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Three years ago, Terrence McNally’s phone rang.
On the line, Michael Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
“We’d like to do a McNally festival,” said Kaiser.
“My God, really?” replied McNally. “I’m very flattered and honored, but what are you talking about?”
“We’d like to do three plays simultaneously,” Kaiser explained, one in the Eisenhower, one in the Terrace, and one in the Center’s newest venue, The Family Theater, which for years housed the AFI Theater.
Using 1989’s potent — and extremely gay-centric — The Lisbon Traviata as a starting point, Kaiser and McNally crafted a festival that ultimately celebrated McNally’s longstanding passion for opera, including his 1995 Tony-winning masterpiece Master Class and a new work, Golden Age. The resulting “Terrence McNally’s Nights at the Opera” — helmed by powerhouse stars like Tyne Daly, who plays Maria Callas in Master Class, and John Glover and Malcolm Gets in Traviata — began its month-long run at the Kennedy Center last week.
“The three plays talk to one another,” says McNally. “Lisbon Traviata is about fans. Master Class is about an interpreter. And Golden Age is about a creator. Three very interesting aspects. A triptych.”
The 71-year-old playwright has been hands on during the production process — helping with every aspect from the casting to even rewriting key portions of Lisbon Traviata. He and his partner, Broadway producer Tom Kirdahy, have already spent the better part of a month in our city. Concurrently, a production of McNally’s brutal, skin-ripping drama Lips Together, Teeth Apart, a landmark 1991 work that dealt with homophobia and AIDS, is getting a Broadway run with Megan Mullally and Patton Oswalt in April.
“It’s bliss, it’s entertaining, it’s never, ever, ever boring,” Kirdahy says of his life with McNally. “And it’s everything I ever dreamed of. If that sounds corny, I’m sorry, but really, every day is a gift.”
And the gift will be enhanced in the near future, as the couple plan to take advantage of D.C.’s recent law allowing same-sex marriages.
“To be surrounded by friends in a city that we love, to say ‘I do’ out loud, holding hands with the man I love,” says Kirdahy, “promises to be quite thrilling.”
“This is a very significant moment in our lives doing these plays here,” says McNally. “So getting married here has resonance. We were up in New York at a rehearsal of Lips Together last night, and on the way back to D.C., Tom said he feels like we’re coming home. And I said, ‘I know what you mean.’ It felt nice. D.C. is a real home for us.”
METRO WEEKLY: Let’s start with your boyhood. You were raised in Corpus Christi, Texas.
TERRENCE MCNALLY: I really enjoyed growing up. We lived in Dallas for a couple of years, but Corpus Christi is where I first had sex — and that’s when you start remembering your life. [Laughs.] At least that’s how I remember mine.
MW: When did you come out?
MCNALLY: That happened before I went to bed with a boy. I was attracted to fellow species members. You know, I don’t have a big coming out story to tell you. It seemed very natural to me — I never felt it was wrong. I think something as natural as sexual attraction is not to be fought. We so often hear about people feeling great shame, and “I must be the only sinful person like this.” Thank God I never had those feelings. I guess I defined God on my own terms — terms that were comfortable to me. I attended Catholic school and the one message I got from being in Catholic school was that I was created in God’s image, therefore I was okay.
As wonderful as it was growing up in Corpus Christi, I had my bags packed from about the time I was 15 and went right from my high school graduation to New York. It’s not quite as dramatic as it sounds — I had been accepted to Columbia University — but I got to New York when I was 17. I always knew I was going to go there partially because I was gay and I knew there must be many other gay men up there, and partially for the culture, too. I knew there woul d be theater. But it was opera as much as anything that made me want to go to Columbia.
I’m fortunate that I had the smarts to get out of Texas, to get out of a hostile environment and live life openly as a gay man. There are people who do not relocate. But I don’t want to live in an environment where I’ m embattled every time I go out the door.
MW: How did you develop an affinity for opera?
MCNALLY: I didn’t. I just liked it the first time I heard it. I have friends who don’t like opera to this day, and my only analogy for it would be I don’t like calves’ liver. People always say, ”Wait till you taste my calves’ liver,” or “There’s a restaurant I’m going to take you to and you will really change your mind about calves’ liver.” I’ve had calves’ liver maybe 45 times in my life, and I just don’t like calves’ liver. Some people just don’t like opera.
People will say ”Who can like an art form where someone drinks poison or is stabbed and then sings for another 10 minutes?” But what can I say? It doesn’t seem unnatural to me. It seems an artistic expression of maybe what’s it’s like to die. Opera is not a realistic art form. But I don’t think art is realistic. A Rembrandt or a Picasso is not a realistic — it’s not real life as we see it with our own eyes, but it’s how these people interpret it. I don’t think you learn to love opera — and that’s fine. You can have a full, happy life and not give a shit about Maria Callas or Guiseppe Verdi. But opera enhanced my life.
MW: When did you experience your first opera?
MCNALLY: I was in Catholic school and the nun came in one day and said, ”I’m going to teach you about something called opera.” She put on some Puccini love duets and I just loved it. And the first record I ever bought was a recording of Tosca because she played Tosca that day. It cost $11.44. Records cost $5.72, and I had a job after school in a cafeteria carrying trays for older patrons, and I was working just to get $11.44 together to pay for these records because every album I owned was two sets – you know, La Boheme, Tosca, La Traviata, they were all two LPs and they were all $11.44. Now I don’t have a single record. Now I shop on the Internet.
MW: Everything’s a download.
MCNALLY: Yeah. I kind of miss the booklets and all that, but I think the sound is pretty good. And to think you can download the “Ring Cycle” or Beethoven’s nine symphonies in under a minute — something these men spent a lifetime composing — it’s like zooooop and there’s Act I of Parsifal. Kind of mind boggling.
MW: By and large, some of your renowned works — Love! Valour! Compassion!, Lisbon Traviata — are exclusively gay in terms of their content.
MCNALLY: This high school English teacher of mine — Mrs. Maurine McElroy — said ”Write what you know about.” And one of the things I do know a little something about is gay men. So it seems very natural to write about them.
I had gay men in plays as sexual people long before it was okay to. There have been gay men [in plays] I’m sure before mine, but they were always the swishy next door neighbor, comic relief, or the tormented young man who committed suicide. I was maybe the first not to have anything like that. I [included gays] that from my very first play in Things That Go Bump In the Night, which had two gay men in it, and these guys were not stereotypical in any way. All the seeds of everything I’ve written since are there.
The play was done on Broadway in 1964, and I was pilloried for it — “the play was obscene, it was dirty, not fit for human consumption.” I was an innocent when I wrote it in the sense I thought maybe it’s not the greatest play in the English language, but [critics] certainly will see me as talented, someone to be encouraged. Instead I got infamously bad reviews. They were more than negative — they were viscous. Things like ”The American theater would be better if Terrence McNally’s parents had smothered him in his cradle.” How do you invoke such hatred?
MW: Did the critics close it?
MCNALLY: I thought we might close in one night, but the producer — Ted Mann of Circle in the Square — said ”I want to try an experiment. I can run the show for two weeks if we can sell tickets for $1 on weekdays and $2 on Friday and Saturday night.” I said, ”Well, Ted, that’s a great idea but I don’t think anyone is going to show up even at those prices after reading these awful reviews.”
It sold out for the two weeks we ran. The theater was packed every night. And there were people who liked it, so I felt my work does speak to some people. There were people who are clapping, people going ”Bravo.” There were people going ”boo,” too, but I was reaching people.
I’ve often said that if Ted Mann had not done that, I might have very easily not written another play. If it had run for one night only, I don’t know if I ever would have had the courage to put another blank white sheet of paper into my typewriter.
MW: Many of your works were ground-breaking from a gay perspective. With 1975’s The Ritz, for example, you set a comedy in a gay bathhouse. Nobody set a comedy in a gay bathhouse.
MCNALLY: I thought it was very political and subversive to do. I said, ”Here’s a Broadway audience paying top dollar to see a French sex farce that stands the tradition totally on its head.” I was very proud of myself for doing that. Sex is only threatening to straight audiences, I think, if it’s sexy. But there is nothing un-sexier than a French sex farce — you are laughing at what fools we make of ourselves trying to get laid. I think that’s one reason The Ritz worked. No one sort of said, ”Hey, wait a minute, what’s going on here? We shouldn’t be laughing at this. We’re supposed to be appalled.”
MW: At the other end of the spectrum, your controversial 1998 drama Corpus Christi stirred up a tremendous amount of vitriol.
MCNALLY: I didn’t think it was controversial in this day and age to suggest that Christ and his Apostles could be imagined as gay men. I was naïve because I thought the message that we’re all created in God’s image had been more accepted than it has been. I thought people would at least say, “Yeah, this world should be about love and acceptance and tolerance, about love of our family and fellow man, and that we all have divinity. And when we recognize the divinity in each other we become truly complete people.” But it was all dismissed as a sacrilegious, dirty blasphemous play. I really didn’t see that coming.
The reception to Corpus Christi revealed how much homophobia still exists in polite society. In New York there’s not a lot of gay bashing, but there’s a lot of insidious stuff said at dinner parties when gay people leave the room, I have a feeling, and I think we have to address that. I wouldn’t be writing half the plays I did if I didn’t think homophobia still existed. The reaction to Corpus Christi just shows how strong it is. You can say Christ was a woman, you can say Christ was black but if you suggest that Christ might have been a gay man, then you’re suddenly a blasphemer.
MW: You have an interesting resume in that you’ve traveled extensively between play and musical formats. The list of musicals you’ve written books for is impressive — Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Rink, The Full Monty, Ragtime….
MCNALLY: When I work on a book for a musical, I make sure it’s a story I really want to tell with collaborators who I want to be working with. And I take it every bit as seriously as I do my own plays. I think the mistakes some of my peers make is they think musicals are “Playwriting Lite.” You write a scene and put a parenthesis ”Song Here.” I write them as a play and if my collaborators, composers and lyricist can’t find a song in a scene, then I’ve failed, and I re-write the scene.
Writing a book for a musical is really leaving your ego behind and just working through craft and technique, still with personal emotion and integrity. You’re adding to the fodder for music, and if your ego is saying, ”No, no, I love that line, you can’t have it,” you’re not going to be a good collaborator. But a musical has to be about the music. If someone comes out saying, ”God, what a great book, but I thought the score was mediocre,” well I don’t want to see that musical. Why should anyone want to see it? Go see a play.
MW: Looking over the credits for the Kennedy Center production of Lisbon Traviata: You’re gay, at least two of the man actors are gay, the director is gay, the play’s content is gay. Can you get a production that’s more gay?
MCNALLY: [Laughs.] No, I don’t think so. But remember, gay doesn’t necessarily mean good. It used to be it was enough just to be a gay play, it was enough to be a gay restaurant. Now it’s got to be a good gay restaurant and a good gay play, so the bar has been raised considerably. And that is good.
MW: You’ve gotten to the point where you are a legend in the theater industry. How does that resonate with you?
MCNALLY: It doesn’t in that I think of myself as somebody that has to go do the laundry in a few minutes. [Laughs.]
MW: Speaking of your home life, your partner of nine years is Tom Kirdahy.
MCNALLY: I feel blessed. I have the best spouse in the world.
MW: How did you and Tom fall in love?
MCNALLY: Oh, for me, at first sight. I met him and just said I want to be with this man. I was one of the founders of a gay group on Long Island — an organization called EEGO, East End Gay Organization. And I got a call from them saying they were doing an evening of panel discussion on gay theater and I said, ”Okay, I’ll be on it.” I got there sort of on the early side and there was this incredibly attractive, sexy, smart, funny man there — Tom — and I just said, ”This is a corny line but I’d like to see you again, but I’m leaving for Machu Picchu in the morning.” I went off to South America for about six weeks. And the first person I called when I got back was Tom. He accepted a date, and we’ve been together ever since. He’s a remarkable person, a man of great intelligence, courage and passion.
MW: Any marriage plans on the horizon?
MCNALLY: Actually, we’re going to try to get married here in D.C. We’re going to have a meeting with LGBT people who know exactly what we have to do, since we don’t live in the District. We were civilly united [in Vermont] seven years ago, but it’s not the same. We want to be married. And this city has become so important to us because of the Kennedy Center festival, wouldn’t it be nice to say we got married here?
MW: Do you think the act of getting married will change the nature of your relationship with Tom?
MCNALLY: The thing that really changed our relationship for the better was the civil union, simply because we didn’t just sign a certificate, we stood up and said ”I love you” with witnesses, and said the words “for sickness and health.” It was powerful and ennobling. I mean, what a profound thing it is to commit your life to another person. So in my mind we are married. I just want it as a citizen in writing that we are married. We want “The M Word.”
“Terrence McNally’s Nights at the Opera” runs through April 18 at the Kennedy Center. For ticket and schedule information, call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.