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.”

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