‘I Never Knew Anyone Less Jaded’: Admiring Terrence McNally


Audra McDonald, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Joe Mantello on a versatile collaborator who came to know “he didn’t have to repeat himself.’From left, Chita Rivera, Tom Nelis and Matthew Deming in “The Visit,” for which Terrence McNally wrote the book.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesMarch 26, 2020, 12:32 p.m. ETOne builds a lot of relationships over a…

Audra McDonald, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Joe Mantello on a versatile collaborator who came to know “he didn’t have to repeat himself.’

Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Elisabeth Vincentelli

One builds a lot of relationships over a career covering nearly six decades, and the playwright Terrence McNally, who died of coronavirus complications on Tuesday, could count on an extraordinary number of them. Many of these bonds were distinguished by an enduring loyalty, and they ranged widely in the American performing-arts scene — McNally wrote plays, books for musicals, opera librettos and screenplays. Below are reminiscences from his collaborators and peers. Some were collected by email, others by telephone; they have been edited for length and clarity.

Starred in the McNally musicals “The Rink,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life” and “The Visit”

Terrence would not like for us to be this sad, but I don’t care how much he’d like to, he has no control over us [chuckles].

I know for a fact that I wouldn’t be the person I am today without the words and the love of Terrence. It’s the Terrences who bring out the individuality in the artist, and the imagination, and remind you that you are bigger than what you appear to be.

I remember him always upstage right in the back. As we rehearsed, he created. John [Kander] and Freddy [Ebb] and whoever was directing would ask for something and they would get it right away! It was as fresh as it could be, and funny if it had to be. And it was always right.

Author, composer and actor, “Hamilton”

Terrence and I first met at the Broadway opening of “In The Heights,” and I couldn’t believe he was there. The librettist for “Ragtime” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman” came to see our work, a new show by a largely novice creative team, and he could not have been more supportive. This was the playwright who elevated my heroes Rita [Moreno] and Chita [Rivera], writing amazing roles for both in “The Ritz” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” A few years later, thanks to Terrence’s beautifully crafted libretto, I experienced one of the most dizzying, heartbreaking highs I’ve ever had in a theater witnessing Chita Rivera’s transcendent performance in “The Visit.”

Starred in the McNally operas “Great Scott” and “Dead Man Walking”

The first thing I felt compelled to do when I heard the news was to put on Callas and cry along with her voice, as I know Terrence did so many times in his life. Somehow connecting through her voice, I felt still connected to him.

Artistic director, Manhattan Theater Club

When we did “It’s Only a Play” [in 1986], he was so nervous before the critics were coming. I said, “It doesn’t matter what they say.” And he said, “It does, of course it matters what they say.” So I told him, “To me it doesn’t: I will do your next play.” That was a moment that changed his life, my life and the artistic life of Manhattan Theater Club, because up to 1999 we produced a brand-new play by Terrence McNally virtually every year. In that period he was both prolific and very daring: He knew he didn’t have to repeat himself.

Lyricist for McNally-penned musicals “Ragtime,” “A Man of No Importance” and “Anastasia”

He was a stickler for every word he wrote, every comma, every period. He would occasionally lecture the cast: “If I write a comma, you pause. If I write a period, you stop. I don’t want you to pause when there is no comma.”

What made Terrence’s voice distinctive was his authenticity: His very being went into every character. And he wanted every project to be great, mature, profound, serious at its heart — even “Anastasia,” which was based on an animated movie. He wanted to explore the history, to tell a more grown-up story.

Composer, “Ragtime,” “A Man of No Importance” and “Anastasia”

He would never give us something saying “Song goes here.” He would write a scene up to the point where you would feel a song could happen and then he would write a beautiful long monologue to suggest what the character was feeling, in language that would help bring his ideas across. When we read his first treatment for “Ragtime,” he had a scene for Mother, who was watching her husband go on an expedition to the North Pole. She says, “Goodbye, my love, God bless you, and I suppose bless America, too.” I thought, “Isn’t that a song?”

Playwright, “Six Degrees of Separation”

Our paths started crossing in the mid ’60s when we met at New Dramatists. Terrence, wonder of wonders, had already had two shows on Broadway — “The Lady of the Camellias” and “And Things That Go Bump in the Night.” And he was still in his mid-20s! But once you met him, you couldn’t be jealous. He was of such good cheer and generosity, you realized we were all in this together.

Composer and lyricist

I’ll miss him theatrically and I’ll miss him personally.

Starred in McNally’s “Master Class,” “Ragtime,” “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune”

We first met when I was doing “Carousel.” He took me out for a grilled cheese sandwich across the street from Lincoln Center, to talk about “Master Class” and to know me. So that would have been 1994. Not only did I do three shows with him, plus workshops and one-off benefits, but he would become a very dear friend. He was at both of my weddings. He knew my children. Considering how long he had been in the business and how much he had done, I never knew anyone less jaded. He was so wide-eyed and he was still so enchanted by the theater and actors and the process. And that, many times, would not only inspire me but shame me. Seriously, I’d look at him and be, “Oh come on!”

Activist and author, “The Normal Heart”

Terrence was an old and dear friend and neighbor. We had many a gossipy lunch together. He was having his lung cancer out at the same time I was having my liver transplant. We would chat from hospital to hospital. He was always lovingly pestering me for taking so long finishing my book “The American People.” It is truly amazing to me that through all his infirmities he remained so productive.

Director, McNally’s “Love! Valour! Compassion!,” “Corpus Christi,” and “Dead Man Walking”

Terrence and Tom [Kirdahy] live down the road in the house that inspired “Love! Valour! Compassion!” I wandered over in the late afternoon yesterday to sit quietly in the backyard and watch the sunset — as Terrence and I had done so many times before. I recalled some of the opening lines, the first of our many happy collaborations:

I love my house. I like to fill it with my friends.

Over the years, we’ve become more like a family.

It makes me happy to have us all together in our home.

Pure Terrence.

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