McNally was born November 3, 1938, in St. Petersburg, Florida, to Hubert Arthur and Dorothy Katharine (Rapp) McNally, two transplanted New Yorkers from Irish Catholic backgrounds. His parents ran a seaside bar and grill called The Pelican Club, but after a hurricane destroyed the establishment, the family briefly relocated to Port Chester, New York, then to Dallas, Texas, and finally to Corpus Christi, Texas. There 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. 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. McNally later said: "When I saw On the Town, with Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly and Jules Munshin with the Staten Island Ferry and the Empire State Building, I said: 'That's where I want to live.' I've never regretted it." In high school McNally was encouraged to write by a gifted English teacher, Maurine McElroy (1913–2005).
Terrence McNally (November 3, 1938 – March 24, 2020) was an American playwright, librettist, and screenwriter.
He enrolled at Columbia College in 1956. There he especially enjoyed Andrew Chiappe's two-semester course on Shakespeare in which students read Shakespeare's plays in roughly the order of their composition. He joined the Boar's Head Society 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 and membership in Phi Beta Kappa Society. In 1961, McNally was hired by novelist John Steinbeck to tutor his two teenage sons as the Steinbeck family took a cruise around the world. On the cruise McNally completed a draft of what became the opening act of And Things That Go Bump in the Night. Steinbeck asked McNally to write the libretto for a musical version of the novel East of Eden.
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 City 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. His earliest full-length play, This Side of the Door, deals with a sensitive boy's battle of wills with his overbearing father and was produced in an Actor's Studio Workshop in 1962, featuring a young Estelle Parsons. Starting a career that covered both off-Broadway and Broadway, his plays cried out against Vietnam, satirized stale family dynamics, mocked sexual mores and became a part of the social protest movement of the 1960s and early 1970s.
In 1964, his next play And Things That Go Bump in the Night put homosexuality squarely on stage which brought him the ire of New York City's conservative theatre critics. It opened at the Royale Theatre on Broadway to generally negative reviews. The play explores the psycho-social dynamic of anxiety that leads one to preemptively and defensively accuse others of creating problems that in actuality result from one's own insecurity. McNally later said, "My first play, Things That Go Bump in the Night, was a big flop. I had to begin all over again." Nevertheless, the producer, Theodore Mann dropped the price of tickets to $1.00 which allowed the production to run with sold-out houses for three weeks.
McNally turned to comedy and farce, beginning with Noon (1968), a sexual farce revolving around five strangers who are lured to an apartment in lower Manhattan by a personal advertisement. Bad Habits, which satirizes American reliance upon psychotherapy, premiered at the John Drew Theatre in East Hampton, New York, in 1971 starring Linda Lavin. It transferred to the Booth Theatre on Broadway in 1974 and garnered an Obie Award. The Ritz is a farce centering on a straight man who inadvertently takes refuge in a Mafia-owned gay bathhouse. It opened at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., and moved to the Longacre Theatre on Broadway in 1975. Robert Drivas, then McNally's romantic partner, directed both productions. McNally adapted the play for the motion picture, The Ritz (1976), directed by Richard Lester. In 1978, McNally wrote Broadway, Broadway, which failed in its Philadelphia try-out starring Geraldine Page. Rewritten and retitled It's Only a Play, it premiered in off-Broadway in 1985 at Manhattan Theatre Club directed by John Tillinger and starring Christine Baranski, Joanna Gleason, and James Coco.
In his early years in New York City, 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 and The Sandbox. They functioned as a couple for over four years during which Albee wrote The American Dream and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. He was frustrated by Albee's lack of openness about his sexuality. McNally later said: "I became invisible when press was around or at an opening night. I knew it was wrong. It’s so much work to live that way." After his relationship with Albee, McNally entered into a long-term relationship with the actor and director Robert Drivas. Drivas and McNally broke up as a couple in 1976; they remained close friends until Drivas died of AIDS-related complications ten years later.
After the failure of Broadway, Broadway and living briefly in Hollywood, he returned to New York City and formed an artistic relationship with Manhattan Theatre Club. The rapid spread of AIDS fundamentally changed his writing. 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. His first Broadway musical was The Rink in 1984, a project he joined 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 coping with her son's death from AIDS. A year later, in Lips Together, Teeth Apart, two married couples spend the Fourth of July weekend at a summer house on Fire Island. They are all afraid to use the pool given that its owner who has just died of AIDS. It was written 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.
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. Kiss of the Spider Woman won the 1993 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical, the first of McNally's four Tony Awards. 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 third Tony Award. Ragtime finished its Broadway run on January 16, 2000. A revival in 2009 closed after only two months.
Described as "the bard of American theater" and "one of the greatest contemporary playwrights the theater world has yet produced," McNally was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1996. He received the 2019 Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement, the Dramatists Guild Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011, and the Lucille Lortel Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2018, he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the highest recognition of artistic merit in the United States.
McNally collaborated on several new American operas. His voice may be more familiar with opera fans than theater-goers, as for nearly 30 years (1979-2008) he was a member of the Texaco Opera Quiz panel that fielded questions during the weekly Live from the Met radio broadcasts. He wrote the libretto for Dead Man Walking, his adaptation of Sister Helen Prejean's book, with a score by Jake Heggie. The opera had its world premiere at San Francisco Opera in 2000 and subsequently received two commercial recordings and over 40 productions worldwide, making it “one of the most successful American operas in recent decades." In 2007, Heggie composed a chamber opera, Three Decembers, with a libretto by Gene Scheer based on a text McNally had created in 1999 for a Christmas concert to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, Some Christmas Letters (and a Couple of Phone Calls, Too). In October 2015, Dallas Opera presented Great Scott with an original libretto by McNally and a score by Heggie. The new opera starred Joyce DiDonato and Frederica von Stade and was directed by Jack O’Brien.
McNally's Corpus Christi (1997) became the subject of protests. In this retelling of the story of Jesus' birth, ministry, and death, 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 produced the play. The board relented after several other playwrights, including Athol Fugard, threatened to withdraw their plays if Corpus Christi was not produced. A crowd of almost 2,000 protested the play as blasphemous at its opening. After it opened in London in 1999, a group called the "Defenders of the Messenger Jesus" issued a fatwa sentencing McNally to death. In 2008, the play was revived in New York City at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre. Reviewing this production for The New York Times, Jason Zinoman wrote that "without the noise of controversy, the play can finally be heard. Staged with admirable delicacy... the work seems more personal than political, a coming-of-age story wrapped in religious sentiment."
In 2000, McNally partnered with composer and lyricist David Yazbek to write the musical The Full Monty, which was directed by Jack O’Brien and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell. It had an initial run at The Old Globe Theatre and then transferred to the Eugene O’Neill Theatre on Broadway. The opening night cast included Patrick Wilson, Andre De Shields, Jason Danieley, Kathleen Freeman, Emily Skinner, and Annie Golden. It was nominated for 12 Tony Awards including for McNally's book. It later transferred to the Prince of Wales Theater in London's West End.
In 2001, McNally started what became a 15-year developmental process towards Broadway with the musical The Visit, for which he wrote the book. The music is written by John Kander and the lyrics by Fred Ebb. Adapted from Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 satire, The Visit is the story of a widow who has amassed enormous sums of wealth and returns to her hometown to seek revenge on the villagers who scorned her in her youth. The project originally starred Angela Lansbury who departed the process to care for her ailing husband. Chita Rivera became the new star and The Visit had its first production at The Goodman Theater in Chicago in 2001. The first preview was held just ten days after the September 11 attacks, and the producers were unable to get many investors or critics from New York City to fly to Chicago. In 2004, Fred Ebb, the lyricist, died. Its next regional production occurred in 2008 at The Signature Theatre outside of Washington D.C. In 2014, under the direction of John Doyle and starring Chita Rivera and Roger Rees, The Visit had a new production at Williamstown Theatre and then transferred to Broadway at The Lyceum Theatre in 2015. The musical was nominated for five Tony awards including for McNally's book.
Continuing his work on librettos, McNally partnered with his collaborators on Ragtime, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, to write the musical A Man of No Importance which premiered at Lincoln Center in 2002 and was directed by Joe Mantello. He also wrote the libretto for Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life, in 2005, another collaboration with Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, which began at The Old Globe and subsequently transferred to Broadway at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.
McNally was partnered to Tom 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. They 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, Kirdahy's college roommate, officiating on June 26, 2015.
In 2004, Primary Stages presented McNally’s The Stendhal Syndrome, which according to McNally explores “how art can affect us emotionally, psychologically, and erotically.” The play starred Isabella Rossellini and Richard Thomas and was directed by Leonard Foglia. In 2007, Philadelphia Theatre Company presented Some Men, which explores the evolution of gay relationships and same-sex marriage. It went on to Second Stage Theatre in New York and was directed by Trip Cullman. That same year McNally's drama Deuce ran on Broadway at the Music Box Theater for a limited engagement in 2007 for 121 performances. Directed by Michael Blakemore, the play starred Angela Lansbury, in her return to Broadway after more than 20 years, and Marian Seldes.
The Kennedy Center presented three of McNally's plays that focus on opera under the heading Nights at the Opera, in March 2010. It included a new play, Golden Age; Master Class, starring Tyne Daly; and The Lisbon Traviata, starring John Glover and Malcolm Gets. Golden Age subsequently ran Off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club New York City Center – Stage I from November 2012 to January 2013.
Mothers and Sons starring Tyne Daly and Frederick Weller opened on Broadway at the John Golden Theatre, where Master Class had its premiere, on March 24, 2014 (February 23, 2014 in previews). Mothers and Sons premiered at the Bucks County Playhouse (Pennsylvania) in June 2013. Vermont Stage opened its production January 27, 2016 at FlynnSpace in Burlington, Vermont. The play is an expansion on his 1988 drama Andre’s Mother, which was set at a memorial service for a victim of the AIDS crisis. Mothers and Sons also marked the first time a legally wed gay couple was portrayed on Broadway. It was nominated for two Tony Awards including for Best Play.
And Away We Go premiered Off-Broadway at the Pearl Theatre in November 2013, with direction by Jack Cummings III and featured Donna Lynne Champlin, Sean McNall and Dominic Cuskern. The play takes place over several millennia covering the most pivotal moments in dramatic history entwined with a modern-day story of a struggling theatre company. McNally said that “It's very much written for the Pearl, the company that has kept the faith for the great classic plays. There are whole seasons in New York when I don't think a single classic play would have been performed if it hadn't been for the Pearl... I think it's really important. I write new plays for a living; I certainly don't think theatre should be just revivals, but there has always got to be a place for Chekhov, Ibsen, Shakespeare, Moliere and Aeschylus.”
McNally's Fire and Air premiered Off-Broadway at Classic Stage Company on February 1, 2018. The play explores the history of the Ballets Russes, the Russian ballet company, with a particular focus on Sergei Diaghilev, the ballet impresario, and Vaslav Nijinsky, the dancer and choreographer. It featured the actors Douglas Hodge, Marsha Mason, Marin Mazzie, John Glover, and Jay Armstrong Johnson and was directed by Tony Award-winner John Doyle.
McNally received a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2019.
On May 29, 2019, a revival of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune opened on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre. The production starred Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon, and was directed by Arin Arbus in her Broadway debut.
In June 2019, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, an event widely considered a watershed moment in the modern LGBTQ rights movement, Queerty named him one of the Pride50 "trailblazing individuals who actively ensure society remains moving towards equality, acceptance and dignity for all queer people".
When given his Tony for Lifetime Achievement in June 2019, he began his acceptance speech saying "Lifetime achievement. Not a moment too soon." He wore a cannula and appeared short of breath. McNally died at Sarasota Memorial Hospital in Sarasota, Florida, on March 24, 2020, at the age of 81, from complications of coronavirus disease 2019 during the COVID-19 pandemic. He had previously overcome lung cancer in the late 1990s that cost him both portions of his lungs due to the disease, and he was living with COPD at the time of his death.
Terrence McNally: Every Act of Life, a documentary about McNally's life and career, aired on PBS on June 14, 2019, as part of their American Masters series. The film features new interviews with McNally in addition to conversations with his friends and collaborators, including F. Murray Abraham, Christine Baranski, Tyne Daly, Edie Falco, John Kander, Nathan Lane, Angela Lansbury, Marin Mazzie, Audra McDonald, Rita Moreno, Billy Porter, Chita Rivera, Doris Roberts, John Slattery and Patrick Wilson, plus the voices of Dan Bucatinsky, Bryan Cranston and Meryl Streep. Charles McNulty, reviewing the film for the Los Angeles Times, wrote, "If you can know a person by the company he keeps, you can judge a playwright by the talent that sticks by him. By this measure, Terrence McNally was one of the most important dramatists of the last 50 years."
He died of complications from COVID-19 on March 24, 2020, at a hospital in Florida.