Happy Birthday Terrence McNally! – A Loving Salute

If you’re unaware of playwright, librettist, screenwriter Terrance McNally’s groundbreaking contribution to the arts, your toolbox may be overstuffed with sports or crossword puzzles. Plays such as Love! Valour! Compassion! and Master Class, librettos for Ragtime and Kiss of The Spider Woman, operas Dead Man Walking and Great Scott, films including The Ritz and Frankie and Johnny barely scratch the surface.

As much an activist as writer, McNally was and is unabashedly vocal in fighting for civil and LGBT rights both with his art and beyond it. His work cried out against the Vietnam “war” and skewered social and sexual mores, presenting homosexuality on the stage at a time when it was unheard of. One of the founding fathers of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, he’s now looked on by that board as having, according to its director, Tom Viola, a “papal” role.

Part I of this evening is introduced by Terrance McNally’s palpably loving husband, Tom Kirdahy, lawyer and theater producer who spent 20+ years giving free legal services to those with HIV/AIDS. Kirdahy then cedes the podium to filmmaker Jeff Kaufman who in turn presents his documentary/biopic of McNally, Every Act of Life.

The film will be in theaters and On Demand in November. Don’t miss it. It’s not only exemplary of fine visual craft, superb editing, and thorough research, but illuminates McNally first as a man, starting with childhood, then an artist. You’ll find yourself loving this vulnerable, compassionate, smart, brave and extremely talented human being.

Part II opens with a Q & A panel lead by Tom Viola, Director of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Those onstage include: Terrence McNally (cue the first of several standing ovations), actors Nathan Lane and Christine Baranski – both of whom have repeatedly worked with the playwright – filmmaker Jeff Kaufman, and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, a three time collaborator.

Tom Viola, Terrence McNally, Nathan Lane, Christine Baranski, Jeff Kaufman, Lynn Ahrens

Lane tells us about meeting the artist when, head in hands, he sat in the lobby of  a disastrous production in which he was featured. “It’s as if you’ve been sent to me,” McNally said, complimenting the actor’s work. Years later, he recalls McNally telephoning from The Russian Tea Room to read reviews of the problematic Lips Together, Teeth Apart.

In fact, the 1991 play was written for Lane, Christine Baranski, Swoosie Kurtz, and Anthony Held. McNally has more than once penned something for a particular performer. He’s also, one gathers, a great giver of other gifts, Lane’s dog Mabel being a particularly meaningful one. “It’s the most important gift I’ve ever been given aside from my husband.” In the film we also learn that McNally sticks around when the going gets tough – the deaths of several partners show incredible sweetness and mettle, i.e. the gift of self.

Baranski is asked whether there’s a play she wished she’d gotten. “Master Class, of course.” (Perhaps the contemporary actress’s Hamlet) She continues: “He writes so beautifully for the ladies and has such passion for opera. I experience words like a musician, you can feel rhythm and lyricism in Terrence’s words.”

The actress recalls speaking up for the first time in her career when a particularly vulgar iteration of Lips Together upset its cast. McNally’s respectful response stayed with her. “It’s a measure of you as an artist that you welcomed feedback,” she adds turning toward him. McNally says: “I wasn’t holding up my end…As Nathan can tell you, the last scene in Love! Valour! Compassion! began underwater.” McNally alludes to making changes when necessary.

Tom Viola, Terrence McNally, Nathan Lane, Christine Baranski, Jeff Kaufman, Lynn Ahrens

Ahrens remarks that McNally writes “poetry that wants to leap into song.” It’s a question of where a word or a phrase goes, into lyric or dialogue. The moving “Back to Before” from Ragtime was apparently birthed out of a late incoming page from the show’s librettist. Because he’s “such a master scene writer,” however, not everything is translated to Ahrens’ idiom. Long meetings in McNally’s sun-bathed apartment with the librettist making coffee are fondly recollected.

When asked why he chose McNally as a subject, Kaufman responds that he’s drawn to people who are the center of a community, those that spark inspiration in others. His favorite image, not in the film, is of “Tom and Terrence together just watching television…”

Nathan Lane, Christine Baranski

We’re then treated to a scene by Baranski and Lane from Lips Together, Teeth Apart. “The last time we did this scene was 27 years ago,” Lane quips, eyebrows in a proverbial point. “I wanna see your dick,” the character says to her brother. “WHA-AT?!” he responds. “No, are you nuts?!”…” eventually whipping off his towel. Baranski glances down. “My compliments to our parents.” It’s funny and very real. These two are masters of precision pause and wry tone.

Michael Benjamin Washington, Michael Urie, Nick Blaemire, Justin Quackenbush

Next comes one from Love! Valour! Compassion! with Michael Benjamin Washington, Michael Urie, Nick Blaemire, and Justin Quackenbush ostensibly in two boats. The lovers are discussing HIV/AIDS in early times; two are lucky: “Why does the fellow next to me get sick and I don’t? I’ll always feel like a bystander at the genocide of who we are…” And two unlucky. Dialogue is economic, uncompromising, cool and tender.

Christy Altomare

Entertainment closes with Christy Altomare, the current star of Broadway’s Anastasia – music, Steve Flaherty, lyrics, Lynn Ahrens, libretto, Terrence McNally. Her rendition of “Journey to the Past” soars with deep yearning.

Kirdahy appears with a cake and we all sing “Happy Birthday.” No one wants to sit down. Innumerable tribute events hardly acknowledge a person outside his/her work.  This was a moving exception.

Tom Kirdahy, Michael Benjamin Washington, Christine Baranski, Nathan Lane, Terrence McNally pushed forward by Tom Viola, Michael Urie, Justin Quackenbush, Nick Blaemire, Christy Altomare

Photos Rod Morata/ Michael Priest Photography
Opening: Terrence McNally

92Y, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids, and The Dramatists Guild Fund presents
An 80th Birthday Celebration of Terrence McNally
Featuring the documentary Every Act of Life by Jeff Kaufman and Marcia Ross
92 Y at Lexington Avenue
October 21, 2018

About Alix Cohen (641 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.