Remembering Terrence McNally

Federal Ballet production poster for Frankie and Johnny, 1938. Federal Theatre Project Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

I’ve been thinking about Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, the play by Terrence McNally who passed away on March 24th due to complications from COVID-19 [https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/24/theater/terrence-mcnally-dead-coronavirus.html]. Hearing news of McNally’s death brought me back to last May when I sat in the audience at the Broadhurst Theatre watching Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon in the latest revival of Frankie and Johnny. The main characters’ names come from an American traditional song. Frankie and Johnny are sweethearts when the song begins, till Johnny does Frankie wrong, and she shoots him.  In McNally’s play, the two start out as practically strangers turning what could easily have been a one-night stand into a genuine connection. The play was first performed Off-Broadway in 1987. This revival would turn out to be the last Broadway run of McNally’s work in his lifetime.

Born in St. Petersburg, Florida on November 3, 1938, McNally was a playwright, screenwriter, and librettist with a career spanning six decades beginning with the Broadway run of an adaptation of The Lady of the Camellias in 1963. He wrote over fifty plays, operas, and musicals, won four Tony Awards, three Drama Desk awards, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for his play The Perfect Ganesh. His most recent original production was the 2017 musical Anastasia for which he wrote the book.

My first encounter with McNally’s work was in 2000 when I saw a regional theater production of Master Class in Arizona where I attended undergraduate school. The play depicts the great opera diva Maria Callas conducting a workshop for young singers. At this point in her life, the legend has lost her voice and must cram all her passionate expression into spoken words, words that McNally makes sharp as carving knives. Unable to sing, McNally’s Callas is isolated from her art, and her loneliness is no less epic than her greatest roles. I remember feeling overwhelmed by it.

In 2014, I sat in the orchestra at the John Golden Theatre for McNally’s Mothers and Sons. The story follows Katharine Graham, who lost her son to AIDS at the height of the virus’s crisis. Twenty years later, she visits the home of her son’s lover who is now married to a man and a father to a son of his own. Katharine is alone in her anger and grief struggling to accept both her son’s life and the way the world has shifted since his death. McNally wrote several plays about the effects of AIDS and the fear and isolation that followed in the disease’s wake, but by setting Mother and Sons after AIDS had fallen out of the dominant cultural conversation, he deliberately asks the audience, can we still be angry?

“Intro to ‘Clair de Lune,’ K1275” by Claude Debussy, arranged by Joe Glover, circa 1945. Box 62, Andre Kostelanetz Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Loneliness, isolation, anger, and grief are themes familiar to McNally, though he was able to infuse them with humor and hope. Remembering the playwright to Chris Weigand at The Guardian [https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2020/mar/26/frankie-johnny-and-terrence-audra-mcdonald-mcnally], Audra McDonald described Frankie and Johnny as “an incredibly hopeful play about love after there is no hope of love.” This may be why my thoughts keep coming back to it. Sitting in my apartment physically distanced from so many people I care about, that message of hope comes back to me. I think about the connection that Frankie and Johnny make despite the histories and scars that separate them, the power of that connection coupled with “the most beautiful music that has ever been written,” and I want to say thank you Mr. McNally. Your stories remind us that even in our loneliness, we are not alone, and there is always a space for hope.

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Gilbert Miller (1884-1969) was one of the most active and successful theatrical producers of the 20th century. The holdings of the Library of Congress include a collection of Gilbert Miller papers, primarily correspondence chronicling many of the highlights of modern theater history.

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