At 80, Playwright Terrence McNally Is Still Theater’s Biggest Fanboy

The legendary playwright on his 'Frankie and Johnny' revival, road trips with Angela Lansbury and the critics who wished he were dead.

Terrence McNally
Terrence McNally. Todd Hido

They don’t make men like Terrence Mcnally anymore. Even he says so. “I’m sort of the last of my generation,” he muses one spring afternoon in his West Village, New York, apartment. “There’s John Guare. I think everyone else has gone.”

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McNally has just received notice that he’s being honored for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre at this year’s Tony Awards, and the playwright, who turned 80 last November, is tender with nostalgia. Recalling his childhood passion for the theater, he wells up as he summons the specter of acting legends Ethel Merman and Gertrude Lawrence. He first saw Merman in Annie Get Your Gun, when he was 7, and was among the last to see Lawrence in The King and I, on Broadway, shortly before her sudden death from cancer in 1951. “For the three hours she had been my mother,” he later wrote in Selected Works: A Memoir in Plays.

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“I was just devastated,” McNally says. “When you reach 80 you don’t know what you’re crying at, but when she died I knew something important had gone.” Part of that “something” was the glamor of actors who still made their reputations on stage. McNally can think of just two such people today: Chita Rivera and Nathan Lane. Almost everyone else is a creature of Hollywood first.

Fittingly, Lawrence was buried in the gown she wore for “Shall We Dance?,” the exuberant  number from The King and I, from a scene McNally considers one of the greatest in the history of musical theater. Blinking back a tear, he says, “I’m crying about something I saw 68 years ago, but it’s as vivid as whatever I saw on Saturday night. When the theater works at that level, there is an electricity. There were 1,200 people in that room, and no one was breathing. They were absolutely captivated, and in that moment she became the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.”

It’s easy in these moments to feel that you, too, are in that theater, 68 years ago, swept up in the particular magic of stage. Talking with McNally, who has written more than 30 plays, is like time-traveling through the high points of a boundless life. There are cameos from legends such as Dame Edith Evans—“I feel I can smell her perfume from the last row of the old theater in Stratford,” says McNally—and Sir Laurence Olivier, strutting through his 1965 performance as Othello as a young McNally sat in the fifth row, smoking up a storm, as everyone did then. (There were disappointments, too: A misplaced passport left him stranded at the French port of Le Havre, unable to catch Olivier’s legendary portrayal of Coriolanus. “I cried, I begged the woman [at immigraton] to let me cross, I did everything I could,” he recalls.)

As McNally’s successes on the stage begin to accumulate, so do the close-ups. There’s Noël Coward in the 1960s, asking if the writer will give him a ride back from Fire Island. “I thought, Oh, shit, I have to sit with that boring old British queen,” recalls McNally. Angela Lansbury was a more enticing prospect. Nothing boring there. “One night we were driving with her back from Philadelphia and she said, ‘I feel like singing. I love George Gershwin.’ And she sang Gershwin for 90 minutes. Tom [Kirdahy, McNallys husband] and I pinch ourselves that we know her.” He drops his voice to a whisper. “We’re in a car with Mrs. Lovett [Lansbury’s character in Sweeney Todd] singing Gershwin.

So, yes, a four-time Tony winner, Emmy recipient and Pulitzer nominee can still be the world’s biggest fanboy. As he says himself, “I’m still a kid from Corpus Christi. Tom’s from Patchogue, Long Island.”

The kid from Corpus Christi has become one of our greatest living playwrights. It has been 54 years since his rocky Broadway debut, and 32 years since Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, starring Kathy Bates and F. Murray Abraham, opened Off Broadway. He’s had hits and duds, and though good people can argue over which is which, Frankie and Johnny has held steady above the fray, a cri de cœur for romantic love, shot through with wit and verve. Now it’s back, starring Michael Shannon and Audra Mcdonald as a short-order cook and waitress of a certain age, in bed, post-coitus, negotiating the potential of their new relationship. McNally was inspired to write it after standing in line one night at Blockbuster video. All those single men and women making a date with their VHS recorder when they could be making passionate declarations of unbridled love. He was nearing 50 at the time and understood which side of the equation he wanted to be on.

Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune
Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon in the new production of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. Deen van Meer

It’s been a little more than 20 years since McNally met Kirdahy, the man he considers his true love (“I turned around, and it was electric. I knew he would always have my back, and I would always have his. This happened in a second.”) and almost as long since he discovered he had lung cancer. Great doctors and chemotherapy have kept him going, but lately he has felt his energy flagging. “I really feel my mortality,” he says. “I’ve always felt very youthful until the past three months.” Yet he’s already going into rehearsal for a new play, this one based on the relationship between Ballets Russes founder Sergei Diaghilev and dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, first workshopped last year. When we meet he’s about to fly to Austin for two months. “I’m worried about my stamina,” he says. “I hope it doesn’t end up being my last play, but I really want to give it my best.”

In the 1950s, as a student at Columbia University in New York, McNally considered a career as a reporter, but paths change. He tried his hand at a novel and then a play, which he sent to the Actors Studio. Instead, he was offered a gig as a stage manager and learned how plays were made by a kind of osmosis, watching and listening. Thanks to the Studio’s co-founder Elia Kazan and his wife, Molly, he also spent the best part of a year traveling the world as a tutor to John Steinbeck’s children. And he began dating Edward Albee, then a budding playwright enjoying attention for his unsettling and visceral one-act play The Zoo Story. “It was epochal,” says McNally. “It really changed the possibilities of dialogue in a way that probably Tennessee Williams had.”

Terrence McNally at Columbia University circa 1959.
McNally at Columbia University circa 1959. Terrence McNally

The two men shared a one-room apartment together, where they threw a party to celebrate the opening night of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? McNally recalls Abe Burrows, the writer of Guys and Dolls, congratulating Albee as if it were his first time at the rodeo. “He was standing at the door and said to Edward, ‘Welcome to the theater, young man,’ and gave him a big hug, meaning, I’ve never heard of you until tonight. I did not see the 10 plays you did Off Broadway.

For McNally, it was a foretaste of the myopia of a certain theater mentality that can’t see beyond Times Square. When, a few years later, he made his theatrical debut on Broadway with 1965’s And Things That Go Bump in the Night—on Broadway, no less—the reaction was scathing. On press night, shortly before the curtain rose, McNally was standing near the critics, always the last to take their seats. “I overheard one saying, ‘Let’s go and see what his boyfriend has come up with,’ and I was devastated,” he recalls. “I felt it was deeply homophobic. I wasn’t a person—they were reviewing a play by Albee’s boyfriend.” With one or two exceptions, the critics were savage. “One review literally began, ‘American theater would be a better place if Terrence McNally’s parents had smothered him in his cradle.’”

Much of the reaction was spurred by the play’s frank depiction of homosexuality, a rarity in theater at the time. Unlike Albee, and most playwrights before him, McNally was not disguising the world he knew. “There had been gay characters before, but he was the warm-hearted neighbor who was lonely but could knock on your door and come in when you needed him for comic relief or a little cry, or he was deeply neurotic and at the top of Act Three you’d find out he’d committed suicide,” he says. “There was never an adjusted or happy gay character. He was either effeminate and funny, a total minstrel-show version of a gay man, or so deeply neurotic and twisted and drunk. That was gay life.”

Despite his critics, McNally did not back down. His 1975 farce, The Ritz, was set in a bathhouse. If it’s sometimes hard to comprehend just how pervasive homophobia was at the time, you need only read reviews of the play to understand the antagonism that confronted an out gay writer, even in the post-Stonewall decade of glam rock and the first glimmers of disco. When The Ritz was made into a movie by Richard Lester, The New York Times critic Richard Eder complained of “too many male homosexual stomachs, arms and faces at too short a range.” He added, “To have a tolerance, or even an acceptance of homosexuality doesn’t rule out having an underlying physical distaste for it.”

But McNally demurs at the idea that he was being courageous or bold. “I didn’t think I was being a pioneer—I was writing what I knew about,” he says. Years later, in 1998, when his passion play Corpus Christi was protested by the Catholic League and elicited death threats, he was equally mystified. “Mary Magdalene becomes a hooker with AIDS, but other than the characters being gay there’s nothing that should be offensive to a Catholic,” he says. “There’s much more sex in Frankie and Johnny.”

Albee was coy by comparison, and routinely dismissed suggestions that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was code for queer relationships. Was that possibly a little disingenuous? “It was a lot disingenuous,” McNally says. He thinks Albee, like a lot of his closeted peers, fell out of step with the times, and recalls a national conference of queer artists in San Francisco the late playwright attended. “He gave a speech about why he didn’t want to be called a gay playwright, but it was the wrong time and venue to make that speech, and he was booed off stage.” Their breakup, instigated by McNally, who had met someone else, was ugly, but they later reunited as friends. “Edward and I were drunk every night of our relationship,” he says. “You can’t have a serious relationship if you’re drunk.”

McNally was a frequent visitor to Albee’s home in Montauk during his final years, and draws a poignant portrait of the playwright, so celebrated for his precise language, afflicted by dementia, staring silently at the ocean. “He had a woman taking care of him—her name was Martha,” he recalls. “I said to her, ‘Martha, how many people come to visit Edward?’ and she said, ‘You’re just about the only one.’ It made me so sad, to think that Edward Albee, who had been so acclaimed…” He trails off.

The memory evokes other, earlier memories, when he and Albee would spend their nights in a bar called the San Remo. “It’s now a hero shop, which saddens me, but it was filled with the musicians, poets and painters of the ’60s,” he says. “Everyone was there from, [W.H.] Auden to Leonard Bernstein to Aaron Copland, and, when he was in New York, Harold Pinter.” Even Samuel Beckett, on the one occasion he visited New York, spent his evenings there. McNally gives a wry smile. “When I first met Edward, he was fun and laughing and wanted to stay up all night and party. How I graduated from Columbia cum laude is a tribute to my ability to bullshit, because I was living with him on 12th Street and would just occasionally drop in on campus.”

Terrence McNally in his early 20s circa 1962
McNally in his early 20s circa 1962. Terrence McNally

One suspects he studied harder than he lets on, but also that the city was his mentor. After all, those late nights at San Remo, the creative ferment of New York, were grist for his calling. Steinbeck had warned him off a career in theater, saying it would break his heart, but there was Ethel Merman and Gertrude Lawrence and Olivier. There was magic.

“So many people see theater as a stepping stone to Hollywood and bigger salaries, but I’ve never wavered,” McNally says. “It’s truly the only thing I ever wanted to do.” 

The perseverance paid off. Sometimes, even now, he finds himself suddenly overcome by what the stage still means to him. Last month, at the Broadhurst Theatre, where Frankie and Johnny is playing, one of the show’s producers offered McNally his own dressing room. “I said, ‘Yes, I’ve never had one,’ and I burst into tears.” For a moment, he was again the stage-struck 7-year-old from Corpus Christi. “And I have the star dressing room, the one I assumed Audra would be in,” he says. “It just made me very happy. I felt: I’m really on Broadway.”

Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune opens May 30 at New York’s Broadhurst Theatre.

At 80, Playwright Terrence McNally Is Still Theater’s Biggest Fanboy