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Playwright Terrence McNally dies from Covid-19 complications

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The cause of his death was complications of the coronavirus. McNally, 81, had chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and had overcome lung cancer.

TERRENCE McNally, the four-time Tony Award-winning playwright whose outpouring of work for the theatre dramatised and domesticated gay life across five decades, died on Tuesday in Sarasota, Florida. He was 81. The cause was complications of the coronavirus, according to his husband, Tom Kirdahy. He said McNally had chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and had overcome lung cancer.

He died at Sarasota Memorial Hospital. McNally's Tony Awards attest to his versatility. Two were for books for musicals, Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993) and Ragtime (1998), and two were for plays, and vastly different ones: Love! Valour! Compassion! (1995), about gay men who share a vacation house, and Master Class (1996), in which opera diva Maria Callas reflects on her career.

And those prize winners were only a small part of his oeuvre. 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, McNally was a remarkably prolific and consistent dramatist.

His career, which began on Broadway in 1963 with a few lines he contributed to an adaptation of The Lady of the Camellias, starring Susan Strasberg, continued without much interruption through last year's revival of his Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, starring Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon.

In between, in a series of successes including The Ritz, The Lisbon Traviata, Lips Together, Teeth Apart and Love! Valour! Compassion!, McNally introduced Broadway and off-Broadway audiences to characters and situations that most mainstream theatre had previously shunted into comic asides.

His first Broadway production, a 1965 bomb called And Things That Go Bump in the Night, featured what was, at the time, an almost unheard-of romance between two men. Walter Kerr, writing in The New York Herald Tribune, called it an "infertile cross between Sartre's No Exit, Albee's Tiny Alice, Wagner's Gotterdammerung and the most portentous high school pageant you ever saw." McNally told Vogue in 1995, "I still think that I win, hands down, the contest for worst first-play reviews - or any-play reviews."

Such reviews did not slow him down, however. Over the next 50 years, his flagship plays, as well as the teleplay for Andre's Mother in 1990 and its stage sequel Mothers and Sons in 2014, traced the same arc that many gay men were experiencing in their lives over the same period, from the closet to rebellion, and from disaster to marriage and parenting.

Though the changes McNally wrote about were epochal for gay men, his plays were designed not to exclude. However furious, they are also ingratiating, emphasising familiar situations, comic personalities and well-turned put-downs. ("Who are you saving it for?" Callas bellows at an unfortunate singer in midsong.) His gay stories never came across as a narrowing of theatre's human focus but as an expansion of it, and by inviting everyone into them he helped solidify the social change he was describing.

This was naturally most evident in his books for musicals, several of which had gay characters and themes and nearly all of which focused on society's outsiders trying to get in. Kiss of the Spider Woman, based on the novel by Manuel Puig, daringly puts onstage, in one prison cell, a macho political prisoner in an unnamed South American dictatorship and a window-dresser whose greatest passion is for campy movie musicals. Chita Rivera starred as Aurora, the Spider Woman, a figure of death and transcendence brought to life by an act of wilful imagination.

Michael Terrence McNally was born on Nov 3, 1938, in St Petersburg, Florida, where his parents, Hubert and Dorothy (Rapp) McNally, had a bar and grill on the beach. During World War II and just after, the family lived in Port Chester, New York, and his paternal grandfather would take him to the theatre.

The family moved to Corpus Christi, Texas. "I had a wonderful high school English teacher, Mrs McElroy," he said in the oral history, "who loved theatre, made me and a few others really appreciate the English language and the use of it, and she really got us into Shakespeare." He earned his bachelor's degree in English at Columbia University in 1960. By then he was in a relationship with the playwright Edward Albee, whom he had met at a party in 1959.

"Terrence and I started talking", Albee recalled in an interview quoted in Mel Gussow's biography, Edward Albee: A Singular Journey (2012), "and the next thing I knew, so to speak, we were living together." The relationship lasted five years, but their differing views on how to deal with their sexuality were a point of tension. "Edward didn't want to be reviewed as a gay playwright and was never comfortable coming out," McNally told The San Francisco Chronicle in 2018. (Albee died in 2016.)

After the poorly received And Things That Go Bump in the Night, McNally had two other Broadway credits, Morning, Noon and Night in 1968 and two one-acts under the title Bad Habits in 1974, before scoring a success with The Ritz, which ran for almost a year. His career culminated in a Tony Award for lifetime achievement in 2019.

In a 2014 interview with The New York Times, McNally recalled an encounter at Stephen Sondheim's 50th-birthday party in 1980 that helped him shed a personal demon, a turning point in his playwriting. He was drinking heavily at the time and had been for years.

"Then someone I hardly knew, Angela Lansbury, waved me over to where she was sitting," he said. "And she said, 'I just want to say, I don't know you very well, but every time I see you, you're drunk, and it bothers me.' I was so upset. She was someone I revered, and she said this with such love and concern. I went to an AA meeting, and within a year, I had stopped drinking." By 1982, with Frankie and Johnny, the course of his career had changed, his vision having deepened and darkened from the zaniness and absurdity of his earlier work. The play about melancholy lovers - Frankie is "a BLT down sort of person," who thinks Johnny is "looking for someone a little more peasant under glass" - introduces what would become McNally's mature theme: that tragedy and comedy not only coexist but also, like all of us on earth, cohabit. NYTIMES