McNally has been described as "a probing and enduring dramatist" and "one of the greatest contemporary playwrights the theater world has yet produced". He has received the Tony Award for Best Play for Love! Valour! Compassion! and Master Class, as well as the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical for Kiss of the Spider Woman and Ragtime. His other accolades include an Emmy Award, two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Rockefeller Grant, four Drama Desk Awards, two Lucille Lortel Awards, two Obie Awards, three Hull-Warriner Awards, and a citation from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is a recipient of the Dramatists Guild Lifetime Achievement Award as well as the Lucille Lortel Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2016, the Lotos Club honored McNally at their annual "State Dinner," which has previously honored such luminaries as W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, George M. Cohan, Moss Hart, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, Saul Bellow, and Arthur Miller. In addition to his award-winning plays and musicals, he also written two operas, multiple screenplays, teleplays, and a memoir.
He has been a member of the Council of the Dramatists Guild since 1970 and served as vice-president from 1981 to 2001, and was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1996. In 1998, McNally was awarded an honorary degree from The Juilliard School in recognition for reviving The Lily Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program with the playwright, John Guare. In 2013, he returned to his alma mater, Columbia University, where he was the keynote speaker of the graduating class of 2013 on Class Day.
He has a career spanning six decades, and his plays, musicals, and operas are routinely performed all over the world. The diversity and range of his work is remarkable, with McNally resisting identifying with any particular cultural scene. Simultaneously active in the regional and off-Broadway theatre movements as well as Broadway, he is one of the few playwrights of his generation to have successfully passed from avant garde to mainstream acclaim. His work centers on the difficulties of and urgent need for human connection. For McNally, the most important function of theatre is to create community by bridging rifts opened between people by difference in religion, race, gender, and particularly sexual orientation.
In an address to members of the League of American Theatres and Producers he remarked, “I think theatre teaches us who we are, what our society is, where we are going. I don’t think theatre can solve the problems of a society, nor should it be expected to … Plays don’t do that. People do. [But plays can] provide a forum for the ideas and feelings that can lead a society to decide to heal and change itself.”
McNally was born in St. Petersburg, Florida to Hubert and Dorothy (Rapp) McNally, two transplanted New Yorkers who ran a seaside bar and grill called The Pelican Club, but after a hurricane destroyed the establishment, the family briefly relocated to Port Chester, NY, then to Dallas, TX and finally to Corpus Christi, TX where he remained until McNally moved to New York City in 1956 to attend Columbia University. Once in Corpus Christi, Hubert McNally purchased and managed a Schlitz beer distributorship, and McNally attended W.B. Ray High School. Despite his distance from New York City, McNally's parents enjoyed Broadway musicals, and some of his first memories of the theater come from their occasional trips to New York. When McNally was eight years old, his parents took him to see Annie Get Your Gun, starring Ethel Merman, and on a subsequent outing, McNally saw Gertrude Lawrence in The King and I. Both productions had a lasting impression on the young McNally. It was in high school where McNally was first encouraged to write, having become a dedicated protege to a gifted English teacher named Maurine McElroy. He would subsequently dedicate several of his plays to her, and when she died in 2005, he supplied the inscription to her tombstone: "Not just an English teacher, but a life teacher." McElroy encouraged McNally to concentrate in schools outside Texas, which led him to matriculate at Columbia University as a journalism major.
He attended the prestigious university in its "golden age" of instruction, where his teachers included Meyer Schapiro for art history, Eric Bentley for drama, and Lionel Trilling for literature. Particularly influential was Andrew Chiappe, who instructed a popular two-semester course on Shakespeare in which students read every one of Shakespeare's plays in roughly the order of their composition. He joined the Boar's Head Society and wrote Columbia's annual Varsity Show, which featured music by fellow student Edward L. Kleban and directed by Michael P. Kahn. He graduated in 1960 with a B. A. in English, the same year in which he gained membership into the Phi Beta Kappa Society. In 1961, only one year out of Columbia University, McNally was hired by novelist John Steinbeck to accompany him and his family on a cruise around the world. McNally had been recommended by Molly Kazan, the Steinbecks' neighbor and McNally's mentor at the Playwrights Unit of the Actors Studio, as a tutor for his two teenage boys. The voyage would prove influential as McNally completed a draft of what would become the opening act of And Things That Go Bump in the Night. Steinbeck would go on to ask McNally to write the libretto for a musical version of the novel East of Eden.
After graduation, McNally moved to Mexico to focus on his writing, completing a one-act play which he submitted to the Actors Studio in New York for production. While the play was turned down by the acting school, the Studio was impressed with the script, and McNally was invited to serve as the Studio's stage manager so that he could gain practical knowledge of theater. In his early years in New York, McNally's interest in theatre brought him to a party where, departing, he shared a cab with Edward Albee, who had recently written The Zoo Story and The Sandbox, and was about to become the single most influential playwright in America. They would function as a couple for over four years during which Albee would write The American Dream and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. After McNally's relationship waned with Albee, he entered into a long-term relationship with the actor and director Robert Drivas.
His earliest full-length play, This Side of the Door, deals with a sensitive boy's battle of wills with his overbearing father and was produced in an Actor's Studio Workshop in 1962, featuring a young Estelle Parsons. In 1964, his first play And Things That Go Bump in the Night opened at the Royale Theatre on Broadway to generally negative reviews. The play explores the psycho-social dynamic of anxiety that leads one to preemptively and defensively accuse others of creating problems that in actuality result from one's own insecurity. McNally later said, "My first play, Things That Go Bump in the Night, was a big flop. I had to begin all over again." Nevertheless, the producer, Theodore Mann dropped the price of tickets to $1.00 which allowed the production to run with sold-out houses for three weeks.
Starting a career that would cover both off-Broadway and Broadway, his plays cried out against Vietnam, satirized stale family dynamics, mocked sexual mores and became a part of the social protest movement of the 1960s and early 1970s. With his first Broadway play, And Things That Go Bump in the Night, he put homosexuality squarely on stage which brought him the ire of New York's conservative theatre critics. Next (1968), which brought him his greatest early acclaim and was directed by Elaine May and starred James Coco, follows a married, middle-aged, businessman who has been mistakenly called for the draft and must contend with a career officer determined to sign him up. Botticelli (1968) centers on two American soldiers standing guard against the enemy in the jungle while making a game of the great names in Western Civilization. ¡Cuba Si! (1968) satirizes the disdain that contemporary America has for the idea of revolution even though America itself was a country born out of a revolution and starred the Academy Award-winning actress Melina Mercouri. In Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone? (1971) he celebrates while mourning the ineffectiveness of the American youth movement's conviction to "blow this country up so we can start all over again." Sweet Eros (1968) is about a young man who professes his love to a naked woman he has gagged and bound to a chair. In Let It Bleed (1972) a young couple showers and becomes convinced an intruder is lurking on the other side of the shower curtain. Collectively, his early plays, which also include Tour (1967), Witness (1968), and Bringing It All Back Home (1970), and Whiskey (1973) form a dark satire on American moral complacency.
McNally began to turn towards comedy and farce, which opened a new artistic avenue for the playwright. Beginning with Noon (1968), a sexual farce revolving around five strangers who are lured to an apartment in lower Manhattan by a personal advertisement, he would go on to write multiple plays that put his comedic talent on display. Bad Habits satirizes American reliance upon psychotherapy and first premiered at the John Drew Theatre in East Hampton, NY in 1971 starring Linda Lavin. It would subsequently transfer to the Booth Theatre on Broadway in 1974 and garnered an Obie Award. The Ritz is a farce centering around a straight man who inadvertently takes refuge in a Mafia-owned gay bathhouse. It opened first at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C. before transferring to the Longacre Theatre on Broadway in 1975. Robert Drivas directed both productions and although Drivas and McNally broke up as a couple in 1976 they would remain close friends until Drivas died of AIDS-related complications ten years later. McNally would go on to adapt The Ritz for the movie screen in 1976 which was directed by Richard Lester. In 1978, McNally wrote Broadway, Broadway, which failed in its Philadelphia try-out which starred Geraldine Page, but he would eventually re-write the play under the title It's Only a Play which premiered in 1985 off-Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club directed by John Tillinger and starring Christine Baranski, Joanna Gleason, and James Coco.
After the failure of Broadway, Broadway, McNally moved to Hollywood to reinvent himself but soon found himself back in New York City where a new chapter of his career would begin. During this period he would form a deep artistic relationship with Manhattan Theatre Club and the rapid spread of AIDS would fundamentally change his theatre. McNally only became truly successful with works such as the off-Broadway production of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune and its screen adaptation with stars Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer. His first credited Broadway musical was The Rink in 1984, a project he entered after the score by composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb had been written. In 1990, McNally won an Emmy Award for Best Writing in a Miniseries or Special for Andre's Mother, a drama about a woman trying to cope with her son's death from AIDS. A year later, he returned to the stage with another AIDS-related play, Lips Together, Teeth Apart. In the play, two married couples spend the Fourth of July weekend at a summer house on Fire Island. The house has been willed to Sally Truman by her brother who has just died of AIDS, and it soon becomes evident that both couples are afraid to get in the swimming pool once used by Sally's brother. It was written specifically for Christine Baranski, Anthony Heald, Swoosie Kurtz (taking the place of Kathy Bates), and frequent McNally collaborator, Nathan Lane, who had also starred in The Lisbon Traviata.
With Kiss of the Spider Woman (based on the novel by Manuel Puig) in 1992, McNally returned to the musical stage, collaborating with Kander and Ebb on a script which explores the complex relationship between two men jailed together in a Latin American prison. For the book, McNally won the first of his four Tony Awards. Kiss of the Spider Woman won the 1993 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical. He collaborated with Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens on Ragtime in 1997, a musical adaptation of the E. L. Doctorow novel, which tells the story of Coalhouse Walker Jr., a black musician who demands retribution when his Model T is destroyed by a mob of white troublemakers. The musical also features such historical figures as Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington, J. P. Morgan, and Henry Ford. For his libretto, McNally won his third Tony Award. Ragtime finished its Broadway run on January 16, 2000. A revival in 2009 was short-lived, closing after only 2 months.
McNally's other plays include 1994's Love! Valour! Compassion!, with Lane and John Glover, which examines the relationships of eight gay men; it won McNally his second Tony Award. Master Class (1995); a character study of legendary opera soprano Maria Callas, which starred Zoe Caldwell and won the Tony Award for Best Play, McNally's fourth; and the least-known of the group, Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams (2005) with Lane and Marian Seldes.
In 1996, McNally was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.
In 1997, McNally stirred up a storm of controversy with Corpus Christi, a modern-day retelling of the story of Jesus' birth, ministry, and death in which both he and his disciples are portrayed as homosexual. The play was initially canceled because of death threats against the board members of the Manhattan Theatre Club which was to produce the play. However, several other playwrights such as Athol Fugard threatened to withdraw their plays if Corpus Christi was not produced, and the board finally relented. When the play opened, the theatre was besieged by almost 2,000 protesters, furious at what they considered blasphemy. When Corpus Christi opened in London, a group called the Defenders of the Messenger Jesus issued a fatwa sentencing McNally to death.
McNally's drama Deuce ran on Broadway in a limited engagement in 2007 for 121 performances. Directed by Michael Blakemore, the play starred Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes.
The Kennedy Center presented three of McNally's plays that focus on his works involving opera, titled Nights at the Opera in March 2010. The pieces included a new play, Golden Age; Master Class, starring Tyne Daly; and The Lisbon Traviata, starring John Glover and Malcolm Gets. Golden Age subsequently ran Off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club New York City Center – Stage I in November 2012 to January 13, 2013.
McNally has collaborated on several operas, including the libretto for Dead Man Walking, his adaptation of Sister Helen Prejean's book, with a score by Jake Heggie. In 2007, Heggie composed a chamber opera, Three Decembers, based on original text by McNally titled Some Christmas Letters (and a Couple of Phone Calls, Too), with libretto by Gene Scheer. In October 2015, Dallas Opera presented Great Scott with an original libretto by McNally and a score by Heggie.
And Away We Go, premiered Off-Broadway at the Pearl Theatre in November 2013, with direction by Jack Cummings III and featuring Donna Lynne Champlin, Sean McNall and Dominic Cuskern.
Mothers and Sons starring Tyne Daly and Frederick Weller opened on Broadway at the Golden Theatre, where Master Class had its premiere, on March 24, 2014 (February 23, 2014 in previews). Mothers and Sons premiered at the Bucks County Playhouse (Pennsylvania) in June 2013. Vermont Stage opened its production January 27, 2016 at FlynnSpace in Burlington, Vermont.
McNally was partnered to Thomas Kirdahy, a Broadway producer and a former civil rights attorney for not-for-profit AIDS organizations, following a civil union ceremony in Vermont on December 20, 2003. They subsequently married in Washington, D.C. on April 6, 2010. In celebration of the Supreme Court's decision to legalize same-sex marriage in all 50 states, they renewed their vows at New York City Hall with Mayor Bill de Blasio officiating on June 26, 2015.
The papers of Terrence McNally are held by the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The archive includes all of his major works for stage, screen, and television, as well as correspondence, posters, production photographs, programs, reviews, awards, speeches, and recordings. It is an open archive and continues to receive the latest material from McNally.1975 Drama Desk Award Nomination, Outstanding New American Play (The Ritz)
1992 Drama Desk Award Nomination, Outstanding New Play (The Lisbon Traviata)
1992 Drama Desk Award Winner, Outstanding New Play (Lips Together, Teeth Apart)
1995 Drama Desk Award Winner, Outstanding Play (Love! Valour! Compassion!)
1996 Drama Desk Award Winner, Outstanding Play (Master Class)
1998 Drama Desk Award Winner, Outstanding Book of a Musical (Ragtime)
2001 Drama Desk Award Nomination, Outstanding Book of a Musical (The Full Monty)
2003 Drama Desk Award Nomination, Outstanding Book of a Musical (A Man of No Importance)
2006 Drama Desk Award Nomination, Outstanding Play (Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams)
2007 Drama Desk Award Nomination, Outstanding Play (Some Men)
1990 Emmy Award Winner, Outstanding Writing in a Miniseries or a Special (Andre's Mother)
1992 Lucille Lortel Award Winner, Outstanding Body of Work (Terrence McNally)
1992 Lucille Lortel Award Winner, Outstanding Play (Lips Together, Teeth Apart)
1974 Obie Award Winner, Distinguished Play (Bad Habits)
1995 Obie Award Winner for Playwriting (Love! Valour! Compassion!)
1994 Pulitzer Prize for Drama Nomination (A Perfect Ganesh)
1993 Tony Award Winner, Best Book of a Musical (Kiss of the Spider Woman)
1995 Tony Award Winner, Best Play (Love! Valour! Compassion!)
1996 Tony Award Winner, Best Play (Master Class)
1998 Tony Award Winner, Best Book of a Musical (Ragtime)
2001 Tony Award Nomination, Best Book of a Musical (The Full Monty)
2014 Tony Award Nomination, Best Play (Mothers and Sons)
2015 Tony Award Nomination, Best Book of a Musical (The Visit)