Terrence McNally loomed large through ups, downs on Broadway
The coronavirus continues to devastate Broadway. Two highly anticipated plays — “Hangmen” and the revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” — have been scuttled.
Actors are sick, among them much of the cast of “Moulin Rouge!” The day Broadway announced it was closing down, a bunch of top producers and theater executives met at a popular theater bar to drown their sorrows. One of them had a cough. Now many of them have the virus.
But the most shattering news of all was the death this week of Terrence McNally, at 81, from complications of the coronavirus. The four-time Tony Award-winning playwright was like the theater itself: resilient, nimble, a little jaded, delightfully bitchy on occasion, and still in love with an opening night.
As composer David Yazbek, McNally’s friend and collaborator on “The Full Monty,” tells me: “This is a guy who had been through everything in the theater. He had a lot of successes. He had a lot of failures . . . he told me, ‘I can never sleep before a first rehearsal. I’m too excited.’ ”
Among many other plays, McNally wrote “The Lisbon Traviata,” which featured an up-and-comer named Nathan Lane, and “Master Class,” which made Audra McDonald a star.
He came to New York from Corpus Christi, Texas, to attend Columbia University in the 1950s. When his freshman adviser, the prominent Shakespeare scholar Andrew Chiappe, asked him which science course he wanted to take, McNally said astrology.
“We don’t teach that at Columbia,” Chiappe said.
“But I saw the telescopes,” McNally said.
“I think you mean astronomy,” Chiappe said.
McNally wound up studying journalism, which he credited with helping him become a fast and efficient playwright.
“A lot of shows take five or six years to develop,” says Yazbek. “When I met with Terrence on the ‘The Full Monty,’ he said, ‘We’re going to do this in a year.’ And we did. His mother was dying, and he got sick and had to have an operation, but I still got pages from him.”
While a student at Columbia, McNally went to a party in the Village one night and met Edward Albee, who’d just written “The Zoo Story.” They went for a walk after the party and ended up in front of Albee’s apartment building.
“Would you like to come up for a drink?” Albee asked.
It’s so late, McNally thought. “What will his wife think?”
“Shows you how good my gaydar was back then,” McNally recalled years later.
They became lovers, though it was a fraught relationship, fueled by alcohol. “We didn’t think of ourselves as alcoholics,” McNally told me. “We just drank. And smoked. Everybody did.”
As Albee was writing “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” McNally was writing “And Things That Go Bump in the Night,” which dealt openly with homosexuality. They’d show each other scenes they’d written. “Mine were good,” McNally said. “Edward’s were better.”
“And Things That Go Bump in the Night” had a decent run off-Broadway, and McNally had a hit on Broadway with “The Ritz,” starring Rita Moreno. But he hit a dry patch in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and at one point had just $60 in his checking account. He was also grappling with the AIDS-related deaths of so many friends. The disease inspired him to write “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” about two lonely people who are trying to find love in a city where a one-night stand might lead to death.
McNally also started writing musicals. One of his first, “The Rink,” wasn’t a success, but he enjoyed working with John Kander and Fred Ebb. That collaboration led to “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” which won the Tony for Best Musical in 1993. Fast and efficient, McNally become so sought-after that he put a sign on his desk that said: “no more musicals.”
“Terrence solved problems,” Yazbek says. “If a scene didn’t work, he would redo it. He worried about things, but underneath the worry was the capacity to fix it. ‘The Full Monty’ was my first musical, and it was an amazing experience. I wasn’t working with other clueless idiots like myself. I was working with Terrence McNally.”
“Len Berman and Michael Riedel in the Morning” airs weekdays on WOR Radio 710.
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