Though Terrence McNally came out when he moved to New York City to attend college and then wrote for decades about gay life, the four-time Tony Award-winning playwright had no use for polemics.
“I’m not interested in sloganeering,” he told the Globe in 2008. “I wouldn’t write a play about the right to gay marriage.”
By design, he said, his plays reached out to a wide range of theater-goers.
“I think we do a disservice when we think of any minority group as ‘them,’ ” he added in that interview. “It’s too easy to call me a gay playwright, or dismiss the characters in my plays as stereotypes. I try to write about individuals. If the work is good, it reaches many people.”
Mr. McNally died Tuesday in Sarasota Memorial Hospital in Sarasota, Fla., at 81. A spokesman, Matt Polk, said the cause was complications of the coronavirus and added that Mr. McNally had chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and had overcome lung cancer.
Two of Mr. McNally’s Tony Awards were for books for musicals: “Kiss of the Spider Woman” (1993) and “Ragtime” (1998). The other two were for plays: “Love! Valor! Compassion!” (1995), about gay men who share a vacation house, and “Master Class” (1996), in which opera diva Maria Callas reflects on her career.
A prolific dramatist, he wrote 36 plays, the books for 10 musicals, the librettos for four operas, and a handful of screenplays for film and television.
His Broadway career began in 1963 with an adaptation of “The Lady of the Camellias,” starring Susan Strasberg, and continued without much interruption through last year’s revival of his “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” starring Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon.
In between – with a series of successes that included “The Ritz,” “The Lisbon Traviata,” “Lips Together, Teeth Apart,” and “Love! Valour! Compassion!” – Mr. McNally introduced Broadway and off-Broadway audiences to characters and situations that most mainstream theater had previously shunted into comic asides.
“I’m of the school, ‘write what you know,’ ” he told the Globe in 2012, speaking of his work’s recurrent explorations of gay identity. “You can educate yourself, but the best writing usually comes from the heart. If you’re trying to write something that you don't understand and embrace at the very core of you, it’s not going to turn out with quite the authenticity and passion it should have.”
Along with writing about homophobia, love, and AIDS, Mr. McNally’s plays and musicals explored how people connect – or fail to. With wit and thoughtfulness, he tackled the strains in families, war, and relationships, and he probed the spark and costs of creativity.
Mr. McNally’s “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” was a landmark play about AIDS. His “The Ritz” became one of the first plays with unapologetic gay characters to reach a mainstream audience.
He also explored gay themes in the book for “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” for which he won his first Tony Award. His play “Love! Valour! Compassion!” earned him another Tony Award for its portrayal of eight gay men facing issues of fidelity, love, and happiness.
“Theater changes hearts, that secret place where we all truly live,” he said at the Tony Awards in 2019, when he accepted a lifetime achievement award. “The world needs artists more than ever to remind us what truth and beauty and kindness really are.”
Fellow playwright Paula Vogel called Mr. McNally “the soul of kindness,” and Lin-Manuel Miranda said he was “a giant in our world, who straddled plays and musicals deftly.”
In 2018, Mr. McNally was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. New York University awarded him an honorary doctorate the following year.
Among his Broadway musical adaptations were “The Full Monty,” from the British movie; “Catch Me if You Can,” based on the Steven Spielberg film; and “Ragtime,” based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, which won four Tony Awards.
“Ragtime” was powerful on the page and stage “because it really examines who we are as a nation, and what kind of society we want to be, were promised to be, and have maybe not tended to as well as we should,” Mr. McNally told the Globe in 2012, when the Strand Theatre in Dorchester hosted a production.
That production was presented by Fiddlehead Theatre Company in collaboration with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which had just presented him with its Beacon of Liberty Award.
Mr. McNally was born in St. Petersburg, Fla., and grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, listening to radio broadcasts of “The Green Hornet” and the Metropolitan Opera. In 1960, he graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Columbia University in New York with a bachelor’s degree in English.
“I came to New York as a 17-year-old in 1956 and gay bars didn’t even exist,” he said in 2008, speaking of “Some Men,” his play that was then in a SpeakEasy Stage Company production in Boston. “When they did appear, they had painted windows and you had to go down a steep, dark staircase to get to them. The notion of the gay lifestyle going from very furtive to open is something that had to be acknowledged.”
He added in a 2015 Globe interview: “I grew up in an era where I was ‘out’ in a way that, you know, people were surprised and thought it was reckless. But I didn’t know how else to be. That’s how I wanted to live.”
Mr. McNally was at the Actors Studio when he was hired by novelist John Steinbeck to be a tutor and guardian to his sons. One of Mr. McNally’s earliest theater attempts was writing the book for a musical adaptation of Steinbeck’s “East of Eden.” It was called “Here’s Where I Belong” and lasted only a single performance in 1968.
Mr. McNally’s “And Things That Go Bump in the Night” didn’t fare much better in 1965.
He rebounded with the 1969 off-Broadway hit “Next,” a two-character comedy about a reluctant draftee reporting for an Army physical.
The missteps offered as many lessons as the successes.
“I think young writers usually are just too damned eager to have their work done,” he told the Globe in 1969. “We give our plays away too easily.”
He then enjoyed a string of successes, including “Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone?” (1971), “Bad Habits” (1974), and “The Ritz” (1975), a farce set in a gay bathhouse that ran more than a year on Broadway and became his first produced screenplay.
His breakout, “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” about a romance between a waitress and short order cook, was later adapted into a film starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer.
Mr. McNally’s play “Corpus Christi,” depicting a modern-day Jesus as a homosexual, drew death threats when the Manhattan Theater Club first considered staging it in 1998. The club temporarily canceled the production before it had a successful run.
Mr. McNally leaves his husband, theater producer Thomas Kirdahy, and a brother, according to The Washington Post.
Kirdahy and Mr. McNally had a civil union ceremony in Vermont and then married in 2010, in Washington, D.C.
“We want the ‘M’ word,” Mr. McNally said that day. “We don’t like separate but equal. We want equal.”
The theme of equality, personal and artistic, ran through his work.
“Strokes of pens and legislation don't rid the world of racism and homophobia and all the ills that beset us as a society,” he told the Globe in 2015. “As we are seeing right now, racism is still a huge issue in this country. There’s no law anywhere that says people of color cannot use this drinking fountain or use this bathroom or have this job, but that doesn’t mean racism has gone away. And we’re all certainly aware of homophobia – the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle way in which it still exists.”
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.