Terrence McNally ’60, Tony-Winning Dramatist of Gay Life

Terrence McNally ’60, a four-time Tony Award-winning playwright whose work over five decades dramatized gay life, died on March 24, 2020, from complications of COVID-19. He was 81 and a resident of New York City.

Born on November 3, 1938, in St. Petersburg, Fla., McNally’s parents owned a bar and grill on the beach. After it was destroyed by a hurricane, the family briefly relocated to Port Chester, N.Y., and his paternal grandfather would take him to the theater. After the family moved to Corpus Christi, Texas, McNally edited the school newspaper and literary magazine at W.B. Ray H.S.

At the College, from which he graduated Phi Beta Kappa, McNally wrote for the Varsity Show. His Broadway theater career began in 1963 when he contributed a few lines to an adaptation of The Lady of the Camellias and continued with few interruptions through 2019’s revival of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.

McNally’s work introduced theater audiences to homosexual characters and situations that most mainstream productions had shunted into comic asides. In a conversation with Philip Galanes in The New York Times Style Magazine in 2019, Galanes noted, “You were a pioneer, one of the first playwrights to explore gay characters in your work — from the very beginning, in the 1960s. Did you see that as bravery?” to which McNally replied, “Not at all. I saw it as: These are people. I wasn’t writing these plays in Texas. I was writing them in New York, which is sophisticated. I always felt it was O.K. to be gay in the American theater.”

Across the next 50 years, McNally’s plays — including The Ritz; The Lisbon Traviata; Lips Together, Teeth Apart; and Anastasia — traced the same narrative arc that many gay men were experiencing over the same period.

“Though the changes Mr. McNally wrote about were epochal for gay men, his plays were designed not to exclude. ... [they] never came across as a narrowing of theater’s human focus but as an expansion of it, and by inviting everyone into them he helped solidify the social change he was describing,” the Times obituary noted.

McNally was a remarkably prolific dramatist, with some three dozen plays to his credit, as well as the books for 10 musicals, the librettos for four operas and a handful of screenplays for film and television. He won Tony Awards for the musicals Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993) and Ragtime (1998), and the plays Love! Valour!

Compassion! (1995) and Master Class (1996), and was presented the 2019 Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement.

In 2018 McNally was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was presented the 2015 Lucille Lortel Lifetime Achievement Award and the 2011 Dramatists Guild Lifetime Achievement Award. McNally was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1996.

The College presented McNally with a 1992 John Jay Award for distinguished professional achievement, and in 2004 he was presented with Columbia’s inaugural I.A.L. Diamond [’41] Award for Achievement in the Arts. He was the 2013 Class Day speaker.

McNally is survived by his husband of 17 years, Thomas Kirdahy, and a brother, Peter.

Read more about McNally in Take Five, CCT and in The New York Times: how he was seen by critics and an interview with him and his husband about their lasting marriage.