Few people remember this, but Terrence McNally’s first Broadway play, “And Things That Go Bump in the Night,” ran for only 16 performances in 1964.
“The best thing that ever happened to me was that my first play was not a success,” McNally said during a long interview in the expansive lobby of the Driskill Hotel. “But I got back on the horse. If you get out, you don't belong at the table. I do belong. I spent 60 years or so proving that I belong at the table.”
Indeed, he has.
The Texas-reared playwright, who received a lifetime achievement honor during the June 9 Tony Award ceremony in New York, and whose “Immortal Longings” is scheduled for its world premiere at Zach Theatre on June 20, has penned more than 50 plays, musicals, operas, movies and television dramas.
RELATED: Musical "Ragtime" is an American classic
McNally has earned a special following in Austin and, particularly, at Zach Theatre, which has previously staged his “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” “Master Class,” “Ragtime,” “Mothers and Sons” and “Love! Valour! Compassion!”
Other Austin companies have done their bits by producing “Dead Man Walking,” “The Lisbon Traviata,” “Corpus Christi” and “A Perfect Ganesh,” while touring productions have delivered to us “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “The Full Monty” and “Anastasia.”
Perhaps one reason for our city’s theatrical crush on McNally, whose 80th birthday was celebrated during a star-studded jubilee weekend in Austin last year, is a certain emotional and intellectual openness in his writing that jibes with the city’s personality, as well as a core sense of humanity that informs all his work.
“I’ve never written for a New York City audience specifically,” McNally said. “I do write, however, for an American temperament. My plays are done more here than in Europe. I was surprised that ‘Dead Man Walking’ was so much done in Europe. But they might have been drawn to the themes of forgiveness and spirituality. If the plays are honest, the universality seeps through.”
“Immortal Longings,” directed by veteran Peter Rothstein and choreographed by Kelli Foster Warder, stars Steven Epp as Ballet Russes impresario Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev and Wyatt Fenner as famed dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. Their tempestuous relationship, set against the backdrop of the artistic revolutions of the early 20th century, has been the subject of other dramatic treatments, including McNally’s own “Fire and Air.”
This particular tale is set in the Soviet Union as its leaders crack down on avant-garde art, and before the Ballet Russes bounces back triumphantly in the West.
McNally, whose “Frankie and Johnny” is back on Broadway with Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon, has designated “Immortal Longings” at Zach as the play’s world premiere, a coup for Austin’s regional theater. It can already be seen in previews, then it runs through July 14.
While McNally ranks among the most distinguished playwrights with Texas roots — and whose archives are housed here at the Ransom Center — his feelings about the state, until recently, have been complicated.
“It’s a combo of things,” McNally, who was born in Florida, told the American-Statesman in 2016. “I don’t feel much love for Corpus Christi, but I got a great high school education at a great high school with a teacher who changed my life. ... I was in Texas (recently). My brother moved to Victoria, and they’re doing a production of mine, and it would mean a lot to him if I went. I went to Corpus — it’s about an hour away — and I made peace with it. I had good friends there. None of them live there anymore — we all moved — but it’s a good town. People there have a sense of curiosity about what the rest of the world would be like and tend to get out of there early. I made my peace with the house I grew up in, went to Padre Island, and had a good cry.”
His play “Corpus Christi” is not about the city of his youth but rather dramatizes the story of Jesus and his Apostles. It was met with protests, condemnations and death threats because it depicted Biblical characters as gay men.
He did, however, write one play set in Texas, “Whiskey,” about rodeo stars who drink until they pass out in a hotel that catches fire. The second act is set in heaven.
“I was amazed how quickly my Texas vocabulary comes back,” he said. “It’s like a file drawer. I open it up and I’m back in Corpus Christi.”
McNally says he was pleased with a documentary about his personal story, “Every Act of Life,” that came out last year. On screen, frequent interpreters of his plays, such as Angela Lansbury, Chita Rivera, Rita Moreno and Nathan Lane, shared their insights into his work and personality.
“I was very impressed,” he said. “I had no input on the interviews. I did not co-produce it. It’s honest, and there’s not a fake moment in it.”
Honesty, along with openness and humanity, remains a hallmark of McNally’s work.
“I didn’t sit down to write that way,” he said. “A series of things make you who you are, who we become as adults. I was lucky to be exposed to great literature, which is all about humanity, about who people are and why they are.”
RELATED: Broadway producers were the secret sauce at Zach Theatre's Red, Hot & Soul
He never understood those in Corpus Christi who were proud of never leaving, even to not-so-distant Houston.
“Why is that good to just stay in your town and never have any kind of different experience?” he asked. “I don't get that lack of curiosity about the world around me.”
Drawn to New York because of its energy and creativity, McNally, a longtime leader in the Dramatists Guild of America, a professional group of 7,000 playwrights, composers and lyricists, is extremely conscious of how the mechanics of theater have changed in this country since the 1950s, when he could buy a standing-room ticket on Broadway for $1.
“Broadway is a very different creature when I came to New York in the fall of 1956,” he said. “Earning a living now is very, very difficult. The entry level in the theater is more difficult than when I started. I had my first play on Broadway at age 25.”
Back then, plays such as “Immortal Longings” could be tried out on the road before their all-important New York premieres, but that process became too expensive to sustain. Regional nonprofits such as Zach Theatre have for decades given a play’s creators breathing room to develop their work.
“No play is right the first day it goes into rehearsal,” he said. “It must be refined and changed to keep improving.”