NEW YORK — Terrence McNally, one of America’s great playwrights whose prolific career included winning Tony Awards for the plays “Love! Valour! Compassion!” and “Master Class” and the musicals “Ragtime” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” has died of complications from the coronavirus. He was 81.
Mr. McNally died Tuesday at Sarasota Memorial Hospital in Sarasota, Florida, according to representative Matt Polk. McNally was a lung cancer survivor who lived with chronic inflammatory lung disease.
His plays and musicals explored how people connect — or fail to. With wit and thoughtfulness, he tackled the strains in families, war, and relationships and probed the spark and costs of creativity. He was an openly gay writer who wrote about homophobia, love and AIDS.
“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,” he told LA Stage Times in 2013. “A lot of people stop learning in life, and that’s their tragedy.”
He had a long and fruitful association with the Philadelphia Theatre Company, where some of his plays were produced before going on to wider fame.
“I can’t overstate what he meant to Philadelphia Theatre Company and how he and his work and the people who were part of his plays taught the audience at PTC what contemporary play-writing could do,” said PTC producing artistic director Paige Price. “And the fact that so many of his plays moved on to massive audiences is a testament to what I think he was able to do with an artistic home.”
Throughout the monthlong run of Master Class in Philadelphia in 1995, “people would stop me in the street to report how Zoe Caldwell's Maria Callas had stirred them, had awakened some part of their being they'd almost forgotten they had,” wrote Inquirer theater critic Clifford A. Ridley as the play moved on to other cities.
Mr. McNally was able to frame issues of social relevance, but the commentary and point of view came through characters who seemed like real people, “so it was anything but agitprop,” said Price. “You were able to empathize and more fully understand how a person could feel. And it had heart, which I think separated it from the earlier angry man theater.”
In addition to Master Class, McNally works produced by PTC over the years were Frankie & Johnny in the Clair de Lune, Lips Together Teeth Apart, Love! Valour! Compassion!, Some Men, Mothers and Sons, Unusual Acts of Devotion and Golden Age.
PTC hasn’t announced it yet, but the company is planning a 25th anniversary production of Master Class next season that was programmed with McNally’s blessing, Price said.
Mr. McNally’s “Lips Together, Teeth Apart,” about two married couples who spend a weekend on Fire Island, was a landmark play about AIDS. His play “The Ritz” became one of the first plays with unapologetic gay characters to reach a mainstream audience.
Mr. McNally also explored gay themes in the book for the musical “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 2019 Tony Awards, where he accepted a lifetime achievement award. “The world needs artists more than ever to remind us what truth and beauty and kindness really are.”