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Honored Playwright Terrence McNally Dies Of Coronavirus At Age 81


Sorry to tell you that Terrence McNally has died. He was a playwright whose popular musicals included "Kiss Of The Spider Woman" and "Ragtime." McNally lived 81 years. He survived lung cancer. He had pulmonary problems and died of complications from coronavirus. Jeff Lunden has this appreciation.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: At last year's Tonys, Terrence McNally received a lifetime achievement award. Carrying an oxygen tank, he talked about all the things he loved.


TERRENCE MCNALLY: I love being a playwright. The hours are flexible, and you don't have to wear a tie unless you're invited to the Tonys.

LUNDEN: And that was Terrence McNally in a nutshell - self-deprecating, funny and completely aware of his audience. He was a true gentleman of the theater. In a career that stretched for six decades, he wrote three dozen plays, 10 musicals and the librettos for four operas.

JOE MANTELLO: Can you think of another writer who has had the variety of work that he's had?

LUNDEN: Joe Mantello directed "Love! Valour! Compassion!" which won Terrence McNally his first Tony Award in 1995. It was one of his many plays which looked at gay life.

MANTELLO: What drove him was this need to write down his truth, to speak honestly from his heart. That was what he knew. He understood that when he was writing from that place that it would translate to anyone.

LUNDEN: And even though the play was about eight gay men coping with AIDS, it was also wickedly funny. Here's a character played by Nathan Lane.


NATHAN LANE: (As Buzz Hauser) I was having a musical comedy nightmare.


LANE: (As Buzz Hauser) They were going to revive "The King And I" for Tommy Tune and Elaine Stritch.


LUNDEN: Terrence McNally grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, listening to the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts and staging operas in the garage. He moved to New York to study journalism at Columbia but spent much of his time going to Broadway shows, he told an interviewer at the Newseum.


MCNALLY: When the lights go down and the curtain goes up, how can you not get a rush? I mean, you'd not be human.

LUNDEN: So he began writing plays while in a relationship with another playwright, Edward Albee. But whereas Albee was closeted, McNally was out. He had his hits and flops over the years. And while he used aspects of his own life in his work, he told PBS...


MCNALLY: My goal as a writer became to write in my own voice and to find a kind of simplicity that was about the character, not about me.

LUNDEN: Whether the characters were gay or straight, what he wanted to do was present them with complexity and compassion, like in McNally's most produced work, "Frankie And Johnny In The Clair De Lune." It was about a short-order cook and a waitress who hook up for a one-night stand but yearn for something deeper. F. Murray Abraham starred in the original off-Broadway production with Kathy Bates.


F MURRAY ABRAHAM: (As Johnny) I want to kill myself sometimes when I think that I'm the only person in the world. And that part of me that feels that way is trapped inside this body that only bumps into other bodies without ever connecting to the only other person in the world trapped inside of them. We have to connect. We just have to.

LUNDEN: And for McNally, it was always about connection.


MCNALLY: I love it when I remember theater changes hearts - that secret place where we all truly live.

LUNDEN: And he loved collaborating with the same actors, directors and theaters over and over again. Terrence McNally is survived by his husband, producer Tom Kirdahy.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.