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Tony-Winning Playwright Terrence McNally Dies of COVID-19

Tony-Winning Playwright Terrence McNally Dies of COVID-19
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McNally on March 2 of this year in NYC

Terrence McNally, one of the most acclaimed playwrights and librettists of his generation, died Tuesday at 81, Deadline reports.

McNally, who had survived lung cancer, died of COVID-19 complications at a hospital in Sarasota, Florida.

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The man who would come to be called "the bard of American theater" was born November 3, 1938, in St. Petersburg, Florida. He moved around as a child, but settled in NYC in the '50s to attend college. McNally had a strong connection to the town, having been taken back and forth to see musicals, which inspired his love of theater.

Freshly armed with a B.A. in English, McNally was invited to accompany the novelist John Steinbeck on a cruise around the globe, thanks to his many mentors and contacts who recognized McNally's burgeoning talent. He used the time to write "And Things That Go Bump in the Night," for which he'd been awarded a Rockefeller Grant, and which became his first produced play, in 1964.

McNally wrote prolifically, often about our collective moral core, and most effectively with humor, occasionally farcical. Some of his first works debuted off-Broadway or as TV productions.

"Next" (1969), directed by Elaine May and starring James Coco, attracted McNally one of his first critical and commercial successes with its story of a married, middle-aged man mistakenly drafted to fight in Vietnam — but whose draft officer refused to correct the situation. The war became central as a theme in several of his early works.

In 1971, McNally's "Bad Habits," a satire of psychiatry starring Linda Lavin, became such a hit it transferred to Broadway in 1974. His knack for poignant messaging in outlandish settings made "The Ritz," set in a gay bathhouse, a smash on Broadway in 1975, winning star Rita Moreno a Tony for her work, and lending itself to a 1976 movie version.

Several of McNally's works made the jump to the big screen, including his 1987 off-Broadway success "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune," reimagined in 1991 as "Frankie and Johnny" with Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer, and one of his best-known works, "Love! Valour! Compassion!" (1994), which made Nathan Lane a star and which became a feature film in 1997.

Throughout his career, McNally flouted convention, frequently writing about gay and AIDS issues when the topics were taboo. His 1997 work "Corpus Christi," in which Jesus and his disciples are presented as gay, became the subject of national protests. It remains a controversial play over 20 years later.

As a librettist, he won Tonys for "Kiss of the Spider Woman" (1993) and "Ragtime" (1998), and was nominated for the books of both "The Full Monty" (2001) and "The Visit" (2015).

Among his other most famous works was the Tony-winning play "Master Class" (1995), about a class conducted by opera diva Maria Callas (played by Zoe Caldwell, Patti LuPone and Faye Dunaway, among others).

Just last year, McNally received a special Tony for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre. Among his many other awards is the Emmy for writing the 1990 AIDS drama "Andre's Mother."

His final play, "Fire and Air," debuted off-Broadway in 2018.

McNally, who had been the partner of playwright Edward Albee and actor/director Robert Drivas, is survived by his husband, Tony-winning producer Tom Kirdahy.

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