NEW YORK — Terrence McNally, one of America’s great playwrights whose prolific career included winning Tony Awards for the plays “Love! Valour! Compassion!” and “Master Class” and the musicals “Ragtime” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” has died of complications from the coronavirus. He was 81.
McNally died Tuesday at Sarasota Memorial Hospital in Sarasota, Fla., said representative Matt Polk. McNally was a lung cancer survivor who lived with chronic inflammatory lung disease.
His plays and musicals explored how people connect — or fail to. With wit and thoughtfulness, he tackled the strains in families, war, and relationships and probed the spark and costs of creativity. He was an openly gay writer who wrote about homophobia, love and AIDS.
“I like to work with people who are a lot more talented and smarter than me, who make fewer mistakes than I do, and who can call me out when I do something lazy,” he told LA Stage Times in 2013. “A lot of people stop learning in life, and that’s their tragedy.”
McNally’s “Lips Together, Teeth Apart,” about two married couples who spend a weekend on Fire Island, was a landmark play about AIDS. His play “The Ritz” became one of the first plays with unapologetic gay characters to reach a mainstream audience.
McNally also explored gay themes in the book for the musical “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” for which he won his first Tony Award. His play “Love! Valour! Compassion!” earned him another Tony Award for its portrayal of eight gay men facing issues of fidelity, love and happiness.
“Theater changes hearts, that secret place where we all truly live,” he said at the 2019 Tony Awards, where he accepted a lifetime achievement award. “The world needs artists more than ever to remind us what truth and beauty and kindness really are.”
Tributes poured in online from Broadway figures, including from fellow playwrights Paula Vogel, who called McNally “the soul of kindness” and Lin-Manuel Miranda, who called McNally “a giant in our world, who straddled plays and musicals deftly.” Actor Conrad Ricamora describe McNally as “the most kind, brilliant person to work with” and talk show host James Corden tweeted: “He was an absolute gentleman and his commitment to the theater was unwavering. He will be missed by so many of us.”
Composer Tom Kitt, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for “Next to Normal,” said he considers McNally “irreplaceable.”
“Terrence was an extraordinary man and a brilliant artist,” Kitt said. “He’s a true giant in our art form, and he will be missed and we are lucky that we had him and had his art for as long as we did.”
In 2018 McNally was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He won four Tonys and an Emmy. New York University gave him an honorary doctorate in 2019.
Andrew D. Hamilton, president of New York University, told the crowd that day that McNally put a “unique stamp on American drama by probing the urgent need for connection that resonates at the core of human experience.”
Some of his Broadway musical adaptations include “The Full Monty,” adapted from the British film and scored by David Yazbek; “Catch Me if You Can,” based on the Steven Spielberg film, and scored by composer Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Wittman; and “Ragtime,” the musical based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, which won four Tony Awards. In 2017, his musical reworking of the film “Anastasia” landed on Broadway.
His 2014 Broadway play “Mothers and Sons” — revisiting McNally’s 1990 TV movie “Andre’s Mother,” which won him an Emmy Award — explores the relationship between a mother and her dead son’s former gay partner.