A stalwart of the New York stage since the mid-1960s, Terrence McNally has gained distinction on and off Broadway as a playwright and, to a much lesser extent, as a screenwriter. Notably prolific and eclectic, he built his considerable reputation by deftly penning a remarkable series of comedies ranging from a satirical take on psychiatry ("Bad Habits") to a broad physical farce ("The Ritz") to a drawing-room comedy ("It's Only A Play"). These early comedies were arguably more memorable for their intelligence and wit than for the depth of their characterization, prompting critic Harold Clurman to dub their author one of "the most adept practitioners of the comedy of insult".
Born in St. Petersburg, Florida in 1939 and raised in Corpus Christi, Texas, McNally was the son of a beer distributor and a part-time bookkeeper, both transplanted New Yorkers with a love of the theater. He first became "stage-struck", to use his preferred term, as a six-year-old when he saw Ethel Merman in the 1946 Broadway production of "Annie Get His love of opera--which would figure prominently in a number of his plays--began at age 15 when he first heard Maria Callas on the radio in Texas. At age 17, McNally moved to NYC to attend Columbia University. Visiting England as a student, McNally first saw actress Zoe Caldwell performing at Stratford-on-Avon. Dazzled, he vowed that he would one day write a play specifically for her (although it took him more than 35 years).
By age 26, McNally had already ended a long-term relationship with celebrated dramatist Edward Albee when his first full-length original, "And Things That Go Bump in the Night" was produced on Broadway. An eccentric comedy starring Eileen Heckart as a retired opera singer coping with oddball relatives, the play was savaged by reviewers but producer Ted Mann kept the play running for two weeks by lowering ticket prices. McNally recalled in PLAYBILL, "He charged $1 for balcony seats and $2 for the orchestra, and we sold out every night. For 16 performances, I felt like a playwright."
McNally made his TV writing debut with "Apple Pie and Last Gasps", produced and aired in 1966. Two years later, he had no less than three plays--"Sweet Eros/Witness", "Tour" and "Cuba Si"--produced Off-Broadway while "Noon", his segment of a program of three one-act plays collectively entitled "Morning, Noon and Night", was running on Broadway. Despite the bountiful laughs, McNally's plays often courted controversy with their sometimes bizarre and explicitly sexual situations.
McNally's first Off-Broadway smash, "Next", was a 1969 comedy starring James Coco as a flabby, aging movie theater manager unexpectedly summoned to report for an Army physical exam. He enjoyed a hit Broadway show in 1975 with "The Ritz", a frenetic farce about a chubby heterosexual hiding out from gangsters in a gay bathhouse. This success led to McNally's feature screenwriting debut, adapting his stage play for a 1976 Richard Lester-directed film in which Jack Weston, Rita Moreno and Jerry Stiller reprised their Broadway roles. Back onstage, McNally endured one of his greatest career setbacks in 1978 when "Broadway, Broadway", his ostensibly Broadway-bound comedy about a disastrous opening night, closed after a terrible Philadelphia tryout. The debacle drove McNally away from the stage for several years.
McNally further diversified into other media as "The Lisbon Traviata", his comedy about a gay opera fanatic, was produced as a radio play in 1979; that same year, he adapted John Cheever's story "The Five Forty-Eight" as his first contribution to PBS's "Great Performances"; he also appeared as a regular panelist on Texaco Opera Quiz, a NYC radio game show. McNally even ventured briefly into series TV, writing and producing the short-lived sitcom "Mama Malone" (CBS, 1984), about the hostess of a TV cooking show who must contend with constant interruptions from her quirky family members. McNally decisively returned to the stage in 1985 with "It's Only a Play", a more successful rewrite of the doomed "Broadway, Broadway". This also marked the beginning of the playwright's long association with Manhattan Theater Club as its unofficial writer-in-residence.
By the mid-80s, a definite shift in tone could be discerned in McNally's work: the laughs were increasingly laced with drama and elements of tragedy. The difficulties inherent in establishing and maintaining relationships were foregrounded as were the emotional voids between people. Such an evolution may be attributed to encroaching middle-age and the loss of many friends to AIDS. An early indication of this trend was his book for the John Kander-Fred Ebb musical "The Rink", which starred Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli as an estranged mother and daughter. Similarly, the romantic comedy-drama "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune" was a bittersweet look at love among the working class that scored Off-Broadway in 1988. The following year marked the beginning of McNally's fruitful collaboration with actor Nathan Lane who played an "opera queen" in the Off-Broadway stage production of "The Lisbon Traviata".
Renewed stage success did not keep McNally from pursuing other avenues of expression. With Wendy Wasserstein, he co-wrote the comedy segment of the TV special "Liza Minnelli in 'Sam Found Out: A Triple Play'" (ABC, 1988). McNally also contributed a segment, "A Good Life", to the PBS half-hour comedy anthology series "Trying Times". He won a richly deserved Emmy for "Andre's Mother" (PBS, 1990), an hour-long presentation of PBS' "American Playhouse", starring Sada Thompson and Richard Thomas in a story dealing with the emotional aftermath of an AIDS death on the surviving mother and lover. McNally returned to the movies as the screenwriter of "Frankie and Johnny" (1991), an adaptation of his Off-Broadway hit starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino. Directed by Garry Marshall, the film received generally positive reviews although most considered the glamorous Pfeiffer miscast as the plain-Jane waitress Frankie. (Kathy Bates had originated the role onstage.)
The 90s proved a fecund period for the playwright as he enjoyed a string of critical and commercial hits on and Off-Broadway including "Lips Together, Teeth Apart", about two straight couples coping with the gay environs of Fire Island, featuring Nathan Lane and Christine Baranski; the Kander and Ebb musical "Kiss of the Spider Woman", for which he wrote the Tony-winning book; "A Perfect Ganesh", with Zoe Caldwell and Frances Sternhagen as a pair of New England dowagers in undeveloped India; the award-winning "Love! Valour! Compassion!", with Lane, John Glover and an impressive ensemble playing eight gay men interacting at a country home; and "Master Class", the play McNally finally wrote for Caldwell, in which she gave a tour-de-force performance as peerless opera diva Maria Callas. McNally also managed the daunting task of adapting E.L. Doctorow's novel "Ragtime" into one of the most acclaimed stage musicals of the later part of the Twentieth Century. After its premiere in Toronto in 1996, the show played in L.A. before opening the newly built Ford Center for the Performing Arts on 42nd Street in NYC in January 1998.
By the mid-90s, gay-themed films were in vogue in Hollywood. "Love! Valour! Compassion!" (1997) started production in the successful wake of "Philadelphia" (1993) and "The Birdcage" (1996). Ironically, Nathan Lane chose to appear in the latter project, making him unavailable for the film version of the play that featured one of his most acclaimed performances. After a delay, Jason Alexander replaced him as the HIV-positive "musical theater queen". Marking McNally's first film credit in over five years, Joe Mantello's highly anticipated production of "Love! Valour! Compassion!" was selected to close the 1997 Sundance Film Festival. A film version of "Master Class", with Faye Dunaway (who headlined the national tour), was also in the production pipeline.