Playwright Terrence McNally Dead at 81 From Coronavirus Complications

Terrence McNally Photo: Al Pereira/Getty Images

Terrence McNally, the boundary-breaking playwright, has died due to complications related to the coronavirus. McNally was 81, and was a lung-cancer survivor with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Born in St. Petersburg, Florida, in 1938, McNally built a wide-ranging career in theater, working on everything from intimate dramas, like Frankie and Johnny and the Clair de Lune, to epic musicals, like Ragtime, to landmark portrayals of gay men, as in Love! Valour! Compassion, to opera, and more.

McNally graduated from Columbia University in 1960. His first Broadway show came in 1964 — And Things That Go Bump in the Night — and had a solid hit in 1975 with The Ritz, a farce about a straight mobster who hides out in a gay bathhouse. McNally’s breakout success came later, however, with Frankie and Johnny, a two-hander relationship drama set over the course of a single night between a short-order cook and a waitress. It premiered Off Broadway in 1987 starring F. Murray Abraham and Kathy Bates, and was adapted to film in 1991 with Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer; last year, it was revived on Broadway with Michael Shannon and Audra McDonald to mark McNally’s 80th birthday.

McNally’s work on musicals included collaborations with John Kander and Fred Ebb on The Rink, on Broadway in 1984, and Kiss of the Spider Woman, in 1993. McNally won his first Tony Award for the book of the latter musical, based on Manuel Puig’s novel about two prisoners in a Latin American country, one of whom is gay and shares his show-business fantasies with the other. McNally won two more Tonys, each for Best Play, in 1995 and 1996 for writing Love! Valour! Compassion!, a drama set among eight gay men on a summer vacation, and for Master Class, centered on a fictionalized version of Maria Callas. In 1997, he won another for the book of Ragtime, with music by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, which brought the sweeping E.L. Doctorow novel about early 20th-century America to the stage with a mosaic of plots and characters.

McNally continued to experiment with genre and tone, notably in 1997’s Corpus Christi, which drew controversy for depicting contemporary gay men reenacting the lives of Jesus and his disciples and had its original run canceled; The Full Monty, a 2000 musical about a group of steelworkers who decided to strip; and Dead Man Walking, the first of three collaborations with Jake Heggie. McNally continued to work until quite recently, reuniting with Kander and Ebb on 2011’s musical The Visit and with Ahrens and Flaherty on the book for the stage version of Anastasia. He won another Tony Award for lifetime achievement in 2019. McNally held a civil-union ceremony with his husband, producer and lawyer Tom Kirdahy, in Vermont in 2003, and they formally married in Washington, D.C., in 2010.

Playwright Terrence McNally Dead at 81