In Memoriam

Remembering Award-Winning Broadway Playwright Terrence McNally

A year after the playwright’s death in Sarasota from Covid-19, New York theater columnist Michael Riedel looks back on the man and his talent.

By Michael Riedel March 1, 2021 Published in the March-April 2021 issue of Sarasota Magazine

Terrence McNally loved Sarasota almost as much as he loved Maria Callas, Damn Yankees and his husband of 17 years, Broadway producer Tom Kirdahy.

Kirdahy and McNally, the four-time Tony Award-winning playwright whose works include Frankie and Johnny in the Clair du Lune, Master Class and Lips Together, Teeth Apart, bought a condo on Longboat Key four years ago.

“We had a place in Key West, but it became increasingly clear that Terrence could no longer do the stairs,” Kirdahy says. “We needed a place where he could be in the sun, but also a place that could be very private for us, where we would not run into people we know every day.”

Terrence McNally in his 20s

Terrence McNally in his 20s

And the flight from New York was easy. They could jump on JetBlue Thursday morning and spend the rest of the week enjoying sunsets over the Gulf Coast. And that’s what they did on Thursday, March 19, 2020. The next day, McNally wasn’t feeling well. When he began coughing up blood on Saturday, Kirdahy called 911. McNally died three days later of complications from Covid-19. He was 81.

McNally was the first Broadway figure to die from the virus. He would not, sadly, be the last, but his death hit New York’s tight-knit theater community especially hard. For five decades, he wrote comedies and dramas that dealt candidly with gay life. His 1965 play And Things That Go Bump in the Night featured the first openly gay couple ever portrayed on Broadway. He created roles for James Coco, Christine Baranksi, Swoosie Kurtz, Zoe Caldwell and his close friend, Nathan Lane. When he wasn’t writing plays, he was writing musicals—The Rink, Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Full Monty and Ragtime. At one point, he was in such demand as a musical theater writer that he put a sign on his desk: “No more musicals.”

He had a reputation for being fast and efficient, and, as theater people go, relatively ego-free. “Terrence solved problems,” David Yazbek, who wrote the score to The Full Monty, once told me. “If a scene didn’t work, he would redo it. He worried about things, but underneath the worry was the capacity to fix it.”

McNally’s association with the west coast of Florida goes back to Nov. 3, 1938, when he was born in St. Petersburg, where his father ran a bar and grill on the beach. After World War II, his family moved to the other side of the Gulf Coast—Corpus Christi, Texas—where he was raised. He came to New York in 1956 to attend Columbia University, and started going to the opera and the theater. He saw Callas in Norma, which many years later would inspire Master Class. He tried to get into My Fair Lady, the hottest ticket in town, but couldn’t. The guy in the box office told him to check out another show a few blocks away: Damn Yankees, starring Gwen Verdon. One night, McNally crashed a party full of theater people, and met an older, handsome, aloof man. It was Edward Albee, who had just written The Zoo Story. After the party, Albee offered to give him a ride home, but suggested they have a nightcap at his apartment first. “It was so late, I wondered what his wife would think,” McNally said. “Shows you how good my gaydar was back then.”

McNally with the Lips Together cast

McNally with the Lips Together cast

They became lovers, and “suddenly I found myself living with him,” McNally said. Albee was writing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the time. McNally was taking his first stab at playwriting. They’d read scenes to each other at the end of the day. “Mine were good,” McNally said. “Edward’s were better.”

The relationship, fueled by alcohol (“that’s what I thought writers were supposed to do back then: drink, drink and smoke,” McNally said), did not last. McNally went on to write other plays, but only The Ritz, starring Rita Moreno, had any success. At one point, he had just $400 in his bank account. But he kept writing, despite some terrible reviews.

“That’s life,” he once said to me over lunch in a Greenwich Village restaurant. “You’re disappointed for five minutes, and then you pick yourself up and get on with it. Or you don’t. Then you become an alcoholic.”

Tom Kirdahy and Terrence McNally

Kirdahy and McNally

Image: Al Pereira

McNally did become an alcoholic, but he got sober in the 1980s and wrote, with a clear head, the plays and musicals he’s celebrated for today.

In Sarasota, McNally found what he loved in New York: the arts. He and Kirdahy went to the Asolo, The Ringling, the ballet and the opera. The restaurant scene wasn’t bad, either, though McNally didn’t go for the fancy places. His favorite was the Old Salty Dog.

And at the end of the day there were the sunsets. “We were two old men, holding hands on our balcony,” Kirdahy says. “I thought there’d be a few more, but I’m glad we had those last two. They were spectacular.”

Michael Riedel is a longtime New York Post theater columnist and broadcaster. His most recent book, Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway, was published in November.

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