Terrence McNally, the four-time Tony Award-winning playwright whose outpouring of work for the theater dramatized and domesticated gay life across five decades, died Tuesday in Sarasota, Florida. He was 81.
The cause was complications of the Coronavirus, according to his husband, Tom Kirdahy. He said McNally had chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and had overcome lung cancer. He died at Sarasota Memorial Hospital.
McNally’s Tony Awards attest to his versatility. Two were for books for musicals, “Kiss of the Spider Woman” (1993) and “Ragtime” (1998), and two were for plays, and vastly different ones: “Love! Valour! Compassion!” (1995), about gay men who share a vacation house, and “Master Class” (1996), in which opera diva Maria Callas reflects on her career.
And those prize winners were only a small part of his oeuvre. With 36 plays to his credit, as well as the books for 10 musicals, the librettos for four operas and a handful of screenplays for film and television, McNally was a remarkably prolific and consistent dramatist.
Though the changes McNally wrote about were epochal for gay men, his plays were designed not to exclude. However furious, they are also ingratiating, emphasizing familiar situations, comic personalities and well-turned put-downs. (“Who are you saving it for?” Callas bellows at an unfortunate singer in midsong.) His gay stories never came across as a narrowing of theater’s human focus but as an expansion of it, and by inviting everyone into them he helped solidify the social change he was describing.
Michael Terrence McNally was born on Nov. 3, 1938, in St. Petersburg, Florida, where his parents, Hubert and Dorothy (Rapp) McNally, had a bar and grill on the beach. During and after World War II, the family lived in Port Chester, New York, and his paternal grandfather would take him to the theater; One of the first productions he saw was the musical “Annie Get Your Gun,” which opened on Broadway in 1946 and starred Ethel Merman.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Columbia University in 1960. By then he was in a relationship with the playwright Edward Albee. The relationship lasted five years, but their differing views on how to deal with their sexuality were a point of tension.