Terrence McNally

Terrence McNally (born November 3, 1939) is an American playwright, librettist, and screenwriter.

Terrence McNally
Born (1939-11-03) November 3, 1939
St. Petersburg, Florida, U.S.
OccupationPlaywright, librettist
EducationB.A. in English
Alma materColumbia University
Tom Kirdahy (m. 2010)

McNally has been described as "a probing and enduring dramatist"[1] and "one of the greatest contemporary playwrights the theater world has yet produced".[2] He has received the Tony Award for Best Play for Love! Valour! Compassion! and Master Class, as well as the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical for Kiss of the Spider Woman and Ragtime.[3][4] He is a 2018 inductee of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The honor of election is considered the highest form of recognition of artistic merit in the United States.[5] His other accolades include an Emmy Award, two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Rockefeller Grant, four Drama Desk Awards, two Lucille Lortel Awards, two Obie Awards, and three Hull-Warriner Awards.[6] He is a recipient of the Dramatists Guild Lifetime Achievement Award as well as the Lucille Lortel Lifetime Achievement Award.[7] In 2016, the Lotos Club honored McNally at their annual "State Dinner," which has previously honored such luminaries as W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, George M. Cohan, Moss Hart, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, Saul Bellow, and Arthur Miller.[8] In addition to his award-winning plays and musicals, he also written two operas, multiple screenplays, teleplays, and a memoir.[9][10]

He has been a member of the Council of the Dramatists Guild since 1970 and served as vice-president from 1981 to 2001, and was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1996.[11] In 1998, McNally was awarded an honorary degree from the Juilliard School in recognition of his efforts to revive the Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program with fellow playwright John Guare.[12] In 2013, he returned to his alma mater, Columbia University, where he was the keynote speaker for the graduating class of 2013 on Class Day.[13]

His career has spanned six decades, and his plays, musicals, and operas are routinely performed all over the world.[14] The diversity and range of his work are remarkable, as McNally has resisted identification with any particular cultural scene. Simultaneously active in the regional and off-Broadway theatre movements as well as on Broadway, he is one of the few playwrights of his generation to have successfully passed from the avant-garde to mainstream acclaim.[12] His work centers on the difficulties of and urgent need for human connection. For McNally, the most important function of theatre is to create community and bridge rifts opened between people by differences in religion, race, gender, and particularly sexual orientation.[15]

In an address to members of the League of American Theatres and Producers he remarked, "I think theatre teaches us who we are, what our society is, where we are going. I don't think theatre can solve the problems of a society, nor should it be expected to ... Plays don't do that. People do. [But plays can] provide a forum for the ideas and feelings that can lead a society to decide to heal and change itself."[16]

Early life and education

McNally was born November 3, 1939 in St. Petersburg, Florida, to Hubert and Dorothy (Rapp) McNally,[17] two transplanted New Yorkers who ran a seaside bar and grill called The Pelican Club, but after a hurricane destroyed the establishment, the family briefly relocated to Port Chester, NY, then to Dallas, TX and finally to Corpus Christi, TX where he remained until McNally moved to New York City in 1956 to attend Columbia University. Once in Corpus Christi, Hubert McNally purchased and managed a Schlitz beer distributorship, and McNally attended W.B. Ray High School. Despite his distance from New York City, McNally's parents enjoyed Broadway musicals, and some of his first memories of the theater come from their occasional trips to New York. When McNally was eight years old, his parents took him to see Annie Get Your Gun, starring Ethel Merman, and on a subsequent outing, McNally saw Gertrude Lawrence in The King and I. Both productions had a lasting impression on the young McNally. It was in high school where McNally was first encouraged to write, having become a dedicated protege to a gifted English teacher named Maurine McElroy. He would subsequently dedicate several of his plays to her, and when she died in 2005, he supplied the inscription to her tombstone: "Not just an English teacher, but a life teacher." McElroy encouraged McNally to concentrate in schools outside Texas, which led him to matriculate at Columbia University as a journalism major.

He attended the prestigious university in its "golden age" of instruction, where his teachers included Meyer Schapiro for art history, Eric Bentley for drama, and Lionel Trilling for literature. Particularly influential was Andrew Chiappe, who instructed a popular two-semester course on Shakespeare in which students read every one of Shakespeare's plays in roughly the order of their composition. He joined the Boar's Head Society[18] and wrote Columbia's annual Varsity Show, which featured music by fellow student Edward L. Kleban and directed by Michael P. Kahn. He graduated in 1960 with a B. A. in English, the same year in which he gained membership into the Phi Beta Kappa Society.[12] In 1961, only one year out of Columbia University, McNally was hired by novelist John Steinbeck to accompany him and his family on a cruise around the world. McNally had been recommended by Molly Kazan, the Steinbecks' neighbor and McNally's mentor at the Playwrights Unit of the Actors Studio, as a tutor for his two teenage boys. The voyage would prove influential as McNally completed a draft of what would become the opening act of And Things That Go Bump in the Night. Steinbeck would go on to ask McNally to write the libretto for a musical version of the novel East of Eden.[19]


Early career

After graduation, McNally moved to Mexico to focus on his writing, completing a one-act play which he submitted to the Actors Studio in New York for production. While the play was turned down by the acting school, the Studio was impressed with the script, and McNally was invited to serve as the Studio's stage manager so that he could gain practical knowledge of theater. In his early years in New York, McNally's interest in theatre brought him to a party where, departing, he shared a cab with Edward Albee, who had recently written The Zoo Story and The Sandbox, and was about to become the single most influential playwright in America. They would function as a couple for over four years during which Albee would write The American Dream and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. After McNally's relationship waned with Albee, he entered into a long-term relationship with the actor and director Robert Drivas.[12]

His earliest full-length play, This Side of the Door, deals with a sensitive boy's battle of wills with his overbearing father and was produced in an Actor's Studio Workshop in 1962, featuring a young Estelle Parsons.[12] In 1964, his first play And Things That Go Bump in the Night opened at the Royale Theatre on Broadway to generally negative reviews. The play explores the psycho-social dynamic of anxiety that leads one to preemptively and defensively accuse others of creating problems that in actuality result from one's own insecurity. McNally later said, "My first play, Things That Go Bump in the Night, was a big flop. I had to begin all over again."[10] Nevertheless, the producer, Theodore Mann dropped the price of tickets to $1.00 which allowed the production to run with sold-out houses for three weeks.[20]

Starting a career that would cover both off-Broadway and Broadway, his plays cried out against Vietnam, satirized stale family dynamics, mocked sexual mores and became a part of the social protest movement of the 1960s and early 1970s.[21] With his first Broadway play, And Things That Go Bump in the Night, he put homosexuality squarely on stage which brought him the ire of New York's conservative theatre critics.[22][12] Next (1968), which brought him his greatest early acclaim and was directed by Elaine May and starred James Coco, follows a married, middle-aged, businessman who has been mistakenly called for the draft and must contend with a career officer determined to sign him up. Botticelli (1968) centers on two American soldiers standing guard against the enemy in the jungle while making a game of the great names in Western Civilization. ¡Cuba Si! (1968) satirizes the disdain that contemporary America has for the idea of revolution even though America itself was a country born out of a revolution and starred the Academy Award-nominated actress Melina Mercouri. In Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone? (1971) he celebrates while mourning the ineffectiveness of the American youth movement's conviction to "blow this country up so we can start all over again." Sweet Eros (1968) is about a young man who professes his love to a naked woman he has gagged and bound to a chair. In Let It Bleed (1972) a young couple showers and becomes convinced an intruder is lurking on the other side of the shower curtain. Collectively, his early plays, which also include Tour (1967), Witness (1968), and Bringing It All Back Home (1970), and Whiskey (1973) form a dark satire on American moral complacency.[12]

McNally began to turn towards comedy and farce, which opened a new artistic avenue for the playwright. Beginning with Noon (1968), a sexual farce revolving around five strangers who are lured to an apartment in lower Manhattan by a personal advertisement, he would go on to write multiple plays that put his comedic talent on display. Bad Habits satirizes American reliance upon psychotherapy and first premiered at the John Drew Theatre in East Hampton, New York, in 1971 starring Linda Lavin. It would subsequently transfer to the Booth Theatre on Broadway in 1974 and garnered an Obie Award. The Ritz is a farce centering around a straight man who inadvertently takes refuge in a Mafia-owned gay bathhouse. It opened first at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C. before transferring to the Longacre Theatre on Broadway in 1975. Robert Drivas directed both productions and although Drivas and McNally broke up as a couple in 1976 they would remain close friends until Drivas died of AIDS-related complications ten years later.[23][12] McNally would go on to adapt The Ritz for the movie screen in 1976 which was directed by Richard Lester. In 1978, McNally wrote Broadway, Broadway, which failed in its Philadelphia try-out which starred Geraldine Page, but he would eventually re-write the play under the title It's Only a Play which premiered in 1985 off-Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club directed by John Tillinger and starring Christine Baranski, Joanna Gleason, and James Coco.[12][23]

Mid career

After the failure of Broadway, Broadway, McNally moved to Hollywood to reinvent himself but soon found himself back in New York City where a new chapter of his career would begin. During this period he would form a deep artistic relationship with Manhattan Theatre Club and the rapid spread of AIDS would fundamentally change his theatre.[12] McNally only became truly successful with works such as the off-Broadway production of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune and its screen adaptation with stars Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer. His first credited Broadway musical was The Rink in 1984, a project he entered after the score by composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb had been written. In 1990, McNally won an Emmy Award for Best Writing in a Miniseries or Special for Andre's Mother, a drama about a woman trying to cope with her son's death from AIDS. A year later, he returned to the stage with another AIDS-related play, Lips Together, Teeth Apart. In the play, two married couples spend the Fourth of July weekend at a summer house on Fire Island. The house has been willed to Sally Truman by her brother who has just died of AIDS, and it soon becomes evident that both couples are afraid to get in the swimming pool once used by Sally's brother. It was written specifically for Christine Baranski, Anthony Heald, Swoosie Kurtz (taking the place of Kathy Bates), and frequent McNally collaborator, Nathan Lane, who had also starred in The Lisbon Traviata.[24][25]

With Kiss of the Spider Woman (based on the novel by Manuel Puig) in 1992, McNally returned to the musical stage, collaborating with Kander and Ebb on a script which explores the complex relationship between two men jailed together in a Latin American prison. For the book, McNally won the first of his four Tony Awards. Kiss of the Spider Woman won the 1993 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical. He collaborated with Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens on Ragtime in 1997, a musical adaptation of the E. L. Doctorow novel, which tells the story of Coalhouse Walker Jr., a black musician who demands retribution when his Model T is destroyed by a mob of white troublemakers. The musical also features such historical figures as Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington, J. P. Morgan, and Henry Ford. For his libretto, McNally won his third Tony Award. Ragtime finished its Broadway run on January 16, 2000. A revival in 2009 was short-lived, closing after only 2 months.[26]

McNally's other plays include 1994's Love! Valour! Compassion!, with Lane and John Glover, which examines the relationships of eight gay men; it won McNally his second Tony Award. Master Class (1995); a character study of legendary opera soprano Maria Callas, which starred Zoe Caldwell and won the Tony Award for Best Play, McNally's fourth; and the least-known of the group, Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams (2005) with Lane and Marian Seldes.[27]

In 1996, McNally was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.[28]

1997 saw the world premiere of Corpus Christi, a modern-day retelling of the story of Jesus' birth, ministry, and death in which both he and his disciples are portrayed as homosexual. The play was initially canceled because of death threats against the board members of the Manhattan Theatre Club, which was to produce the play.[29] Banding together in defense of free creative expression, several other playwrights (including Athol Fugard) threatened to withdraw their plays if Corpus Christi was not produced; the board ultimately relented. When the play opened, the theatre was besieged by almost 2,000 protesters, furious at what they considered blasphemy. Subsequent to a 1999 opening of Corpus Christi in London, a group called the "Defenders of the Messenger Jesus" issued a fatwa sentencing McNally to death.[30] In 2008, the play was revived in New York City at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre. Reviewing this production for The New York Times, Jason Zinoman wrote that "without the noise of controversy, the play can finally be heard. Staged with admirable delicacy... the work seems more personal than political, a coming-of-age story wrapped in religious sentiment."[31]

Late career

In 2000, McNally partnered with composer and lyricist, David Yazbek to write the musical, The Full Monty, which was directed by Jack O’Brien and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell. It had an initial run at The Old Globe Theatre and then transferred to the Eugene O’Neill Theatre on Broadway. The opening night cast included Patrick Wilson, Andre De Shields, Jason Danieley, Kathleen Freeman, Emily Skinner, and Annie Golden.[32] It was nominated for 12 Tony Awards including for McNally's book.[33] It later transferred to the Prince of Wales Theater in the West End.[34]

McNally's lifelong passion for classical music and opera is felt throughout many of his plays and musicals, and he's collaborated on several new American operas.[35] His voice may be more familiar with opera fans than theater-goers, as for nearly 30 years (1979-2008) he was a member of the Texaco Opera Quiz panel that fielded questions during the weekly Live from the Met radio broadcasts.[12] He wrote the libretto for Dead Man Walking, his adaptation of Sister Helen Prejean's book, with a score by Jake Heggie. The opera had its world premiere at San Francisco Opera in 2000 and subsequently received two commercial recordings and over 40 productions worldwide, making it “one of the most successful American operas in recent decades."[36] In 2007, Heggie composed a chamber opera, Three Decembers, based on original text by McNally titled Some Christmas Letters (and a Couple of Phone Calls, Too),[37] with libretto by Gene Scheer.[38] In October 2015, Dallas Opera presented Great Scott with an original libretto by McNally and a score by Heggie. The new opera starred Joyce DiDonato and Frederica von Stade and was directed by Jack O’Brien.[39]

The Kennedy Center presented three of McNally's plays that focus on opera, titled Nights at the Opera, in March 2010. The pieces included a new play, Golden Age; Master Class, starring Tyne Daly; and The Lisbon Traviata, starring John Glover and Malcolm Gets.[40][41][42] Golden Age subsequently ran Off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club New York City Center – Stage I from November 2012 to January 2013.[43]

In 2001, McNally started what would become a 15-year developmental process towards Broadway with the musical The Visit, for which he wrote the book. The music is written by John Kander and the lyrics by Fred Ebb. Adapted from Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 satire, The Visit is the story of a widow who has amassed enormous sums of wealth and returns to her hometown to seek revenge on the villagers who scorned her in her youth. The project originally starred Angela Lansbury who departed the process to care for her ailing husband. Chita Rivera became the new star and The Visit had its first production at The Goodman Theater in Chicago in 2001. The September 11 attacks occurred just 10 days before the first preview, and the producers weren’t able to get many investors or critics from New York to fly to Chicago. In 2004, Fred Ebb, the lyricist, died. Its next regional production occurred in 2008 at The Signature Theatre outside of Washington D.C. In 2014, under the new direction of John Doyle and starring Chita Rivera and Roger Rees, The Visit had a new production at Williamstown Theatre and then eventually transferred to Broadway at The Lyceum Theatre in 2015.[44][45] The musical would go on to be nominated for 5 Tony nominations including for McNally's book.[46]

Continuing his work on musical librettos, McNally partnered with his collaborators on Ragtime, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens to write the musical A Man of No Importance which premiered at Lincoln Center in 2002 and was directed by Joe Mantello.[47] He also wrote the libretto for Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life, in 2005, another collaboration with Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, which began at The Old Globe and subsequently transferred to Broadway at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.[48]

In 2004, Primary Stages presented McNally’s The Stendhal Syndrome, which according to McNally explores “how art can affect us emotionally, psychologically, and erotically.” The play starred Isabella Rossellini and Richard Thomas and was directed by Leonard Foglia.[49] In 2007, Philadelphia Theatre Company presented Some Men, which explores the evolution of gay relationships and same-sex marriage. It went on to Second Stage Theatre in New York and was directed by Trip Cullman.[50] That same year McNally's drama Deuce ran on Broadway at the Music Box Theater for a limited engagement in 2007 for 121 performances. Directed by Michael Blakemore, the play starred Angela Lansbury, in her return to Broadway after more than 20 years, and Marian Seldes.[51]

And Away We Go premiered Off-Broadway at the Pearl Theatre in November 2013, with direction by Jack Cummings III and featured Donna Lynne Champlin, Sean McNall and Dominic Cuskern.[52] The play takes place over several millennia covering the most pivotal moments in dramatic history entwined with a modern-day story of a struggling theatre company.[53] McNally has said “It's very much written for the Pearl, the company that has kept the faith for the great classic plays. There are whole seasons in New York when I don't think a single classic play would have been performed if it hadn't been for the Pearl... I think it's really important. I write new plays for a living; I certainly don't think theatre should be just revivals, but there has always got to be a place for Chekhov, Ibsen, Shakespeare, Moliere and Aeschylus.”[54]

Mothers and Sons starring Tyne Daly and Frederick Weller opened on Broadway at the John Golden Theatre, where Master Class had its premiere, on March 24, 2014 (February 23, 2014 in previews).[55] Mothers and Sons premiered at the Bucks County Playhouse (Pennsylvania) in June 2013.[56] Vermont Stage opened its production January 27, 2016[57] at FlynnSpace in Burlington, Vermont. The play is an expansion on his 1988 drama Andre’s Mother, which was set at a memorial service for a victim of the AIDS crisis. Mothers and Sons also marked the first time a legally wed gay couple was portrayed on Broadway.[58] It was nominated for two Tony Awards including for Best Play.[59]

McNally's newest play, Fire and Air, premiered Off-Broadway at Classic Stage Company on February 1, 2018.[60] The play explores the history of the Ballets Russes, the Russian ballet company, with a particular focus on Sergei Diaghilev, the ballet impresario, and Vaslav Nijinsky, the dancer and choreographer. It featured the actors Douglas Hodge, Marsha Mason, Marin Mazzie, John Glover, and Jay Johnson Armstrong and was directed by Tony Award-winner John Doyle.[61]

On May 29, 2019, a revival of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune opened on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre. The production starred Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon, and was directed by Arin Arbus in her Broadway debut.[62]

In June 2019, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, an event widely considered a watershed moment in the modern LGBTQ rights movement, Queerty named him one of the Pride50 "trailblazing individuals who actively ensure society remains moving towards equality, acceptance and dignity for all queer people".[63]

McNally received a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2019.[64]

Personal life

McNally was partnered to Tom Kirdahy, a Broadway producer and a former civil rights attorney for not-for-profit AIDS organizations, following a civil union ceremony in Vermont on December 20, 2003.[65][66] They subsequently married in Washington, D.C. on April 6, 2010. In celebration of the Supreme Court's decision to legalize same-sex marriage in all 50 states, they renewed their vows at New York City Hall with Mayor Bill de Blasio officiating on June 26, 2015.[67][68]


The papers of Terrence McNally are held by the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The archive includes all of his major works for stage, screen, and television, as well as correspondence, posters, production photographs, programs, reviews, awards, speeches, and recordings. It is an open archive and continues to receive the latest material from McNally.[69]


Terrence McNally: Every Act of Life, a documentary about McNally's life and career, aired on PBS on June 14th, 2019 as part of their American Masters series.[70][71] The film features new interviews with McNally in addition to conversations with his friends and collaborators, including F. Murray Abraham, Christine Baranski, Tyne Daly, Edie Falco, John Kander, Nathan Lane, Angela Lansbury, Marin Mazzie, Audra McDonald, Rita Moreno, Billy Porter, Chita Rivera, Doris Roberts, John Slattery and Patrick Wilson, plus the voices of Dan Bucatinsky, Bryan Cranston and Meryl Streep.[72] Charles McNulty, reviewing the film for the Los Angeles Times, wrote, "If you can know a person by the company he keeps, you can judge a playwright by the talent that sticks by him. By this measure, Terrence McNally is one of the most important dramatists of the last 50 years."[73]

Writing credits

Awards and nominations

Tony Awards

Year Work Category/award Result Ref.
1993 Kiss of the Spider Woman Best Book of a Musical Won [78]
1995 Love! Valour! Compassion! Best Play Won
1996 Master Class Best Play Won
1998 Ragtime Best Book of a Musical Won
2001 The Full Monty Best Book of a Musical Nominated
2014 Mothers and Sons Best Play Nominated
2015 The Visit Best Book of a Musical Nominated
2019 Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre Non-competitive award

Drama Desk Awards

Year Work Category/award Result Ref.
1975 The Ritz Outstanding New Play (American) Nominated [79]
1990 The Lisbon Traviata Outstanding New Play Nominated [80]
1992 Lips Together, Teeth Apart Outstanding New Play Nominated [79]
1995 Love! Valour! Compassion! Outstanding Play Won [81]
1996 Master Class Outstanding Play Won [82]
1998 Ragtime Outstanding Book of a Musical Won [83]
2001 The Full Monty Outstanding Book of a Musical Nominated [84]
2003 A Man of No Importance Outstanding Book of a Musical Nominated [85]
2006 Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams Outstanding Play Nominated [86]
2007 Some Men Outstanding Play Nominated [87]
2015 The Visit Outstanding Book of a Musical Nominated [88]
2017 Anastasia Outstanding Book of a Musical Nominated [89]

Primetime Emmy Awards

Year Work Category/award Result Ref.
1990 Andre's Mother Outstanding Writing in a Miniseries or a Special Won [90]

Other Industry Awards



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General citations

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