The prolific Emmy and Tony Award-winning writer Terrence McNally passed away at the age of 81 in Florida at a Sarasota hospital on Tuesday, March 24. The cause of death was due to complications of the coronavirus ( COVID-19 ).
Throughout his career, McNally chronicled gay culture in all kinds of genres. One of his early hits was the 1974 gay bathhouse farce The Ritz. McNally later dealt with different aspects of the AIDS crisis in dramas like The Lisbon Traviata, Mothers and Sons and Love! Valour! Compassion!
"I think my plays are my autobiography," said McNally in a November 2015 interview with the Windy City Times. At the time, McNally was in Chicago to promote his book anthology Selected Works: A Memoir in Plays.
As a youth growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas, McNally nearly pursued a career in journalism. He won a scholarship to Northwestern University in Evanston, and had previously been part of its National High School Institute program informally known as "The Cherubs."
But McNally was also accepted into Columbia University in New York, so he headed there at the age of 17.
"New York looked like so much fun," McNally said. "I thought it might be so much easier to meet other gay young men in New York than Chicago."
McNally was an early boyfriend of playwright Edward Albee, and he soon became a fixture of New York's burgeoning off-Broadway theater scene. McNally also became a respected book writer for many hit musicals like Ragtime, Kiss of the Spider Woman and The Full Monty. McNally also collaborated with composer Jake Heggie as the librettist to the operas Dead Man Walking and Great Scott.
All of this is thoroughly covered in Jeff Kaufman's 2018 film documentary on McNally called Every Act of Life. It was broadcast on PBS in 2019, and is available for streaming.
Locally, McNally worked at Chicago's Goodman Theatre in 2001 as the book writer to the world-premiere musical of "The Visit" with the songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb. McNally is also fondly remembered by many Chicago theater artists when he came to see local productions of his plays.
"[McNally] never stopped working. The re-writes were constant," said Jim Corti, who originated the roles of The Doctor in The Visit and escapologist Harry Houdini in Ragtime. "He was very supportive and endearing. Everybody loved him."
Corti is the founding artistic director of the Paramount Theatre in Aurora, and is set to direct Ragtime next season. Corti was hoping to see McNally again in April for a New York benefit reunion concert of Ragtime, which has since been postponed.
"It's like a punch to the gut." Corti said. "How confounding it is for someone to have to pass away to realize how much you miss them."
David Zak, artistic director of both Pride Films and Plays and the former Bailiwick Repertory Theatre, has great memories of watching McNally during the Chicago premiere of Corpus Christi at the Bailiwick in 2001. McNally had received death threats over the 1998 New York premiere of the play, which follows a group of gay men re-enacting Christ's spiritual journey.
"Obviously, no one was walking through metal detectors," said Zak comparing the fraught New York reception of Corpus Christi to the more-relaxed one in Chicago.
"After the first couple of lines, the audience just roared with laughter," Zak said. "There was a joke that got everyone's attention, and [McNally] just looked around so delighted as if I've never heard a laugh at this line of text."
Zak was also grateful to McNally for giving permission to do readings of his plays during the early years of Pride Films and Plays. The company has gone on to present the Chicago premieres of McNally's drama Some Men and the revamped comedy It's Only a Play.
In 2015, Eclipse Theatre Company dedicated its entire season to McNally with his plays Lips Together, Teeth Apart, A Perfect Ganesh and The Lisbon Traviata. McNally himself caught the latter production, and director Steve Scott remembers his complimentary encounters with the cast and crew.
"[McNally] seemed to be very much at peace with himself," Scott said. "He was very calm. I didn't get a sense of the fiery young man that he had obviously been. He had matured into someone who was very proud of the work that he had done and was looking forward to more work."
Since Scott was also slated to direct the Chicago-area premiere of Mothers and Sons at Northlight Theatre in Skokie in early 2016, he took McNally's only bit of advice which was to look for humor in the play.
"[Mothers and Sons] dealt so elegantly with all the tragedies the gay community came through at that point," Scott said. "It's an incredibly healing play to work on, and I got that from a lot of the audience who saw it, many of whom were parents of gay sons who had similar issues to what was in the play."
Scott also offer praise to McNally over the way he was able to lace wit and ironic humor through all of his workseven the most tragic ones.
"I feel a huge sense of loss because of what he did for me personallynot just as a collaboratorbut as a gay man and what he did for our community," said Scott about the breadth of McNally's writing and how he chronicled gay life and culture. "It's astounding, and we'll come to treasure that more in the days ahead."