Family & Companions
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.
Writer (Feature Film)
Special Thanks (Special)
Misc. Crew (Special)
At age six, taken by family to NYC where they saw Broadway production of "Annie Get Your Gun" starring Ethel Merman
Around age 12, visited NYC with parents and saw Gertrude Lawrence in "The King and I" about three nights before she left the show and several weeks before her death
Around age 15, first heard opera star Maria Callas on radio broadcasts in Texas
Moved to NYC at age 17 to attend Columbia University
First writing for the theater, the book for the Columbia Varsity Show of 1960
Referred by Mrs Kazan to spend a year traveling around the world as the tutor of author John Steinbeck's two sons
At Molly Kazan's encouragement, interned as a stage manager at Actors Studio (date approximate)
Broadway debut, "The Lady of the Camellias," his adaptation of the Alexander Dumas novel; was "devised, designed and directed" by Franco Zeffirelli
Returned to NYC; settled in Greenwich Village (date approximate)
At age 26, had "And Things That Go Bump in the Night" produced on Broadway; play flopped critically and commercially
Had first teleplay produced, "Apple Pie and Last Gasps"
Had three plays--"Sweet Eros/Witness", "Tour", and "Cuba Si"--produced off-Broadway; had "Noon", his segment of a program of three one-act plays collectively entitled "Morning, Noon and Night" produced on Broadway
Removed name from the book of the stage musical "Here's Where I Belong", based on "East of Eden"; show closed after one performance
Had first Off-Broadway hit with "Next", a comedy starring James Coco
"Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone?", one of his favorites of his plays, premiered at the Yale Repertory Theatre with Henry Winkler and James Naughton before opening Off-Broadway
Had a Broadway hit with "The Ritz", a broad farce about intrigue in a gay bathhouse
Feature screenwriting debut, an adaptation of stage farce, "The Ritz"; directed for the screen by Richard Lester
"Broadway, Broadway", his comedy about a disastrous opening night, closed after a terrible Philadelphia tryout
Appeared regularly as a panelist on "Texaco Opera Quiz", a syndicated radio show
First work performed on PBS' "Great Performances", his adaptation of "The Five Forty-Eight", a John Cheever story
Had "The Lisbon Traviata" produced as a radio play
Provided the book for the John Kander-Fred Ebb musical "The Rink" starring Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera; first collaboration with Kander and Ebb
TV series debut, produced the short-lived CBS sitcom, "Mama Malone"; also wrote for series
Rewrote the failed "Broadway, Broadway" as "It's Only a Play"; produced at the Manhattan Theater Club; first collaboration with Christine Baranski
Had Off-Broadway hit with the romantic comedy-drama "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune"; role of Frankie written for actress Kathy Bates
With Wendy Wasserstein, co-wrote the comedy segment of the ABC special "Liza Minnelli in Sam Found Out: A Triple Play"
Wrote "A Good Life", a half hour episode of "Trying Times", a PBS comedy-anthology series
First collaboration with actor Nathan Lane, the Off-Broadway stage production of "The Lisbon Traviata"
Won an Emmy for writing "Andre's Mother", an hour-long drama for PBS' "American Playhouse", dealing with the emotional aftermath of AIDS; starred Sada Thompson and Richard Thomas
Wrote the screenplay adaptation of his stage play "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune" as "Frankie and Johnny"; the Garry Marshall-directed film starred Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino
Had an Off-Broadway hit with "Lips Together, Teeth Apart"; another collaboration with Lane and Baranski
Wrote "The Last Mile", a segment of PBS' "Great Performances' 20th Anniversary Special", starring Bernadette Peters as a soprano making her debut at the Met
Wrote book for the Kander-Ebb revised musical version of Manuel Puig's novel "Kiss of the Spider Woman"; premiered in London before moving to Broadway
Contributed one of nine one-act plays, "The Wibbly, Wobbly, Wiggly Dance That Cleopatterer Did", to "Naked at the Coast", the West Coast debut of the NYC theater company Naked Angels
First collaboration with actress Zoe Caldwell, "A Perfect Ganesh"; produced Off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theater Company
Devoted much of the year to co-teaching playwriting with John Guare at Juilliard
Premiered the successful comedy-drama "Love! Valor! Compassion!" at the Manhattan Theater Club; another successful collaboration with Lane
"Master Class" opened on Broadway starring Zoe Caldwell; wrote part of opera diva Maria Callas for her; dedicated play to Elaine Steinbeck
"Love! Valor! Compassion!" opened on Broadway and received the Tony Award
Contributed one of three short plays to "By the Sea, By the Sea, By the Beautiful Sea"; premiered at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor; other one-acts were by Lanford Wilson and Joe Pintauro
Film version of "Love! Valour! Compassion!" delayed when Nathan Lane left the project
Wrote book for "Ragtime, The Musical"; premiered in Toronto in December; opened on Broadway in January 1998
Adapted his Tony Award-winning play "Love! Valour! Compassion!" as a feature film directed by Joe Mantello; premiered at 1997 Sundance Film Festival
New play "Corpus Christi" was subject of controversy; Manhattan Theatre Club announced intention to produce but backed down when it received threats after the plot, which involves a modern-day Jesus figure, was revealed; after other writers planned to boycott the company, MTC reinstated the play; opened in October to mostly negative reviews
Penned the libretto for the stage musical "The Full Monty"; received a Tony nomination