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 on Tuesday in Sarasota, Fla. He was 81.
The cause was complications of the coronavirus, according to his husband, Tom Kirdahy. Mr. McNally had chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, and had overcome lung cancer.
Mr. 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 the opera diva Maria Callas reflects on her career.
And those prize winners were only a small part of his oeuvre. With some three dozen 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, Mr. McNally was a remarkably prolific and consistent dramatist.
His career, which began on Broadway in 1963 with a few lines he contributed to an adaptation of “The Lady of the Camellias” starring Susan Strasberg, continued without much interruption through last year’s revival of his “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” starring Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon.
In between, in a series of successes including “The Ritz,” “The Lisbon Traviata,” “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” and “Love! Valour! Compassion!,” Mr. McNally introduced Broadway and Off Broadway audiences to characters and situations that most mainstream theater had previously shunted into comic asides.
His first Broadway production, a 1965 bomb called “And Things That Go Bump in the Night,” featured what was, at the time, an almost unheard-of romance between two men.
Walter Kerr, writing in The New York Herald Tribune, called it an “infertile cross between Sartre’s ‘No Exit,’ Albee’s ‘Tiny Alice,’ Wagner’s ‘Gotterdammerung’ and the most portentous high school pageant you ever saw.”
Mr. McNally told Vogue in 1995, “I still think that I win, hands down, the contest for worst first-play reviews — or any-play reviews.”
Such reviews did not slow him down, however. Over the next 50 years, his flagship plays, as well as the teleplay for “Andre’s Mother” in 1990 and its stage sequel “Mothers and Sons” in 2014, traced the same arc that many gay men were experiencing in their lives over the same period, from the closet to rebellion, and from disaster to marriage and parenting.
“The Ritz,” which opened in 1975, offered Broadway audiences a farcical snapshot of life in a Manhattan bathhouse, with Mafiosi and half-naked gay men slamming and opening doors in a replay of closetedness and liberation. By 1989, when “The Lisbon Traviata” opened at the Manhattan Theater Club, that joy had soured considerably, as the relationship between an obsessive gay opera fanatic and his younger doctor lover explodes to a Callas soundtrack.
If that play was fueled by unspoken angst about AIDS, the disease moved to the forefront in “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” (1991) and “Love! Valour! Compassion!,” both of which concern groups of friends — straight couples in the first, gay men in the second — confronting unexpected mortality. In “Andre’s Mother,” the two groups intersect when the mother of a man who has died of AIDS cannot bring herself to acknowledge the grief of his longtime lover.
Fourteen years later, in “Mothers and Sons,” that lover has remarried and, with his husband, become the father of a young son — the first time this new family reality was depicted on Broadway.
Though the changes Mr. 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.
This was naturally most evident in his books for musicals, several of which had gay characters and themes and nearly all of which focused on society’s outsiders trying to get in. “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” based on the novel by Manuel Puig, daringly puts onstage, in one prison cell, a macho political prisoner in an unnamed South American dictatorship and a window-dresser whose greatest passion is for campy movie musicals. Chita Rivera starred as Aurora, the Spider Woman, a figure of death and transcendence brought to life by an act of willful imagination.
And among the out-of-work steelworkers who put together a striptease act to raise money and morale in “The Full Monty,” which opened on Broadway in 2000, Mr. McNally made sure to include a gay relationship not seen in the British film on which the musical was based.
His other musicals, which include “The Rink” (1984), “Catch Me if You Can” (2011) and “Anastasia” (2016), likewise depict Mr. McNally’s gift for sociological specificity within historical sweep, even if most of them are adaptations. Perhaps that’s because, in replicating the arc of gay life from the 1960s to the 2010s, his plays also replicated the arc of his own life.
Michael Terrence McNally was born on Nov. 3, 1938, in St. Petersburg, Fla., where his parents, Hubert and Dorothy (Rapp) McNally, had a bar and grill on the beach. During World War II and just after, the family lived in Port Chester, N.Y., 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. The show, he said in an oral history recorded in 2017 for the Primary Stages Off Broadway Oral History Project, “made a huge impression, so much so that when she did it on Broadway as a revival when I was a student at Columbia many years later, I anticipated every moment: ‘Now she’s going to do this; now that’s going to happen.’ Suddenly it all came rushing back.”
The family moved to Corpus Christi, Texas. In high school there Mr. McNally edited the school newspaper and literary magazine.
“I had a wonderful high school English teacher, Mrs. McElroy,” he said in the oral history, “who loved theater, made me and a few others really appreciate the English language and the use of it, and she really got us into Shakespeare.”
He graduated from W.B. Ray High School in Corpus Christi in 1956 and enrolled at Columbia University. It was a particularly vibrant time for Broadway. In the oral history, Mr. McNally recalled heading out on his first night in the city naively expecting to walk up to the box office and buy a ticket to “My Fair Lady,” a smash hit that had recently opened starring Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison. Told that the show was sold out for months, he walked a few blocks south and saw Gwen Vernon in “Damn Yankees” instead.
He earned his bachelor’s degree in English in 1960. By then he was in a relationship with the playwright Edward Albee, whom he had met at a party in 1959.
“Terrence and I started talking,” Mr. Albee recalled in an interview quoted in Mel Gussow’s biography, “Edward Albee: A Singular Journey” (2012), “and the next thing I knew, so to speak, we were living together.”
The relationship lasted five years, but their differing views on how to deal with their sexuality were a point of tension.
“Edward didn’t want to be reviewed as a gay playwright and was never comfortable coming out,” Mr. McNally told The San Francisco Chronicle in 2018. “That’s one of about a million reasons why that relationship was never going to go anywhere. 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.” (Mr. Albee died in 2016.)
After the poorly received “And Things That Go Bump in the Night,” Mr. McNally had two other Broadway credits, “Morning, Noon and Night” in 1968 and two one-acts under the title “Bad Habits” in 1974, before scoring a success with “The Ritz,” which ran for almost a year. His career culminated in a Tony Award for lifetime achievement in 2019.
Mr. McNally and Mr. Kirdahy were joined in a civil union in 2003 and married in 2010. He is also survived by a brother, Peter.
In a 2014 interview with The New York Times, Mr. McNally recalled an encounter at Stephen Sondheim’s 50th-birthday party in 1980 that helped him shed a personal demon, a turning point in his playwriting. He was drinking heavily at the time and had been for years.
“Then someone I hardly knew, Angela Lansbury, waved me over to where she was sitting,” he said. “And she said, ‘I just want to say, I don’t know you very well, but every time I see you, you’re drunk, and it bothers me.’ I was so upset. She was someone I revered, and she said this with such love and concern. I went to an A.A. meeting, and within a year, I had stopped drinking.”
By 1982, with “Frankie and Johnny,” the course of his career had changed, his vision having deepened and darkened from the zaniness and absurdity of his earlier work. The play about melancholy lovers — Frankie is “a B.L.T. down sort of person,” who thinks Johnny is “looking for someone a little more pheasant under glass” — introduces what would become Mr. McNally ’s mature theme: that tragedy and comedy not only coexist but also, like all of us on earth, cohabit.