Legendary playwright Terrence McNally died today at age 81, of complications relating to the coronavirus. Seattle-based playwright Jim Moran remembers McNally, working alongside him, and the impact he had on Moran’s own work.
One of our greatest and prolific playwrights of the past half century passed on, Terrence McNally. One of the most special and honorable times of my life was to serve as his assistant for the world premiere of Catch Me If You Can, the Musical at The 5th Avenue Theatre. I was very nervous to meet someone whose works had a substantial presence in my play collection, let alone to work as his assistant. I’m happy to report that he was a very kind gentleman in every sense. I recall those first few days entering the rehearsal and sitting alongside him with a row of people who had a wheelbarrow of Tony awards among them, like Jack O’Brien, Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman, Jerry Mitchell, Mr. McNally himself, and many others. The intimidation was overwhelming. I kept internally asking myself, “what the hell am I doing here?” Then one day Terrence showed off a new app on his phone. It was essentially a digital whoopee cushion and he placed it under Jack O’Brien’s chair for a prank. I have to say that I felt more at ease after that day; the presumed sophisticated enjoying some sophomoric humor.
The surface material of a lot of his plays were not initially relatable to me, for example opera which was a common trope for many of his works. Nevertheless, his plays had this heart and soul to them that somehow had a genuine purity to me. When I mounted the courage one day, I asked him about a little writer’s block on a play that I was working on. He simply asked me, “what are your characters doing?” With that, a door was opened for me as I soldiered on with a new draft. By the way, I’m listening to Verdi’s La Traviata while writing this.
I read that Terrence McNally, a lung cancer survivor, passed away from complications due to chronic pulmonary disease which were exacerbated by Covid-19. This fact is so heartbreaking because we lost a voice who had such empathy and compassion for human beings that is so desperately needed now. Nevertheless, that voice will live on in his plays and I’m thankful for that. After Catch Me If You Can, the Musical concluded at The 5th Avenue Theatre, I would still e-mail Terrence from time to time and he would always reply, ask me how I was doing and how my writing was going. The last e-mail I sent him remarked my viewing of his documentary Terrence McNally: Every Act of Life two years ago at the Seattle International Film Festival, which I thoroughly recommend. Much like his advice for my little bout of writer’s block, his reply was short and quick. But underneath it was warmth and generosity that puts wind in one’s sails. Thank you Terrence and you will be sorely missed.
Rest In Peace
Terrence McNally’s obituary appears in The New York Times, here.
Jim Moran is a Seattle-based playwright, whose work has premiered locally (Macha Theatre Works, Eclectic Theater, Northwest Playwrights Alliance, and many others) and around the country.