Playwright, librettist, screenwriter

Born: November 3, 1938;

Died: March 24, 2020.

TERRENCE McNally, who has died aged 81 from complications of Covid-19, was a Tony award-winning playwright, whose slow burn of a career moved through controversy to commercial success.

In the former, his early play, And Things That Go Bump in the Night (1965), put gay relationships at its centre at a time when such matters were taboo enough to provoke critical venom. Much later, his depiction of Jesus and his apostles as gay in Corpus Christi (1998) provoked protests, death threats, condemnation by the Catholic League and attempted cancellation of its scheduled premiere at the Manhattan Theatre.

In terms of commercial success, his 1987 play, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, saw McNally adapt his two-hander about a one-night stand between a short-order chef and a waitress into a film starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer. His book for Kiss of the Spiderwoman (1992), the musical of Manuel Puig’s novel about a gay window dresser and a South American revolutionary sharing a prison cell, written with John Kander and Fred Ebb, won McNally his first Tony.

By this time, McNally’s writing had moved from the barbs of his early plays to something more nuanced, as he explored the complexities of everyday relationships with a warmth that permeated throughout his mature works. As he put it in a 2014 interview with the New York Times, “I think I write about the difficulty of people connecting as they’re trying to find hope, trying to find their way to real love and commitment.”

The change came after McNally stopped drinking, a habit he accelerated after the failure of his showbiz pastiche, Broadway, Broadway (1978). He sobered up after actress Angela Lansbury gently reprimanded him at a party. Frankie and Johnnie in the Clair de Lune was his first dry work.

Michael Terrence McNally was born in St Petersburg, Florida, to Hubert and Dorothy (nee Rapp) McNally, native New Yorkers, who ran a seaside bar and grill called the Pelican Club. When a hurricane destroyed their premises, they briefly moved back to New York, then to Dallas, before settling in Corpus Christi, Texas, where they bought a beer distributorship. McNally’s one-time drinking habits might have been influenced by his parents, but they also gave him a love of theatre from an early age.

When he was eight, he was taken to see Ethel Merman in Annie Get Your Gun, and later saw Gertrude Lawrence play opposite Yul Brynner in The King and I. At school, he was encouraged to write by his teacher, Maureen McElroy, who introduced him to the work of Shakespeare. McNally started writing plays as a teenager, and studied journalism at Columbia University.

He approached The Actors Studio with a play, which was turned down, though he was invited to work on shows there to gain theatrical experience. He began a relationship with playwright Edward Albee, who had not long written his debut one-act piece, The Zoo Story. The pair were together for four years in a relationship in which McNally became frustrated by Albee’s unwillingness to be open about his sexuality.

Music, and opera in particular, was a profound influence on McNally. At one time he was a regular panellist on a radio quiz show that aired during broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera, and it was music that gave his work much of its emotional pulse. This was the case in The Lisbon Traviata (1980), which referenced opera diva Maria Callas, about whom he wrote Master Class (1995), winning a Tony for best play in a solo piece, which starred Zoe Caldwell (obituary, March 25) as Callas.

Once he started writing again, McNally formed a lengthy alliance with Manhattan Theatre Club, who produced all of his non-musical work for thirteen years, beginning with It’s Only a Play (1986), a successful reworking of Broadway, Broadway. His second Tony winner, Love! Valour! Compassion! (1994), also premiered there. The relationship with MTC ended after Corpus Christi. McNally won his third Tony for Ragtime (1997), a musical adaptation with Kander and Ebb of E.L. Doctorow’s novel.

In 1990, he won an Emmy for Andre’s Mother, about a woman dealing with her son’s death from AIDS. He revisited the same characters in Mothers and Sons (2014). A perhaps unlikely venture saw him write the book for The Full Monty (2000), a musical adaptation of the 1997 British comedy film about a group of unemployed Sheffield steel-workers who become male strippers. Written with composer and lyricist David Yazbek, McNally’s version relocated the action to Buffalo, New York, and put a gay relationship at the story’s centre.

A documentary profile, Every Act of Life (2019) featured new interviews with McNally and a host of collaborators. In 2019, he received his fifth Tony award, for lifetime achievement. “Not a moment too soon,” he said, accepting the award, having already survived lung cancer, and suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It was a remark that captured the understated wit of one of the most humane playwrights of his era.

He is survived by his husband, Tom Kirdahy – they married in 2003 and renewed their vows in 2010 – and his brother, Peter.