I wrote the Wall Street Journal’s obituary of Terrence McNally on a two-hour deadline Tuesday afternoon. Even though it was written in great haste, I hope it does him justice. Here’s an excerpt.
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The coronavirus has claimed its first well-known theatrical victim—one who, in the most brutal of ironies, lived through an earlier plague that laid waste to the American stage. Terrence McNally, who died on Tuesday in Sarasota, Fla., at the age of 81, belonged to the generation of gay men who survived the AIDS epidemic and lived long enough to marry their partners. He was one of the very first playwrights to write forthrightly about life in New York’s gay community, which meant almost by definition that he had frequent occasion to write about AIDS, first in “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” (1991) and the Tony-winning “Love! Valour! Compassion!” (1994) and later in “Andre’s Mother” (1990) and “Mothers and Sons” (2013), a pair of plays about a gay-hating mother whose son dies of AIDS.
Not that Mr. McNally had only one subject. He was one of the true professionals of American theater, a hugely prolific playwright who also wrote the books for numerous musicals, the most successful of which were his stage versions of “Kiss of the Spider Woman” (1992) and “Ragtime” (1996). Few seasons went by when a show of his wasn’t running on or off-Broadway—or both. When not in a rehearsal hall, he was more likely than not to be at the opera, and many of his plays, most famously “The Lisbon Traviata” (1989), the story of two men who prefer opera to life, and “Master Class” (1995), a dramatization of the master classes that Maria Callas gave at Juilliard in 1971 and 1972, portrayed various aspects of the claustrophobic world of opera and its obsessive fans.
Given the fact that Mr. McNally came along when he did, I was struck by how cheery a playwright he usually was. He was a funny man who loved to give pleasure, and I felt almost guilty for not liking more of his work more than I did. Part of the problem was that his talent to amuse could lead him astray….
* * *Read the whole thing here.
The press reel of clips from the original 1995 Broadway production of Terrence McNally’s Master Class, starring Zoe Caldwell and Audra McDonald: