Affectionate new bio looks at Terrence McNally’s life and work

The prolific author of plays, musicals, and operas was ahead of his time, and the culture had to catch up.

A Man of Much Importance: The Art and Life of Terrence McNally by Christopher Byrne
Applause, 2023

This biography is an affectionate look at the life and works of playwright Terrence McNally, prolific author of plays, musicals, and operas. Theater editor Christopher Byrne writes passionately about McNally’s talents, arguing that he wrote from honesty, using the artificiality of theater to tell truths about the human conditions. Throughout McNally’s career, Byrne suggests, he was ahead of his time and the culture simply had to catch up to him.

LEFT: The book published in 2023 by Applause. RIGHT: Terrence McNally in 2020. Photo by Al Pereira (Creative Commons).

McNally spent most of his childhood in Texas, the eldest of two sons. His father frequently chased him across the neighbors’ yards, once because McNally wore one of his mother’s skirts. Drawn to opera at a young age, he amassed a sizeable collection of recordings; his family would even listen to sports on the car radio so that he could use the nicer radio in the living room to listen to the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts.

He left for Columbia University to study journalism, but got his cultural education attending theater, opera, and jazz concerts five nights a week. His first night in New York, he tried to see My Fair Lady but found it was completely sold out. After seeing another show that night, he immediately stood in line for the few on-call tickets for Lady to be released the next night. While traveling with John Steinbeck as a tutor for his sons, he wrote And Things That Go Bump in the Night, his first big play. Remarkable for its time, it features Clarence, a guest of a family hiding from something terrible “out there” who sleeps with the son and is emotionally tortured for it by the family. Besides being perhaps the most emotionally autobiographical of McNally’s plays, it also began his theme of danger “out there” threatening the worlds of the play.

Bump marked him as a “gay playwright,” which would follow him for most of his career. Although he bristled at that label, during the struggle for same-sex marriage, he would use it to advocate for marriage equality. And so many of his plays directly explore gay life, from The Ritz, a farce set in a gay bathhouse, to The Lisbon Traviata, about two sets of gay partners, and Mothers and Sons, about a mother re-encountering her dead son’s lover and his husband. Nathan Lane, whose first openly gay role was in a McNally play, felt completely comfortable in the part, despite it being a time when gay actors generally did not play gay characters for fear of being “outed” and typecast.

Opera also plays a large role in many of McNally’s works. The Lisbon Traviata comes from opera fans’ search for an unauthorized recording of a Maria Callas production of La Traviata in Lisbon. Master Class features Callas teaching opera singers near the end of her life, in all her drama and glory. McNally’s knowledge and love of the art form allows even those unfamiliar with it to enjoy it.

Some of his work was challenging and controversial. Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune opens with a straight couple having nearly real sex on the stage. Kathy Bates, who played Frankie in the first production, was flattered that McNally saw her as an erotic being. Still, just before one performance, she remembered looking at the understudy playing Johnny, whom she had never met until that night, and wondering how it would go. For its 2019 revival, an “intimacy director” helped with those difficulties.

Corpus Christi raised the ire of the Catholic League for its depiction of Jesus and the Apostles as gay men. Manhattan Theatre Club, which had a long working relationship with McNally, almost canceled the show, with cries over censorship. Ultimately, they put it on but hired security guards for the theater and encouraged the actors to vary their rides home every night. Byrne argues the play is barely controversial, especially compared with more recent shows like Book of Mormon.

McNally also collaborated on musicals and operas, many of which were different from the usual Broadway fare. Some musicals, like The Rink, with Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera in a run-down skating rink, did not succeed. Others, like The Full Monty and Kiss of the Spider Woman, did remarkably well. The biography’s title comes from A Man of No Importance, about a gay Dublin bus driver who, over the church’s protests, is determined to put on a production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome. His most well-known opera, Dead Man Walking, based on Sister Helen Prejan’s book about meeting with death row prisoners, made the career of its composer, Jake Heggie. It opened the Met’s current season.

McNally loved working with actors, frequently rewriting during rehearsals. He would sometimes write a character with a specific actor in mind, even if he knew they would never play it. Still, he appreciated actors who could, as he put it, “act the semicolon,” reflecting his punctuation onstage. Indeed, his scripts can read like opera, with different rhythms and arias.

The biography discusses McNally’s love life. His first relationship was with Edward Albee. Ten years older than McNally, Albee was not “out” and the openly gay McNally felt invisible, leading to difficulties. To his friends’ surprise, he and female playwright Wendy Wasserstein were romantically involved for a time, although that ended when Wasserstein wanted children. He eventually married producer Tom Kirdhay, who was with McNally when he passed away in 2020 from complications of COVID.

While there are a few clunky sentences, the book’s conversational tone, with plenty of “more on that later,” treats the reader as a friend, even calling McNally “Terrence.” Indeed, in his introduction, Byrne describes his first encounter with McNally’s work, recovering Bump from his drama teacher’s trash, considered “inappropriate” for the school play. What follows is a loving portrait of a kind, generous man devoted to the theater. Hopefully, it will bring readers back to the plays.

A Man of Much Importance: The Art and Life of Terrence McNally by Christopher Byrne
Applause, 2023
408 pages, $29.99
ISBN13: 9781493053773


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