One of theatre's most important playwrights today, he has received the Tony Award for Best Play for Love! Valour! Compassion! and Master Class, as well as the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical for Kiss of the Spider Woman and Ragtime. His other accolades include an Emmy Award, two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Rockefeller Grant, four Drama Desk Awards, two Lucille Lortel Awards, two Obie Awards, three Hull-Warriner Awards, and a citation from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. McNally was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1996. Several of his plays have been turned into successful movies.
He has a career spanning five decades, and his plays are routinely performed all over the world. His work centers on the difficulties of and urgent need for human connection. For McNally, the most important function of theatre is to create community by bridging rifts opened between people by difference in religion, race, gender, and particularly sexual orientation.
In an address to members of the League of American Theatres and Producers he remarked, “I think theatre teaches us who we are, what our society is, where we are going. I don’t think theatre can solve the problems of a society, nor should it be expected to … Plays don’t do that. People do. [But plays can] provide a forum for the ideas and feelings that can lead a society to decide to heal and change itself.”
He has been a member of the Council of the Dramatists Guild since 1970 and served as vice-president from 1981 to 2001. McNally was partnered to Thomas Kirdahy following a civil union ceremony in Vermont in 2003, and they subsequently married in Washington, D.C. on April 6, 2010.
Born in St. Petersburg, Florida and raised in Corpus Christi, Texas, McNally moved to New York City in 1956 to attend Columbia University, where he majored in English and wrote Columbia's annual Varsity Show, graduating in 1960, the same year in which he gained membership into the Phi Beta Kappa Society. He worked briefly for the alumni magazine Columbia College Today. In 1961, only one year out of Columbia University, McNally was hired by novelist John Steinbeck to accompany him and his family on a cruise around the world. McNally had been recommended by Molly Kazan, the Steinbeck's neighbor and McNally's mentor at the Playwrights Unit of the Actors Studio, as a tutor for his two teenage boys. The voyage would prove influential as McNally completed a draft of what would become the opening act of And Things That Go Bump in the Night. Steinbeck would go on to ask 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 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. In his early years in New York, he was the partner of playwright Edward Albee. McNally was also a partner to actor Robert Drivas.
In 1964, his first play And Things That Go Bump in the Night opened at the Royale Theatre to generally negative reviews. 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 production ran to sold-out houses for three weeks after the producer lowered the price of tickets to one and two dollars. In 1968, McNally asked that his name be removed from the credits for the musical Here's Where I Belong. The show closed after one performance.
Although several early comedies such as Next in 1969 and Witness, Sweet Eros, and Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone? were successful off-Broadway, 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, and with two Broadway productions, Bad Habits and The Ritz.
His first credited Broadway musical was The Rink in 1984, a project he entered 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 trying to cope with her son's death from AIDS. A year later, he returned to the stage with another AIDS-related play, Lips Together, Teeth Apart. In the play, two married couples spend the Fourth of July weekend at a summer house on Fire Island. The house has been willed to Sally Truman by her brother who has just died of AIDS, and it soon becomes evident that both couples are afraid to get in the swimming pool once used by Sally's brother. It was written specifically 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. For the book, McNally won the first of his 4 Tony Awards. Kiss of the Spider Woman won the 1993 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical. 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 3rd Tony Award. Ragtime finished its Broadway run on January 16, 2000. A revival production in 2009 was short-lived, closing after only 2 months.
McNally's other plays include 1994's Love! Valour! Compassion!, with Lane and John Glover, which examines the relationships of eight gay men; it won McNally his 2nd Tony Award. Master Class (1995); a character study of legendary opera soprano Maria Callas, which starred Zoe Caldwell and won the Tony for Best Play, McNally's 4th; and the least-known of the group, Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams, with Lane and Marian Seldes.
In 1996, McNally was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.
In 1997, McNally stirred up a storm of controversy with Corpus Christi, a modern day retelling of the story of Jesus' birth, ministry, and death in which both 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 was to produce the play. However, several other playwrights such as Athol Fugard threatened to withdraw their plays if Corpus Christi was not produced, and the board finally relented. When the play opened, the theatre was besieged by almost 2,000 protesters, furious at what they considered blasphemy. When Corpus Christi opened in London, a group called the Defenders of the Messenger Jesus issued a fatwa sentencing McNally to death.
On January 19, 2008, Robert Forsyth, Anglican bishop of South Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, condemned Corpus Christi (which opened for February's Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, a play depicting Judas seducing Jesus): "It is deliberately, not innocently, offensive and they're obviously having a laugh about it." The play showed Jesus administrating a marriage between two male apostles. Director Leigh Rowney accepted that it would offend some Christians and said: "I wanted this play in the hands of a Christian person like myself to give it dignity but still open it up to answering questions about Christianity as a faith system."
The Kennedy Center presented three of McNally's plays that focus on his works involving opera, titled Nights at the Opera in March 2010. The pieces included a new play, Golden Age; Master Class, starring Tyne Daly; and The Lisbon Traviata, starring John Glover and Malcolm Gets.
McNally has collaborated on several operas, including the libretto for Dead Man Walking, his adaptation of Sister Helen Prejean's book, with a score by Jake Heggie. In 2007, Heggie composed a chamber opera, Three Decembers, based on original text by McNally titled Some Christmas Letters (and a Couple of Phone Calls, Too), with libretto by Gene Scheer. In November 2015, Dallas Opera will present Great Scott with an original libretto by McNally and a score by Heggie.
And Away We Go, premiered Off-Broadway at the Pearl Theatre in November 2013, with direction by Jack Cummings III and featuring Donna Lynne Champlin, Sean McNall and Dominic Cuskern.
Mothers and Sons starring Tyne Daly and Frederick Weller opened on Broadway at the 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. The play has its US-Northwest-premiere at Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland (Oregon) in February 2016.
- 1975 Drama Desk Award Nomination, Outstanding New American Play (The Ritz)
- 1992 Drama Desk Award Nomination, Outstanding New Play (The Lisbon Traviata)
- 1992 Drama Desk Award Winner, Outstanding New Play (Lips Together, Teeth Apart)
- 1995 Drama Desk Award Winner, Outstanding Play (Love! Valour! Compassion!)
- 1996 Drama Desk Award Winner, Outstanding Play (Master Class)
- 1998 Drama Desk Award Winner, Outstanding Book of a Musical (Ragtime)
- 2001 Drama Desk Award Nomination, Outstanding Book of a Musical (The Full Monty)
- 2003 Drama Desk Award Nomination, Outstanding Book of a Musical (A Man of No Importance)
- 2006 Drama Desk Award Nomination, Outstanding Play (Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams)
- 2007 Drama Desk Award Nomination, Outstanding Play (Some Men)
- 1990 Emmy Award Winner, Outstanding Writing in a Miniseries or a Special (Andre's Mother)
- 1992 Lucille Lortel Award Winner, Outstanding Body of Work (Terrence McNally)
- 1992 Lucille Lortel Award Winner, Outstanding Play (Lips Together, Teeth Apart)
- 1974 Obie Award Winner, Distinguished Play (Bad Habits)
- 1995 Obie Award Winner for Playwriting (Love! Valour! Compassion!)
- 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Drama Nomination (A Perfect Ganesh)
- 1993 Tony Award Winner, Best Book of a Musical (Kiss of the Spider Woman)
- 1995 Tony Award Winner, Best Play (Love! Valour! Compassion!)
- 1996 Tony Award Winner, Best Play (Master Class)
- 1998 Tony Award Winner, Best Book of a Musical (Ragtime)
- 2001 Tony Award Nomination, Best Book of a Musical (The Full Monty)
- 2014 Tony Award Nomination, Best Play (Mothers and Sons)
- General citations
- Grode, Eric. Show Music: The Musical Theatre Magazine. Fall 2000. Volume Sixteen, Number Three.
- Terrence McNally at glbtq.com
- Perspectives in American Literature
- Terrence McNally at the Playwrights Database
- Terrence McNally at the Internet Off Broadway Database
- He knows how to make the best of his bad habits, Terrence McNally interview by Guy Flatley for the New York Times, 1974
- Terrence McNally at the Internet Broadway Database
- Terrence McNally at the Internet Movie Database
- Guggenheim Fellowship listing
- Press Release about Corpus Christi
- New Plays And Playwrights - Working in the Theatre Seminar video at American Theatre Wing.org, January 2004