VIRUS KILLS B’WAY BIG
Tony-winner McNally, 81, wrote ‘Ragtime,’ ‘Kiss of Spider Woman’
He stood for Love! Valour! Compassion! He knew the fears lurking in operatic divas like Maria Callas. And he could write about love between a gruff short-order cook and an exhausted New York waitress with rings around her eyes and make us see that it was beautiful.
Terrence McNally, who died Tuesday at the age of 81 in a Sarasota, Fla., hospital due to complications from coronavirus, was a giant of the Broadway theater and a prolific playwright, librettist and screenwriter of astonishing range and craft. He was responsible for an astonishing 25 Broadway shows since 1965, received four Tony Awards for his work and was a recipient of the 2019 Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre.
He was also a member of the American Theater Hall of Fame. Alas, McNally’s astonishing speech at the 2019 Tonys took place during a commercial break. But in the wake of his death, his words resounded.
“The world needs artists more than ever,” he said to those who got to hear his immaculate and gorgeous confession, “to remind us what kindness, truth and beauty are.”
McNally, it seemed, could write anything, from the brooding libretto to “Kiss of the Spiderwoman,” the story of escaping reality inside a fantasy of your own creation, to the sweet and affectionate book to the musical version of “The Full Monty,” the big-hearted story of a desperate group of manly steelworkers trying to recover from a collective economic trauma.
A famous opera buff, he penned the libretto to “Dead Man Walking” and wrote the book to a macabre musical called “The Visit.” But he also could be impish and puckish in his work, paying tribute to an old friend and hoofer in his writing of the Broadway show, “Chita Rivera, a Dancer’s Life.”
Such was McNally’s generosity, warmth and kindness, and such was the timing of his death, that the news Tuesday that he had succumbed to the coronavirus hit anyone who has loved such works as “Ragtime,” “Master Class,” or just Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer in “Frankie and Johnny,” like a blow to the chest.
This was news that anyone who cares about Broadway had been dreading — the loss of a beloved but fragile elder statesman, a survivor of lung cancer, a wise sage who preached love and forgiveness, as was so eloquently expressed in “Mothers and Sons.”
That was a play, sadly underappreciated, that even forgave the grieving mothers who failed to do right by their dying sons during the AIDS crisis, a previous American plague with New York in its sight. No writer of the 20th century had done more than McNally to put fully rounded gay characters at the center of all his stories: if he could forgive, it felt, then surely we all could. Surely we all could move forward together.
When the history of coronavirus and the entertainment industry is written, McNally now will be at its heart. He will be remembered as one of its most upsetting collective losses.
“Love wins,” wrote McNally’s husband, the Broadway producer Tom Kirdahy, a reference to his beloved’s insistence on reconciliation at all costs. But in the immediate aftermath of McNally’s death, it was hard to feel anything other than love having lost an important battle.
McNally, of course, did not just use emotion for gasoline. He was a consummate craftsman, tutored by his early years in Hollywood and steeped in structure and narrative complexity. He thus was able to turn E. L. Doctorow’s sprawling, multicharacter “Ragtime” into a Broadway musical that worked beautifully, mostly by harnessing one of the novel’s central metaphors, the idea of the wheels of the American Dream moving relentlessly forward, whatever roadblocks might land in the way.
It probably wasn’t that hard: it was how McNally, who was born in the state in which he died but nonetheless embodied New York City, approached all of his work.
In his four-minute speech at last year’s Tony Awards, McNally seemed to be saying goodbye to Broadway, even intentionally coming out from the wings with his breathing apparatus attached, making a point about the mortality we all share.
Terrence McNally won Tonys for “Ragtime,” “Love! Valor! Compassion!” “Master Class” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”