“When you turn on the computer,” says playwright and librettist Terrence McNally, “you don’t want to write Master Class II or Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune IV. You want to do something new. I like challenging myself. That adage ‘you like to do things that scare you,’ is a good one.”
McNally must scare himself a lot. He has forged a prodigious and varied body of work, spanning five decades and still growing. A list of his plays and librettos on his website (click on “Bibliography”) is at 67 entries and counting — the list takes his career only through 2008.
He’ll be the guest of honor in LA this week for a four-day McNally event benefiting the Skylight Theatre. It will give a boost to a cause that he says is dear to his heart — the development of new theatrical works, which is Skylight’s charter.
It also provides a good opportunity to talk to him about his work.
Sources of inspiration
McNally was born in St.Petersburg, Florida, grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, and moved to New York in the mid-1950s. “As far as variety in my work, ” he says, “I attribute part of that to living in New York City, where there’s so much stimulation. Every time you leave the house, there are so many people who are different from you and are from different cultures. And whenever I get a chance, I travel. “
He says he is lucky to have spent some time in India, though he did so only after writing the mystical 1993 play A Perfect Ganesh, which he calls “one of my best works.” He elaborates, “I sort of do what Shakespeare did. As far as everybody knows, he never left England. But he imagined ancient Rome and Venice and Greece. So in writing Ganesh, I was sort of imagining India.”
He was surprised that when he eventually got to India, “a lot of [what I wrote] was sort of right. A lot of the Indian people have told me that I captured a lot of their spirituality. I think theater’s an act of the imagination, first and foremost.” McNally doesn’t consider himself a naturalistic writer. “I think I’m a realistic writer. If I had to compare my plays to anything, it would be painterly realism.”
Reflections on his plays
McNally considers Master Class, which played LA’s Mark Taper Forum before going to Broadway, “my most autobiographical play” — although the leading character is opera diva Maria Callas. He acknowledges that “it startles people when I say that, but Maria Callas was a lot like me.” He adds that he did not research the play at all, but he is a big fan of Callas and knows a lot about her. “I think I emotionally captured her,” he asserts. “One big act of imagination in the play was that she had an abortion after she got pregnant by Aristotle Onassis.” But it’s a theory that has been discussed among Callas biographers.
He points out that people have told him that in front of her students, she was nothing like the way he portrayed her. “But this is a play, not a documentary,” he notes. “You can listen to tapes of her classes to get something else.”
Besides Ganesh, he says that he remains “very proud” of Love! Valour! Compassion!, Corpus Christi, and Lips Together, Teeth Apart (1991) — a culture-clash story, which is about two straight couples spending a weekend on Fire Island, in a house that one of the wives inherited from her deceased gay brother.
He recently saw a production of Lips Together and felt that it demonstrated that “this play is not just about the fear of getting AIDS in a swimming pool. It seemed very solid.” He expresses pleasure that LA Theatre Works recorded this play for radio broadcast last December. He is “very happy how it turned out.”
About his plays as a whole, he says, ‘There’s none [for which] I would say ‘I don’t know what I was thinking when I wrote that one.’ Like a proud parent, I have good feelings about my work. Some have really matured, and stood the test of time.”
Gay topics or characters have been included in some of McNally’s works. It was a major element in the musicals Kiss of the Spider Woman and A Man of No Importance and a subplot in The Full Monty. as well as in several of his most prominent plays, such as the aforementioned Lips Together, Teeth Apart and Love! Valour! Compassion! His ever-controversial Corpus Christi (1997), a modern-day passion play, dared to dramatize the story of Jesus and the Apostles in a gay milieu in Texas. It was condemned by the Catholic League and has been picketed by religious protestors in some cities.
How does he feel about the evolution of the depiction of gays in theater and film over the years? “Gay characters have become more and more integrated,” he responds. He describes a recent trip to London, when he saw a production of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II: “It was written in 1594. There is a gay character, but the play is not about him being gay.” However, “I’m sure [this production] was more physical in his relationship to his lover — which was the word they used — than what the Elizabethan audience would have experienced.”
McNally explains that issues surrounding the gay characters in his plays have never been whether they were indeed gay or about coming out. In writing about gay life, he is largely interested in the theme of homophobia.
He has an idea of what the “next big hurdle” will be: “audiences accepting a gay actor playing the lead in an action movie or playing a very romantic gay Romeo.” He says that “homophobia still exists, but in my lifetime, it’s gone from furtively darting down dark alleys to go to a gay bar and being very much in the closet to something very different. “
He is married to Thomas Kirdahy, and he says half of their friends have kids. “I’ll be 75 this year. There’s been quite a change within my lifetime. The old days hopefully are behind us, but homophobia is still going to be in our society. We probably need a gay president or two.” He says, “If my plays have been part of helping the movement, that’s great.”
McNally expects that one of his newest works will open before long in New York. Tyne Daly stars in Mothers and Sons, which appeared in June at Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania.
Preferring not to reveal too many details, McNally says that one character in the new play is derived from a character who had no dialogue in his teleplay, Andre’s Mother, seen on PBS’ American Playhouse in 1990. He says “You could call this a sequel, but I don’t think it quite is.” He believes Andre’s Mother is “probably the play of mine that reached the most people, because it was on TV. A couple of people have written to me that it has changed their lives in relationships with their own sons and daughters. That’s very gratifying to me.”
The Kander and Ebb musicals
McNally says it “was a thrill” collaborating with the accomplished team of composer John Kander and the late lyricist Fred Ebb (best known for Chicago, Cabaret and The Scottsboro Boys) on three ambitious musicals. Kander’s and Ebb’s long list of theatrical collaborations, as well as their work in TV (Liza With a Z) and film (Funny Lady; New York New York), rival McNally’s penchant for prolificacy.
This trio’s first joint effort was The Rink (1984), which starred Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli. McNally notes, “[Kander and Ebb] had done the show with another book writer [Albert Innaurato], so I inherited over half a score that had already been written, and I came up with a totally different plot. All that remained of the original concept was a narrative about a mother and daughter in a dilapidated roller rink.”
Though the show was not a financial success and received mixed reviews, McNally says he believes it is among Kander and Ebb’s finest scores. It includes a showstopping roller skate number (made more widely known in the popular Kander and Ebb revue And the World Goes ‘Round) and some outstanding ballads.
McNally admits that The Rink’s premiere production was problematic, believing that casting Minnelli was a mistake because “she took the show away from Chita.” He remarks that Minnelli’s fans ‘wanted her to be Liza, though she was trying hard to be “un-Liza.” He describes the part as “a dowdy, messy girl,” but says the audience wanted her “with eyelashes and everything else.” Nonetheless, he adds that it still receives a number of productions every year and “there are some major directors and actors who keep saying they want to do it.”
For his second teaming with Kander and Ebb, McNally tackled the darkly poetic Kiss of the Spider Woman (1992), adapted from the Manuel Puig novel. This time McNally was the initial writer of the libretto, and he was “present when every song was written.” He observes that his simpatico creative partners often good-naturedly spoke of “cannibalizing his script.” The example he cites was Ebb saying that the lyrics for the song “Dressing Them Up,” which is performed by the character of flamboyantly gay prisoner Molina, “basically came from me originally creating this as a monologue.”
He values the smooth working relationship he had with these “generous” collaborators. He recalls, “They never said, ‘We can’t find a song in this scene. Can you write another scene?’ I’ve consistently been lucky in finding composers and lyricists who share my sensibility on the ways to tell the stories.”
There was a rocky start for Spider Woman in Toronto, a better reception for a reworked version in London, and a big controversy when New York critics violated protocol to review what was supposed to be a developmental workshop there. Yet there was a happy ending. The Broadway production scored a solid hit and won eight Tonys, including best musical, book and score.
McNally’s third show with these songwriters was The Visit. Based on Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 play, Der Besuch der alten Dame, which became a 1964 film starring Ingrid Bergman, this was originally conceived as a vehicle for Angela Lansbury. Due to a family situation, she withdrew and was replaced by Rivera. The story is about the world’s wealthiest woman returning to her financially depressed hometown and proposing a devious scheme to wreak revenge on a former lover.
The musical premiered at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in 2001, followed by a new production at Signature Theatre in Virginia in 2008, receiving mostly favorable reviews. Yet it has so far not made the expected move to Broadway. “I’m hoping it still has life,” says McNally. “The New York Times [which reviewed it in Virginia] killed it.”
McNally remarks that some producers are starting to “gather the courage to do it anyway, because it won a lot of prizes in the Washington area including best musical of the year.” He says, “It’s a show that should be seen in New York, and Chita gives a really iconic performance, which I’d compare to [Ethel] Merman in Gypsy or Angela [Lansbury] in Sweeney Todd. It’s so beyond what Chita has ever done before.” McNally hints that in a short while, “there will be some news to announce about it. I think time will prove that The Visit is a really valuable piece. I know John thinks it’s his best score.”
McNally also enjoyed success with Ragtime — winning a writing Tony for adapting the E.L. Doctorow novel. He considers the team of composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens “underrated.” He also worked with them on the gritty 2002 musical A Man of No Importance, based on the 1994 film starring Albert Finney as a closeted gay bus driver in Ireland — its first full staging in LA was at the Lillian Theatre in June during the Hollywood Fringe Festival, produced by the new Good People Theater Company. “[Flaherty and Ahrens] remind me of the Gershwins,” McNally says. “I don’t think there’s anyone writing for musicals right now who is in their league.”
This creative trio has another new musical coming down the pipeline, though minimal details are currently revealed.
Another Broadway musical hit for McNally was The Full Monty, adapted from the British film and scored by David Yazbek, in which the original story was relocated from England to Buffalo, New York. The production was nominated for 11 Tonys, including McNally’s book, but lost all of them to The Producers juggernaut. McNally also wrote Catch Me if You Can (2011), based on the Steven Spielberg film, and scored by composer Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Wittman (the Hairspray team), which was seen at the Pantages Theatre in February in its LA premiere.
The beat goes on
Back to the non-musical world, another McNally iron in the fire is And Away We Go. It’s set for a premiere at New York’s Pearl Theatre (which commissioned it) in November.
Celebrating a love for theater history, it spins on a fanciful time-traveling conceit, reportedly moving from backstage in ancient Athens, with stops in Versailles’ Royal Theatre to the first reading of a new Chekhov play, a stop at the Coconut Grove, and the world premiere of Waiting for Godot.
McNally’s infatuation with the theme of theater and the creative process is also evident in another of his favorite creations of recent years, Golden Age, which had its New York premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club recently. Set at the opening night of Vincenzo Bellini’s opera I Puritani in 1835 Paris, the play examines a crucial point in the life and career of a great creative artist, a theme that’s undoubtedly personally resonant to McNally at present.
Beyond writing about opera in Golden Age, The Lisbon Traviata and Master Class, he also has contributed to opera as a librettist — The Food of Love (1999 with music by Robert Beaser) and Dead Man Walking (2000) with music by Jake Heggie. Three Decembers (2008) is an opera based on a McNally play, although he didn’t write the libretto.
McNally acknowledges the great satisfaction that he derives from the creative process. “I’ve devoted my entire life to it. I have done little else. I’ve supported myself exclusively with playwriting since I was 25. I’m very proud and grateful I was able to do that. There are times when my mother was living in New York and she would burst into tears and tell me, ‘how can you live like this?’ Then I stopped waiting tables, driving cabs and doing jobs like that. I’m very very lucky and I know that.”
He’s quick to acknowledge his gratitude to those he works with: “No one does this alone. When you win a Tony award, the playwright should get up there with the cast, the design team, and the backstage crews. The show I think is as good as its weakest element. If you don’t have a good actor in a key part, he or she is going to drag the play down to his or her level. I like to work with people who are a lot more talented and smarter than me, who make fewer mistakes than I do, and who can call me out when I do something lazy. A lot of people stop learning in life, and that’s their tragedy.”
Skylight Theatre Company 2013 Salute to Terrence McNally. Sept 26-29. All-events pass available or individual event ticketing. www.skylighttheatrecompany.com.
Dinner with Terrence McNally, Thu, 7 pm – private residence. Tickets: $500.
Writers’ panel: “Does It Take One to Know One?” Fri 8 pm. Skylight Theatre, 1816½ N Vermont Ave, Los Feliz, 90027. Tickets: $30-50
Celebrity reading of It’s Only A Play. Sat, 3 pm and 8 pm. Skylight Theatre, 1816½ N Vermont Ave, Los Feliz. 90027. Tickets: $60.
All-Star Celebration — Salute to Terrence McNally. Program and reception. Sun, 8 pm, Saban Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd. Beverly Hills 90211. Tickets: $35-350.