Play­wright and li­bret­tist won 4 Tonys

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - BAYAREA - By Lily Ja­niak

Play­wright, li­bret­tist and screen­writer Ter­rence McNally, known for “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” “Mas­ter Class,” “Love! Valour! Com­pas­sion!” and “Rag­time,” among many other works, died Tuesday at Sara­sota Me­mo­rial Hospi­tal in Sara­sota, Fla., due to coro­n­avirus com­pli­ca­tions, his rep­re­sen­ta­tive Matt Polk con­firmed.

McNally had pre­vi­ously sur­vived lung cancer and had a chronic pul­monary con­di­tion. He was 81 years old.

A pro­lific and wide­rang­ing drama­tist

whose Broad­way ca­reer be­gan in 1965, with the poorly re­ceived “And Things That Go Bump in the Night,” McNally went on to win four Tony Awards — for “Kiss of the Spi­der Woman” in 1993, “Love! Valour! Com­pas­sion!” in 1995, “Mas­ter Class” in 1996 and “Rag­time” in 1998. In 2019, he also re­ceived the Spe­cial Tony Award for Life­time Achieve­ment, an award he ac­cepted with the aid of an oxy­gen tank.

“Life­time achieve­ment, not a mo­ment too soon,” he quipped dur­ing his speech.

TheatreWor­ks Sil­i­con Val­ley, led by found­ing Artis­tic Direc­tor Robert Kel­ley, has pro­duced four McNally plays; a fifth, the com­pany’s sec­ond pro­duc­tion of “Rag­time,” which fol­lows a panoply of ra­cial and eth­nic groups at the be­gin­ning of the 20th cen­tury, had been sched­uled to open in April. It was a week into rehearsals when TheatreWor­ks post­poned the show to next sea­son, amid coro­n­avirus con­cerns. Sets, al­ready built, were be­ing painted.

“When you look at McNally’s body of work, you re­al­ize that this is a man of in­tegrity and ex­cep­tional cu­rios­ity,” Kel­ley told The Chron­i­cle by phone. “He was able to look at the big pic­ture of Amer­i­can cul­ture and find ways to de­fine it that were in­ti­mate and deeply personal. That’s the goal of all of us as artists in the the­ater, but one that McNally seemed to achieve far more of­ten and with greater in­sight than al­most any­one you can imag­ine.”

In 2000, on a com­mis­sion from the San Fran­cisco Opera, McNally con­tributed the li­bretto for San Fran­cisco com­poser Jake Heg­gie’s first opera, “Dead Man Walk­ing.” That work, based on Sis­ter Helen Pre­jean’s mem­oir that also spawned a Hol­ly­wood adap­ta­tion, be­came one of the most widely per­formed Amer­i­can op­eras of the 21st cen­tury, with more than 70 in­ter­na­tional pro­duc­tions to date.

McNally col­lab­o­rated with Heg­gie on two other op­eras — “Three De­cem­bers” in 2008 and “Great Scott” in 2015 — and with com­poser Robert Beaser on “The Food of Love” (1999). His de­vo­tion to opera also found ex­pres­sion in such plays as “Mas­ter Class,” a fic­tion­al­ized depic­tion of a pub­lic ap­pear­ance by so­prano Maria Cal­las, and “The Lisbon Travi­ata.”

“We worked closely to­gether for two years (on ‘Dead Man Walk­ing’),” Heg­gie told The Chron­i­cle via email. “He was an in­cred­i­bly gen­er­ous col­lab­o­ra­tor, will­ing to make what­ever changes or ad­just­ments were nec­es­sary so that mu­sic could ul­ti­mately lead. He’d of course stand his ground (ve­he­mently!) to pro­tect the in­tegrity of the sto­ry­telling, but he would al­ways lis­ten. He loved opera — LOVED it — and loved great singers.”

In New York, his work was fre­quently in­ter­preted by Nathan Lane, Tyne Daly and Chita Rivera. He reg­u­larly part­nered with com­poser Stephen Fla­herty and lyri­cist Lynn Ahrens, in­clud­ing on “Rag­time,” “A Man of No Im­por­tance” “Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life” and “Anas­ta­sia.” He also boasts three part­ner­ships with John Kan­der and Fred Ebb, in­clud­ing “The Rink,” “Kiss of the Spi­der Woman” and “The Visit.”

On­screen, McNally won an Emmy in 1990 for the PBS pro­duc­tion of “An­dre’s Mother,” about the con­fronta­tion be­tween a mother and her son’s lover at a gath­er­ing hon­or­ing her son af­ter he died from com­pli­ca­tions from AIDS.

Three of his plays were also made into movies: “The Ritz,” “Frankie and Johnny” and “Love! Valour! Com­pas­sion!”

McNally’s wit zinged, and his eru­dite, in­ci­sive way with words blos­somed in his dia­logue. In his “It’s Only a Play,” a 2014 love let­ter to the­ater, one char­ac­ter de­scribes him­self as among the “hun­gry young the­ater wannabes suck­ling at the fe­cund breast of the not­for­prof­its.” But McNally could be ruth­less as a miner of char­ac­ter, get­ting at what makes peo­ple the way they are, how­ever twisted or ir­ra­tional or strange, then fear­lessly yet com­pas­sion­ately bar­ing his find­ings.

In 2014’s “Mothers and Sons,” about two of the char­ac­ters from “An­dre’s Mother” but set 20 years later, his open­ing pages com­mu­ni­cate reams about Katharine and Cal just in the way they debate the gath­er­ing they had for An­dre all those years ago. You see their dif­fer­ent world­views, the bag­gage each has been car­ry­ing for decades, in the briefest of ex­changes:

Katharine: Nat­u­rally I was dis­ap­pointed to see the rest of the service de­scend to jokes.

Cal: It wasn’t a service ei­ther, Mrs. Ger­ard. It was a re­mem­brance of some­one we all loved and would miss. We still do.

Katharine: Ex­cept for the Mozart maybe it was all a lit­tle too gay for my taste.

New Con­ser­va­tory The­atre Cen­ter pro­duced “Mothers and Sons” in 2016, as one of 13 McNally plays the LGBTQ the­ater com­pany has pro­duced in its 39year his­tory un­der found­ing Artis­tic Direc­tor Ed Decker.

“He’s not afraid to de­ploy his ex­pe­ri­ence as a hu­man be­ing, a writer, a gay man, an oral historian, a wit­ness to the twists and turns of the lives all of us have led,” Decker told The Chron­i­cle in 2009. “He cuts to the heart of scenes and re­la­tion­ships very quickly.”

McNally, who was gay, brought gay ac­tivism into his work long be­fore it was so­cially ac­cept­able to do so. In 1997, his play “Cor­pus Christi,” which de­picts Christ and his apos­tles as cur­rent­day gay men, sparked con­tro­versy — in­clud­ing death threats to the pre­miere’s pro­ducer, Man­hat­tan The­ater Club — that McNally didn’t an­tic­i­pate.

“I guess I was very naive,” he told The Chron­i­cle in 2018. “But I can’t be the first per­son to have thought, ‘Hmm, there were 12 men. None of them were mar­ried. What’s go­ing on?’ ”

For four years, he dated the play­wright Edward Al­bee, at a time when McNally was out but Al­bee wasn’t.

“I be­came in­vis­i­ble when press was around or at an open­ing night,” McNally said in his 2018 Chron­i­cle in­ter­view. “I knew it was wrong. It’s so much work to live that way.”

McNally was born Nov. 3, 1938, in St. Peters­burg, Fla., but grew up in Cor­pus Christi, Texas, with his par­ents Hu­bert and Dorothy McNally. He stud­ied English at Columbia Univer­sity and grad­u­ated Phi Beta Kappa in 1960.

“I don’t think I’ve ever writ­ten any­thing even re­motely nat­u­ral­is­tic,” McNally told The Chron­i­cle in 2005. “The clos­est prob­a­bly would be seen as ‘Frankie and Johnny,’ and that’s only ’cause they eat a sand­wich and make an omelet in Act 2. But it’s a ro­man­tic fairy tale, and I’m very aware of that. I don’t think it helps the ac­tors in my plays to lose them­selves in the re­al­ity of talk­ing to an­other per­son. A good McNally ac­tor al­ways knows he’s in a play with an au­di­ence.”

McNally is sur­vived by his hus­band, Thomas Kir­dahy, a Broad­way pro­ducer and a former civil rights at­tor­ney for non­profit AIDS or­ga­ni­za­tions.

Other celebri­ties who have pub­licly an­nounced they have been di­ag­nosed with coro­n­avirus in­clude ac­tors Tom Hanks, Rita Wil­son, Idris Elba, Debi Mazar, Kristofer Hivju and Daniel Dae Kim; oper­atic tenor Placido Domingo; and former Golden State War­riors player Kevin Du­rant.

Chron­i­cle file

Ter­rence McNally was also known for “Love! Valour! Com­pas­sion!”

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