainstream stage, for the compassion with which he explored its weaknesses and for his celebration of its strengths.
In a career that stretched across six decades, he amassed five Tony awards (including a lifetime achievement recognition in 2019 and three other nominations), an Emmy and a Pulitzer prize nomination, as well as being inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.
Born in St Petersburg, Florida, and raised in Corpus Christi, Texas, he read English at New York’s Columbia University, during which he was involved in a five-year relationship with the playwright Edward Albee.
On graduating, he tutored author John Steinbeck’s sons and spent time in Mexico trying, and failing, to write a novel before deciding to commit himself to the theatre. He enjoyed early, if short-lived, success with his 1963 adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ The Lady of the Camellias on Broadway, returning to the Great White Way two years later with And Things That Go Bump in the Night (first seen in London at the New End Theatre in 1977), which featured what were to become recurrent themes in his work: opera divas and gay sexuality.
More than a dozen plays followed in the intervening decade – his work was first seen in London in 1971 when Charles Marowitz directed Next at the Open Space – before he achieved his first hit in 1975 with The Ritz, a wickedly knowing farce set in a Manhattan gay bathhouse that was quickly adapted for film.
McNally’s gift for finding apposite settings to confine and confront his characters in was to the fore in 1984’s The Rink (seen at the Southwark Playhouse in 2018). His first collaboration with John Kander and Fred Ebb, it pitted Chita Rivera’s mother against Liza Minnelli’s daughter, locked together in freefall as the family’s roller-rink business is failing.
He responded to the Aids/HIV epidemic of the 1980s in always unexpected ways, 1985’s The Lisbon Traviata lovingly satirising two opera-obsessed male writers while providing a searing exploration of their relationship in meltdown.
Another two-hander, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, this time exploring a heterosexual relationship, followed. Memorably staged with Julie Walters and Brian Cox at the Comedy Theatre in 1989, it was seen at Northern Stage, Newcastle in 2018.
His libretto for Kander and Ebb’s musical version of Manuel Puig’s novel Kiss of the Spider Woman secured McNally his first Tony award, The Stage declaring its Shaftesbury Theatre run in 1992 as “an undoubted masterpiece”.
A second Tony followed in 1995 for Love! Valour! Compassion! (seen at the Library Theatre, Manchester, in 1998), a feisty, clear-sighted examination of eight gay men meeting on three annual holidays.
Master Class, a brilliant portrait of the opera diva Maria Callas, caught between public adulation and personal angst, saw McNally receive his third Tony in 1996, its London debut at the Queen’s Theatre the following year featuring a startling performance by Patti LuPone.
His next play, named after his early Texas home, Corpus Christi, proved his most controversial in its depiction of a Christ-like figure having gay sex with his disciples. When staged by the Pleasance Theatre in 1999, it prompted a deluge of hate mail, pickets outside performances and the issuing of a fatwa against McNally by the UK’s Shari’ah Court.
Arguably McNally’s greatest achievement was in placing gay experience in the theatrical mainstream, even while reserving to himself the right to delve into wider emotional realms
Arguably McNally’s greatest achievement was in placing gay experience in the theatrical mainstream – 1991’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart deftly deflecting it through two straight married couples – even while reserving to himself the right to delve into wider emotional realms. The Pulitzer prize-nominated A Perfect Ganesh at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 1996 was “an exquisite play, at once gentle and devastating” that threw New England housewives Eleanor Bron and Prunella Scales together on holiday in India.
His fourth Tony came courtesy of Ragtime, a raucous adaptation of EL Doctorow’s striking novelisation of American social history with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens in 1998, which came to London in 2003 at the Piccadilly Theatre.
It was pipped to the West End post by his vivacious transposing of British film hit The Full Monty, with music and lyrics by David Yazbek, from Sheffield to New York state steelworkers at the Prince of Wales Theatre in 2002.
Although a planned production of his adaptation of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s The Visit failed to materialise on Broadway in 2000 when Angela Lansbury was forced to withdraw, Deuce coaxed Lansbury back to Broadway in 2007 alongside Marian Seldes.
McNally’s fixation and fascination with opera resulted in four librettos, three of which were written for the composer Jake Heggie. 2001’s Dead Man Walking ignited a debate about capital punishment in the United States and has secured a place in the contemporary repertoire. It was most recently seen at London’s Barbican in 2018 and at Cardiff’s Millennium Centre in a production of “harrowing intensity” by Welsh National Opera in 2019.
In between had been the Broadway premiere of the musical Anastasia in 2017, for which McNally received his twelfth Drama Desk nomination (having previously won three between 1995 and 1998).
McNally’s career and his lifelong fight for LGBTQ+ rights were the subject of a 2018 documentary, Every Act of Life.
Diagnosed with lung cancer in the late 1990s, he had recently been living with chronic inflammatory lung disease and died from coronavirus complications on March 24, aged 81.
Michael Terrence McNally was born on November 3, 1938, and is survived by his husband, the Tony and Olivier award-winning producer Tom Kirdahy.