Terrence McNally dies at age 81 of Coronavirus Complications

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Terrence McNally dies at age 81 of Coronavirus Complications.

Terrence McNally, the playwright behind “Master Class” and “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” has died of complications from coronavirus. He was 81.

The four-time Tony Award winner was a lung cancer survivor who lived with chronic COPD. He died on Tuesday at the Sarasota Memorial Hospital in Florida.

McNally’s resume was notable for its range, barrier-breaking depictions of gay life, and interest in subjects such as middle-aged romance and opera considered taboo by the commercial theater. His career moved from farces like “The Ritz” to thought-provoking, award-winning dramas such as “Love! Valor! Compassion!” and “Master Class.” McNally is one of the first major celebrities to die from coronavirus complications. Broadway and New York theaters have been closed for more than a week due to the pandemic — it’s a public health crisis that threatens the institutions where McNally lived, worked, and received great acclaim.

Though his debut on Broadway, “And Things That Go Bump in the Night,” was universally panned, McNally buckled down and slowly developed his reputation through successful one-act productions, eventually triumphing on Broadway and winning four Tonys, two for dramatic works “Love! Valour! Compassion!” and “Master Class,” and two for the musical books of “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “Ragtime.”

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McNally developed a home at the Manhattan Theater Club, where many of his Broadway productions were developed and refined. And while musical productions “Kiss” and “Ragtime” were bigger hits than any of his plays, he was nonetheless one of the few consistent dramatic voices on a Broadway otherwise dominated by lavish musicals and stage versions of hit movies. He was clearly devoted to the theater and worried about the fate of drama on the commercial stage, authoring numerous articles in which he discussed his fears.

After his initial (and rather spectacular) failure, his one act “Next” was a solid Off Broadway hit, and he developed a reputation as a writer of stinging dialogue, so much so that it took a number of dramatic hits to dislodge this narrow assessment from the minds of critics and audiences. His later plays eventually overshadowed his more audacious farcical pieces and demonstrated his ability to mine both humor and heartbreak from material.

His love of theater, McNally had said, was imbued by his New York emigre parents while he was growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas (he was born in St. Petersburg, Fla.). It was also in Corpus Christi that he first heard an opera broadcast from Mexico of singer Maria Callas, who would figure prominently in two of his later dramas, “Lisbon Traviata” and “Master Class.” He started writing plays in high school, one of which he frequently joked about: a musing on George Gershwin, who at the end of the piece married his sweetheart Ira — until an English teacher pointed out that Ira was George’s brother.

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After receiving a B.A. in journalism from Columbia University and flirting briefly with work as a reporter, McNally settled in New York. An early relationship with Edward Albee would follow him around for many years afterward: Some sneeringly referred to McNally as “the boyfriend” when “Bump” debuted on Broadway, even though by then he had lost contact with Albee.

McNally’s first produced play was “This Side of the Door,” staged Off Broadway in 1963. He was already part of a generation of new playwrights including Leonard Melfi, Israel Horovitz, Arthur Kopit and Sam Shepard when “And Things That Go Bump in the Night,” his first three-act play, debuted on Broadway in 1965 to scathing reviews. It ran for only two weeks and sent him scurrying back to journalism; he spent a year working on Columbia’s alumni magazine. He then participated in another flop, “Here’s Where I Belong,” a musical version of “East of Eden” for which he wrote the book.

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To sharpen his dramatic instincts, McNally devoted himself to turning out a series of one-act plays. “Apple Pie” was the umbrella title of three one-acts for National Education Television; “Botticelli” was also written for NET. His “Noon” became the centerpiece of a Broadway triplet, “Morning, Noon and Night,” while “Tour” was produced Off Broadway as part of an evening called “Collision Course.”

But it was “Next,” directed by Elaine May, that turned his career around. Starring James Coco, the tale of a middle-aged man mistakenly drafted into the Army veered wildly from farce to tragedy. It was widely praised when paired with May’s “Adaptation” in a 1967 Off-Broadway production. “Sweet Eros,” produced the following year, was extremely controversial, though not because of its storyline: A kidnapper relates his tale to his prey. But the kidnapping victim (who doesn’t speak a word during the play) was completely naked (Oscar-nominee Sally Kirkland originated the role). Other one-acts, such as “Cuba Si!,” “Whiskey,” “Witness,” “Bringing It All Back Home” and “Last Gasps,” some replete with stinging social commentary, also added to his stature as a playwright to watch.

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