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'Fresh Air' Remembers Broadway Playwright Terrence McNally


This is FRESH AIR. Among the growing number of casualties from COVID-19 is playwright Terrence McNally. He died Tuesday at the age of 81. McNally won several Tonys. Two are four musicals he wrote the book for, "Ragtime" and "Kiss Of The Spider Woman." He also won for his plays "Master Class," about Maria Callas, and "Love! Valour! Compassion!" which was inspired by the AIDS epidemic.

He received a Tony for lifetime achievement last year. His play "Frankie And Johnny In The Clair De Lune" was adapted into a movie starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer. A revival last year starred Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon.

I spoke with Terrence McNally in 1993 after "Kiss Of The Spider Woman" had just won seven Tonys. The musical, like the film it was adapted from, was set in a prison cell in a Latin American dictatorship. Two seemingly incompatible men share the cell. One is a revolutionary obsessed with his political struggle. The other is a gay man caught up in a rich fantasy life revolving around movies. We started with one of the songs written for the show by Kander and Ebb.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Valentin) Would you please shut up? Will you never shut up? Thank you very much. You're making me sick with that prissy wine. Watch me now. I draw a line. So you stick to your side, and I'll stick to mine. Never, ever cross this line.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Molina, singing) Fine. But the pot. How about the pot?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Valentin, singing) What about the pot?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Molina, singing) It's on your side.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Valentin, singing) So what?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Molina, singing) So when I have to use the pot, I intend to use the pot.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Valentin, singing) So what? That's an exception.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Molina, singing) Oh, gracious one, thanks a lot.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Valentin, singing) So don't ever try to be - don't ever dream you'll be - don't dare to think that you'll ever be some fairy friend of mine 'cause no, no, no, no, no - that's where I draw the line.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Molina, singing) Fine.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Valentin, singing) I draw the line.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Molina, singing) Fine.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Valentin, singing) I draw the line.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Molina, singing) Fine.


GROSS: Terrence McNally, welcome to FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Congratulations on the Tony. How did it feel to have "Kiss Of The Spider Woman" sweep at the Tonys?

MCNALLY: Well, it was very, very thrilling, I'll tell you that - and very nerve-wracking. My award for best book came quite early in the evening. And people said, oh, you can relax now. I said, no, it's - we've got to win best musical. That's the one that's going to make the difference for us.

GROSS: What kind of difference does it make?

MCNALLY: Well, at the box office, it gives it kind of seal of approval. This is not an easy show. I know when the subject matter is described, some people go - oh, I don't know if I want to see that. So the Tony Award is going to help us enormously to overcome that. A show like "Tommy" doesn't need any awards. It's got a built-in audience. We don't have that.

GROSS: Has the Tony had any impact on you personally yet?

MCNALLY: No (laughter). I've got a play in previews. And I spent half the Tony Award looking at my watch saying, oh, I - oh they're at that scene now. I hope that's going better 'cause I'd made some changes in the play that afternoon. I was actually at my other theatre - Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center until about 6 o'clock the night of the Tonys. And I saw the matinee and gave them some notes and made some changes with the director and cast. We gathered in the dressing rooms. And - but I said, I'm not going to be here tonight to see how it works. But I did keep looking at my watch during the Tonys. And my heart and soul were very evenly divided that evening. So I really couldn't celebrate because I got up the next morning and had an enormous amount of rewrites to do because we had just begun previews. We'd done four previews over that weekend back-to-back, where no new writing could go in, actually, just some cuts. So I had to spend all day Monday at the word processor.

GROSS: Isn't that frustrating? Just when everybody assumes that you're probably drinking bottle after bottle of champagne...


GROSS: ...You're really hard at work.

MCNALLY: Well, one, I don't drink. And two, I wouldn't have it any other way. It's great to have two shows going. And the plays, they become my extended family, the cast and crews working on the show. So it's like I've got two families. I can visit my mother's side of the family and my father's side of the family.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MCNALLY: And since I come from a very, very small family, that's very nice. Both my parents and their parents were only children, and I just have one brother. So there's not many McNallys around. I have no aunts and uncles, which is pretty amazing - no cousins. So it's very nice to have these surrogate aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents...

GROSS: Yeah.

MCNALLY: ...these different theaters.

GROSS: I was wondering if all the Tonys that "Kiss Of The Spider Woman" got seemed like vindication to you. The show premiered, I guess, in a workshop production in 1990, and it never really made it onto Broadway, and I think it was expected to. What happened back then?

MCNALLY: Well, let me - I can give you the most succinct answer - would be we made some mistakes with the show. Now, if this had been back in 1960 or '50, we would have opened the show out of town and said, gee, we made some mistakes with the show, and then we would have gone to work and fix them. And then we would have gone to Philadelphia or Boston or Washington and done the road circuit for two or three months, fixing the show.

Our preliminary production of this was reviewed by The New York Times, and they didn't like it. They didn't say anything we didn't really agree with. But it sort of stopped the show dead in its tracks because the commercial theater is pretty much geared to the approval of The New York Times. And when they didn't think the show was ready to come in, it absolutely stopped. So we had to stop working on it, in a sense.

But a producer, Garth Drabinsky, saw the show up there and believed in it. And he said, if you guys are willing to go back to work on it - and we really went back to work on it. I would say over half the score is brand new. The book is almost entirely rewritten and rethought. It's more the show is rethought than rewritten. He gave us that opportunity. So we did the work. He was pleased. And he opened the show in Toronto just about a year ago, a little over a year ago. It went very well there.

Then we went to London, which we'd always hoped to do, to give it some kind of pedigree before it came to Broadway, especially because it was fairly fresh in people's minds that The New York Times had not liked us. And I can't tell you what an onus that puts on a show because when it was first announced, even at previews, I would hear people going into the theater saying, well, you know The New York Times didn't like this show three years ago. And it's kind of a death sentence. And we had a lot to overcome.

So now, when we came from London, we came as the winner of the Evening Standard Award, which is their equivalent of the Tony - best musical - and we won many other prizes in London. So we didn't come sort of sneaking into town as a show that had no sort of approval.

GROSS: We're listening back to the 1993 interview I recorded with playwright Terrence McNally, who died Tuesday from complications of the coronavirus. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 1993 interview with playwright Terrence McNally, who died Tuesday of complications from COVID-19. He was 81. When we left off in this interview, we were talking about the Broadway musical "Kiss Of The Spider Woman." He wrote the book for the show, which was adapted from the movie of the same name.


GROSS: What are some of the challenges you were up against when you were writing the book for "Kiss Of The Spider Woman" and trying to figure out where the songs belong? And how much of it is your job as the writer of the book to decide where their songs are and what they're going to be about?

MCNALLY: Well, first of all, I wrote it as a play. Kander and Ebb, when I first started working with them, said, please, never give us a scene in which you stop writing and there's a parentheses and says, Molina sings a song here in which he says how he feels about Valentin. That is not very helpful to us. Write a scene in which we understand how Molina feels about Valentin, and we will find a song there. So they made that very clear from the beginning of our collaboration; same on "The Rink."

So there was never a - there is a version somewhere around of a play, I guess you'd call it, called "Kiss Of The Spider Woman" that I wrote for John and Fred and Hal's eyes only. I hasten to add it's not a play that I think would be something I'd want to see performed because it was way too long, and one of the things a musical comedy book requires is brevity. But it gave them a sense of the - of what I thought the event in each scene was. And John and Fred would then make a song out of some moment in that scene. Very often a whole scene of mine would be collapsed into one song. Sometimes a phrase of mine would become the title of a song. Sometimes John and Fred would come up with something totally out of left field, it seemed to me, but it would replace a whole chunk of the scene. So it's a real collaboration that way.

GROSS: Terrence, can I ask you to repeat the comments that you made when you accepted the Tony?

MCNALLY: I said how - I said that it meant a lot to win an award for best book for a musical because I grew up in a house where musicals were important. My father and mother listened to show albums, and when other kids were doing baseball cards, I was singing and dancing to "Too Darn Hot." And I felt that I had the best collaborators in the world on this project - Kander and Ebb and Hal Prince and actors like Chita Rivera and Anthony Crivello and Brent Carver. But what was sad is that Manuel Puig was not there with me to share in this because he really created all this.

GROSS: As I recall, after talking about how you danced around your house to "Too Darn Hot," you warned parents about the consequences of exposing their children to musicals (laughter).

MCNALLY: Oh. Oh, I said, so before you take your 5-year-old to his first - his or her first musical, be careful - be very, very careful because it could happen to you; you could have a child who wants to work in the theater. And I think it's the best career I could ever want or imagine, and I would be thrilled if a child of mine wanted to work in the theater. But I think that's where theater artists come from, the ranks of the 5-year-olds who are lucky enough to have had their - who've had parents who took them to the theater.

GROSS: Now, how happy were your parents while you were staying home listening to cast recordings while the other guys were trading baseball cards and playing baseball?

MCNALLY: I don't know. I mean, it's the kind of thing you'd have to ask my parents, how they really felt about that. I was - I don't think it was - see; the Broadway show albums were there, so they didn't mind then. It was when I got into opera, I think they got a little displeased. I certainly heard a lot of, shut the door; turn that down. I developed a passion for opera shortly after musical comedy, and I still continue to have both. And it was the opera that got under people's skin, never musical comedy.

GROSS: Well, actually, one of your plays is about people who love opera, "Lisbon Traviata." And how did you get into opera from cast recordings?

MCNALLY: I was in a parochial school, and a nun had music appreciation every Friday. And she played opera records, mainly Puccini love duets. And they were on 78 records, I remember. And it was James Melton, a tenor, who's very forgotten, and Licia Albanese, who's still singing - not singing, but still alive - and singing Puccini love duets. And everybody else in the classroom, like, would groan when she'd bring out this Victrola and put on these 78s, and I just was lifted away. I thought it was the most beautiful music.

I never, quote, "learned" to like opera; I just liked it. I mean, people are always saying to me when they hear me on Opera Quiz or - I lecture on opera sometimes - how can I get to like opera? I really want to get to like it. And I say, look - you know, I'm 54 years old. I still hate calf's liver, and I've given up trying to like calf's liver. So it's fine not to like opera. It's given me a lot of pleasure, but it obviously doesn't work for you. Listen to chamber music. Listen to Broadway cast albums. Some people think opera is good for them; it's not, and it's not an acquired taste. I think you either go for it, and you say, this is how - what it's like to be in love. This is what it's like to die. This is what it's like to really be happy. Or you think it's a totally stupid way of expressing yourself. For me, it's great.

GROSS: What was your first big break in the theater?

MCNALLY: Oh, my second play, without doubt. It's a great break. I would envy myself if I read this story. It's how I've always lived my life in the theater. I wrote a play - my first play was a great failure. It was done on Broadway. It didn't go out of town. It was called "And Things That Go Bump In The Night." And the vast, vast majority of the critics really hated it, so I went back to working on a magazine.

And I met this actor called Jimmy Coco, who I thought was this fabulous comic actor with an enormous emotional range. He - were very much - Jimmy died about five years ago, and it was a great loss to me professionally and to the theater. And Nathan Lane is someone who I work with a lot now, is someone very similar. They're comic actors with enormous capacity for pathos and dramatic moments. And I wrote this play for Jimmy and - called "Next." And he said that's great, you know, but who's going to want to do a play with an unknown actor?

So I had "Next" sitting in my drawer for I don't know how many months. It wasn't that long, really, maybe a year. And Jimmy was off in summer stock, working. And the producer came running in and said, terrible news, terrible news - the next play has been canceled. What are we going to do? What are we going to do? And Jimmy said, I have a play. And he gave it to the theater. They said, we like this; we'll do it, but we don't have a director. And the play Jimmy happened to be in was written by Elaine May, and she said, I've always wanted to direct; let me read it. And she read it and said, this is great.

So they called me, and Jimmy said, can you get on a bus, like, tomorrow morning? And I did, and I went to Stockbridge, Mass., and met Elaine May, and there was Jimmy. And the play was very successful. I learned so much working with Elaine. I - she is my real teacher in the theater. Just about everything I learned - significant in the theater, I learned from Elaine.

GROSS: My interview with Terrence McNally was recorded in 1993. He died Tuesday of complications from COVID-19. He was 81. We send our best wishes for recovery to everyone who is sick, our best wishes to their loved ones and our sympathies to those who have lost loved ones.


GROSS: If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed this week - with comic and actor Marc Maron, who has a new stand-up special called "End Times Fun;" with Max Brooks, whose bestselling zombie novels are really about how we plan for and deal with disasters and pandemics and who also made a really funny video about social distancing with his father, Mel Brooks - check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABDULLAH IBRAHIM'S "THE BALANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.

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