Tony Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally, who grew up in Corpus Christi and was adopted by Austin's theater community, died Tuesday from complications caused by the coronavirus, according to a family representative. He was 81.
McNally died at Sarasota Memorial Hospital in Sarasota, Fla. He was a lung cancer survivor who had lived with chronic inflammatory lung disease, according to USA Today.
McNally came out as gay long before many of his peers. His body of work was groundbreaking — he was among the first stage writers to grapple with the broader implications of AIDS, for instance — and spans decades.
He survived the AIDS crisis only to die in this one, among the first iconic U.S. figures to die of COVID-19 complications.
In 2019, Austin’s Zach Theatre staged the world premiere of his "Immortal Longings," a drama about the ballet world, with the playwright in residence. The previous year, the company had thrown McNally an 80th birthday jubilee that included a celebrity-studded weekend of events.
Zach Theatre previously staged his "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune," "Master Class," "Ragtime," "Mothers and Sons" and "Love! Valour! Compassion!"
"I feel absolutely gutted over the loss of Terrence McNally today," Zach artistic director Dave Steakley said. "He has been such an enormous inspiration in my life, personally and professionally. He is the playwright who put the lives of gay men on stage and help lead us through the AIDS epidemic with compassion, great humor and cathartic loss as a community.
"He led the way, saying what no one else was saying on stage, bringing dignity to our lives while living his life bravely and unapologetically as an example. His plays were celebrated by a mainstream Broadway audience and by critics alike, and this was key to gay equality, by changing the hearts and minds of people one at the time, sitting with a community of souls gathered together in the dark."
Other Austin companies have produced McNally’s "Dead Man Walking," "The Lisbon Traviata," "Corpus Christi" and "A Perfect Ganesh," while touring productions have delivered "Kiss of the Spider Woman," "The Full Monty" and "Anastasia."
"Terrence was a personal hero of mine," said Eric Colleary, curator of theater and performing arts at the Ransom Center, where McNally’s literary archives are housed at the University of Texas. "His plays were among the few available in my local bookstore growing up, and I remember reading ‘Frankie and Johnny at the Claire de Lune’ and ‘Master Class’ with mind-blowing admiration.
"He was writing positive gay characters for the stage and screen at the height of the AIDS crisis in a way that was humorous and humanizing at a time when it was so desperately needed — plays like ‘Love! Valour! Compassion!’ and ’The Lisbon Traviata.’ He was an incredible storyteller on page and in person, with an enviable arsenal of theater stories at his command. I feel enormously fortunate to have known him."
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 told this newspaper in 2019. "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."
While McNally ranks among the most distinguished playwrights with Texas roots, his feelings about the state, until recently, were 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 depicts biblical characters as gay men.
McNally was nominated for seven Tony Awards and won four. He also picked up an Emmy Award for the script to "Andre’s Mother."
Upon hearing of his death, Lin-Manuel Miranda, best known for the megahit "Hamilton," tweeted: "Heartbroken over the loss of Terrence McNally, a giant in our world, who straddled plays and musicals deftly. Grateful for his staggering body of work and his unfailing kindness"
Austin-based Broadway producers Marc and Carolyn Seriff developed a close relationship with McNally and his spouse, producer Tom Kirdahy, during the past few years.
"He was such a beautiful human being," Carolyn Seriff posted on Facebook upon hearing of his death. "He believed in love."