Terrence McNally

This article is about the playwright. For the actor, see Terrence E. McNally.
Terrence McNally
Born (1938-11-03) November 3, 1938
St. Petersburg, Florida, U.S.
Occupation Playwright, librettist
Education B.A. in English
Alma mater Columbia University
Period 1964–present
Spouse Thomas Kirdahy (April 6, 2010 – present)

Terrence McNally (born November 3, 1938) is an American playwright, librettist, and screenwriter.

A probing and enduring dramatist, McNally is one of the greatest contemporary playwrights the theater world has yet produced.[1][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] His other accolades include an Emmy Award, two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Rockefeller Grant, four Drama Desk Awards, two Lucille Lortel Awards, two Obie Awards, three Hull-Warriner Awards, and a citation from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.[5] He is a recipient of the Dramatists Guild Lifetime Achievement Award as well as the Lucille Lortel Lifetime Achievement Award.[6] 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.[7] In addition to his award-winning plays and musicals, he also written two operas, multiple screenplays, teleplays, and a memoir.[8][9]

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 Theatre Hall of Fame in 1996.[10] In 1998, McNally was awarded an honorary degree from The Juilliard School in recognition for reviving The Lily Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program with the playwright, John Guare.[11] In 2013, he returned to his alma mater, Columbia University, where he was the keynote speaker of the graduating class of 2013 on Class Day.[12]

He has a career spanning six decades, and his plays, musicals, and operas are routinely performed all over the world.[13] The diversity and range of his work is remarkable, with McNally resisting identifying with any particular cultural scene. Simultaneously active in the regional and off-Broadway theatre movements as well as Broadway, he is one of the few playwrights of his generation to have successfully passed from avant garde to mainstream acclaim.[11] 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 by bridging rifts opened between people by difference in religion, race, gender, and particularly sexual orientation.[14]

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.”[15]

Early life & Education

McNally was born in St. Petersburg, Florida to Hubert and Dorothy (Rapp) McNally, 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 Maureen 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[16] 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.[11] 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.[17]


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 andThe 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.[11]

McNally's early plays were part of the social protest movement of the 1960s and early 1970s.[11] Starting a career that would cover both off-Broadway and Broadway, his plays cried out against Vietnam, satirized stale family dynamics, and mocked sexual mores.[18] In 1964, his first play And Things That Go Bump in the Night opened at the Royale Theatre to generally negative reviews. McNally later said, "My first play, Things That Go Bump in the Night, was a big flop. I had to begin all over again."[9] Nevertheless, the production ran to sold-out houses for three weeks after the producer lowered the price of tickets to one and two dollars.

Although several early comedies such as Next in 1969 and Witness, Sweet Eros, and Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone? were successful off-Broadway, 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, and with two Broadway productions, Bad Habits and The Ritz.

Later career

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.[19][20]

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 4 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 3rd Tony Award. Ragtime finished its Broadway run on January 16, 2000. A revival in 2009 was short-lived, closing after only 2 months.[21]

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 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.[22]

In 1996, McNally was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.[23]

In 1997, McNally stirred up a storm of controversy with 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. However, several other playwrights such as Athol Fugard threatened to withdraw their plays if Corpus Christi was not produced, and the board finally relented. When the play opened, the theatre was besieged by almost 2,000 protesters, furious at what they considered blasphemy. When Corpus Christi opened in London, a group called the Defenders of the Messenger Jesus issued a fatwa sentencing McNally to death.[24]

On January 19, 2008, Robert Forsyth, Anglican bishop of South Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, condemned Corpus Christi (which opened for February's Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, a play depicting Judas seducing Jesus): "It is deliberately, not innocently, offensive and they're obviously having a laugh about it." The play showed Jesus administrating a marriage between two male apostles. Director Leigh Rowney accepted that it would offend some Christians and said: "I wanted this play in the hands of a Christian person like myself to give it dignity but still open it up to answering questions about Christianity as a faith system."[25]

McNally's drama Deuce ran on Broadway in a limited engagement in 2007 for 121 performances. Directed by Michael Blakemore, the play starred Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes.

The Kennedy Center presented three of McNally's plays that focus on his works involving 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.[26][27][28] Golden Age subsequently ran Off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club New York City Center – Stage I in November 2012 to January 13, 2013.[29]

McNally has collaborated on several operas, including the libretto for Dead Man Walking, his adaptation of Sister Helen Prejean's book, with a score by Jake Heggie. 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),[30] with libretto by Gene Scheer.[31] In November 2015, Dallas Opera will present Great Scott with an original libretto by McNally and a score by Heggie.

And Away We Go, premiered Off-Broadway at the Pearl Theatre in November 2013, with direction by Jack Cummings III and featuring Donna Lynne Champlin, Sean McNall and Dominic Cuskern.[32]

Mothers and Sons starring Tyne Daly and Frederick Weller opened on Broadway at the Golden Theatre, where Master Class had its premiere, on March 24, 2014 (February 23, 2014 in previews).[33] Mothers and Sons premiered at the Bucks County Playhouse (Pennsylvania) in June 2013.[34] Vermont Stage opens its production January 27, 2016[35] at FlynnSpace in Burlington, Vermont. It has its US-Northwest-premiere at Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland (Oregon) in February 2016.[36]

Personal life

McNally was partnered to Thomas 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.[37][38] 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.[39][40]


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.[41]

Writing credits


Musical Theatre:




Awards and nominations



  1. Brantley, Ben (2014-03-24). "'Mothers and Sons,' an AIDS Tale Starring Tyne Daly". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-10-14.
  2. "A Provincial Lady: Tyne Daly Shines in 'Mothers and Sons'". Observer. 2014-03-26. Retrieved 2016-10-14.
  3. "Terrence McNally". Playbill Vault. Retrieved 5 October 2014.
  4. "American Stage Presents Frankie and Johnny in the Claire De Lune". Broadway World.com. Retrieved 26 March 2015.
  5. Purcell, Carey (September 11, 2013). "Jason Alexander, Tyne Daly, Cheyenne Jackson and More Will Honor Terrence McNally at Skylight Theatre Company". Playbill. Retrieved 5 October 2014.
  6. Cox, Gordon (2015-05-11). "'Hamilton' Dominates the 2015 Lucille Lortel Awards (FULL LIST)". Variety. Retrieved 2016-06-02.
  7. "Club History - The Lotos Club". www.lotosclub.org. Retrieved 2016-10-14.
  8. "Terrence McNally | Samuel French". www.samuelfrench.com. Retrieved 2016-06-02.
  9. 1 2 Playwright Terrence McNally: 'The Most Significant Thing a Writer Can Do Is Reach Someone Emotionally', Parade Magazine, March 24, 2014
  10. Viagas, Robert. "Theatre Hall of Fame 1996". Playbill. Retrieved 5 October 2014.
  11. 1 2 3 4 5 Frontain, Raymond (April 1, 2013). "Terrence McNally: Theater as Connection" (PDF). GLBTQ Archives. Retrieved October 14, 2016.
  12. "Class Day and Commencement 2013 | Columbia College Today". www.college.columbia.edu. Retrieved 2016-10-14.
  13. "Playwright Terrence McNally Coming to City This Month". Cumberland Times-News. October 1, 2010. Retrieved 5 October 2014.
  14. Frontain, Raymond-Jean. "McNally After the 'Gay Jesus' Play". The Gay and Lesbian Review. Retrieved 5 October 2014.
  15. Frontain, Raymond-Jean (November 2013). ""Theatre Matters": Discovering the True Self in Terrence McNally's Dedication". Journal of Contemporary Drama in English. 1 (2): 261–78. doi:10.1515/jcde-2013-0021.
  16. "History". Columbia Review. Retrieved 5 March 2016.
  17. Frontain, Raymond-Jean (August 7, 2010). "McNally and Steinbeck". ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes and Reviews. 21 (4): 43–51. doi:10.3200/ANQQ.21.4.43-51. Retrieved 16 April 2015.
  18. "ABOUT - Terrence McNally". www.terrencemcnally.com. Retrieved 2016-11-22.
  19. Rothstein, Mervyn. "Terrence McNally's Four Stars Talk Happily of His 'Lips Together'" The New York Times, July 3, 1991
  20. "The Story" dramatists.com, accessed March 26, 2014
  21. "The Sondheim Review: Mutual admiration, Sondheim and playwright Terrence McNally began a collaboration in 1991, by Raymond-Jean Frontain readperiodicals.com, April 1, 2011
  22. "'Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams' Listing" lortel.org, accessed February 29, 2016
  23. "Theatre Hall of Fame 1996". www.playbill.com.
  24. "Fatwa for 'gay Jesus' writer". BBC News. 1999-10-29. Retrieved 2007-04-19.
  25. Afp.google.com, "Row erupts in Australia over 'gay' Jesus play: report" afp.google.com
  26. Hetrick, Adam. "Casting Complete for Master Class, with Daly, at the Kennedy Center" playbill.com, February 2, 2010
  27. Hetrick, Adam. "Glover and Gets Open McNally's 'Lisbon Traviata' in Washington, D.C. March 25" playbill.com, March 25, 2010
  28. Hetrick, Adam."All That Glitters: Bobbie Talks About McNally's Golden Age at the Kennedy Center" playbill.com, March 29, 2010
  29. Hetrick, Adam and Jones, Kenneth. "Manhattan Theatre Club announced that Terrence McNally's backstage-set operatic play Golden Age, starring Emmy Award nominee Lee Pace as a late-in-life composer Vincenzo Bellini, has extended its run through Jan. 13, 2013" Playbill, December 14, 2012
  30. "Terrence McNally Pens NYC Holiday 'Letters' for Dec. 13–14 Benefit Concert" playbill.com
  31. Zinko, Carolyne (December 7, 2008). "S.F. Opera To Adapt 'Dead Man'/Heggie-McNally work commissioned for 2000-01". The San Francisco Chronicle.
  32. Hetrick, Adam. "World Premiere of Terrence McNally's 'And Away We Go' Opens Off-Broadway Nov. 24" playbill.com, November 24, 2013
  33. Staff. "The Verdict: Critics Review Terrence McNally's 'Mothers and Sons', Starring Tyne Daly" playbill.com, March 25, 2014
  34. Gioia, Michael. "Tyne Daly and Frederick Weller Explore Relationships of 'Mothers and Sons', Beginning Feb. 23 On Broadway" playbill.com, February 23, 2014
  35. Staff, Vermont Stage
  36. Artists Repertory Theatre
  37. "Tom Kirdahy on Love, Law, Marriage, Producing Theatre, and Making a Difference". HowlRound. Retrieved 2016-06-02.
  38. "WEDDINGS/CELEBRATIONS; Terrence McNally, Thomas Kirdahy". The New York Times. 2003-12-21. Retrieved 2007-04-19.
  39. "De Blasio hosts ceremony in honor of gay marriage decision". New York Daily News. Retrieved 2016-06-02.
  40. "Reliable Source – Love, etc.: Playwright Terrence McNally weds partner in D.C.". The Washington Post. 2010-04-06.
  41. "Terrence McNally: A Preliminary Inventory of His Papers at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center". norman.hrc.utexas.edu. Retrieved 2016-02-29.
  42. The Sunday Times, play details
  43. Jones, Kenneth. Unusual Acts of Devotion Playbill, June 10, 2009

General citations

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