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Former Texan And Tony-Winning Playwright Terrence McNally Dies of COVID-19 Complications

by Jerome Weeks 24 Mar 2020 3:45 PM

The 81-year-old writer — author of such gay-themed plays as “Love! Valor! Compassion!” — was a lung cancer survivor.

Terrence McNally and Tom Kirdahy at the Tony Awards in 2019: shutterstock

The 81-year-old writer — author of such gay-themed plays as “Love! Valor! Compassion!” and the books for such musicals as “Kiss of the Spider Woman” — was a lung cancer survivor and suffered from chronic COPD.

McNally was born in St. Petersburg, Florida. But he recalled in interviews that his life was transformed both by hearing the Texaco Opera broadcasts from the Met in New York, broadcasts he heard as a boy in Corpus Christi, Texas — and by his parents taking him to trips to New York to see such shows as “The King and I.” His parents had opened a seaside bar and grill in Florida but after a hurricane destroyed it, they eventually moved to Texas — including a brief stint in Dallas — before heading south to the coast.

McNally rarely wrote about his Texas upbringing except for his late-in-life, highly controversial play, “Corpus Christi,” which portrayed Jesus as gay — and which inflamed such angry responses that an abbreviated student production at Tarleton State University was cancelled after then-Texas lieutenant governor David Dewhurst declared no state-funded organization should portray acts that are “morally reprehensible.” 

From my review of a later Dallas production in 2010 presented at the Cathedral of Hope — which happened without protests or public outcries:

But perhaps the most interesting thing about Corpus Christi is McNally’s choice to set it in (and name it after) his hometown in Texas. His [Jesus or Joshua] is a lonely, Lone Star redeemer stuck in a town that’s depicted as mostly bereft of enlightenment, cultural or spiritual. Joshua must contend with gay-bashing boys in the high school restroom. He’s goaded into learning football, and other manly displays, even as it’s clear he’s not really into them — like going to the prom with an unlucky girl (the likably funny Molly O’Leary).


McNally has never really written anything for the stage about his Texas upbringing, and I may be off base in speculating that some of this is drawn from his own life. The biographies and autobiographies of gay writers and artists, after all, are filled with similar incidents.


But while still a young man in Texas, Joshua remarks on a beautiful melody on a record that’s playing. It’s from the opera, Thais, his teacher says, by Jules Massenet.


And that’s it, that’s the entire scene. It’s something of an inside-opera joke, I suppose. Massenet’s Orientalist work about an Egyptian courtesan being converted to Christianity but really seduced by a monk has some relevance to Corpus Christi in that it also mixes the religious and the erotic. But not one audience member in a thousand would catch it. It’s completely unnecessary.


Except that McNally is a huge opera fan. He’s written librettos (he wrote Dead Man Walking with Jake Heggie and was originally involved with Moby-Dick). And most importantly, he’s spoken about how — growing up in the ’50s on the southern tip of Texas — his life was more or less saved by listening to the Texaco Opera broadcasts on the radio. They opened up a different world of emotional expression and culture, and made him want to move to New York, which he did in 1956 to attend Columbia — and where his life was transformed.


The detail is hardly enough to redeem Corpus Christi. But more of McNally in this earnest little church pageant might have made it far more compelling as a piece of theater.

McNally spoke with the PBS Newshour back in 2014:

Here is the Broadwayworld obituary.