By Jason Clark
March 24, 2020 at 03:08 PM EDT
Al Pereira/Getty Images

Prolific playwright Terrence McNally has died at the age of 81.

McNally, a lung cancer survivor who lived with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, died Tuesday at a hospital in Sarasota, Fla., from complications due to coronavirus, a representative said.

The author, a winner of four Tony Awards and recipient of the 2019 Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre, always seemed to cast an eye toward those who suffer for (or because of) their art as well the disenfranchised and regretful as the man behind the backbones of dozens of plays and musicals over the years, many of them considered modern touchstones, especially in his depictions of various generations of gay men, particularly in dealing with the life complication of a community’s loss from AIDS and its aftermath, often handled in a thoughtful, seriocomic manner.

McNally was born in St. Petersburg, Fla., raised in Corpus Christi, Texas, then was off to New York City to become a writer and landed some early work as a stage manager for the Actors Studio, where he learned the ins-and-outs of producing live theater. In 1964, his Rockefeller Foundation-encouraged Broadway debut, And Things That Go Bump in the Night, was a complete flop, closing after only 16 performances. (One critic remarked that “the American theater would be a better place this morning if Terrence McNally’s parents had smothered him in his cradle.”).

But major success would elude him until the premiere of his wrenching, humorous two-hander Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, about a waitress and ex-con short order cook’s sexual tryst and ensuing overnight to follow. The original Off Broadway production launched the ascent of actress Kathy Bates, and spawned a well-received 1991 film (which McNally also wrote) with Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer and a 2003 Broadway revival with Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci. Another revival was staged last year with Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon.

Another actor who served as a muse for McNally and with whom he work closely with for decades is Nathan Lane, who appeared in many of McNally’s most heralded pieces, including Lips Together, Teeth Apart, chronicling two straight couples in Fire Island dealing with their partying gay neighbors, The Lisbon Traviata, about a formidable, ice-cold opera queen, and Love! Valour! Compassion!, an epic-length, Tony-winning dramedy about a group of men spending a summer together in an update New York summer house. Most of his works contained a warm, accessible ambiance even when they plunged into adult themes, though controversy would greet one of his most ambitious works, Corpus Christi, which reimagined Jesus and the Apostles as modern society gay men. Death threats greeted the author, and the play remains one of the most difficult to produce in America due to the protests and fervor that ensues.

Master Class, his 1995 play which won the Tony for Best Play only one year after Love!, is a rare foray into bioplay writing for McNally, but is one of his most admired works, dissecting the mystery of opera legend Maria Callas over the course of her Juilliard sessions with young upstarts. Callas portrayers included Tony victor Zoe Caldwell, Patti LuPone, Dixie Carter, and Tyne Daly, who also served as a muse for McNally, particularly when she later headlined his 2014 play Mothers and Sons, which is in turn a sequel to his one-act drama Andre’s Mother, about the prickly relationship between a young gay man and his late partner’s steely, unswerving mother (the 1990 TV version of this work premiered to raves and earned McNally an Emmy Award for writing).

In the latter half of his career, McNally also served as a book writer for many musicals based on other mediums, including Kiss of the Spider Woman, Ragtime, The Full Monty, and Catch Me if You Can (the first two netted him two of his Tonys), and after tireless campaigns for gay rights in America, married his longtime partner, Tom Kirdahy, in 2010, after a civil ceremony in 2003. But perhaps it’s one of his theatrical creations, the ultimate diva Maria Callas, that best describes the experience of absorbing one of his (often quite sociopolitical) plays: “People are forgetting how to listen. They want everything blasted at them. Listening takes concentration. If you can’t hear me, it’s your fault. You’re not concentrating.”

In addition to Kirdahy, McNally is survived by brother Peter McNally and wife Vicky McNally, their son Stephen McNally and his wife Carmen McNally and their daughter Kylie McNally, and other extended family members.

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