“He loved theatre more than anyone I’ve ever met. As I’ve often said, he was like the love child of a wild night between Noël Coward and the Lunts.” – Nathan Lane
Fittingly, the first memorial to be held in a Broadway theatre upon its reopening after the pandemic shutdown was for the playwright Terrence McNally, who died of Covid-19 in March of last year. The inability to properly mourn this five-time Tony Award recipient has weighed heavily on the Broadway community these past months. The deep love and respect he engendered over his fifty-six-year career was matched only by the love he gave so unstintingly in return.
Sitting in the Schoenfeld Theatre for two and a half hours was a privilege, something I imagine was felt by all in attendance. There were stories told, songs sung, and even private emails read aloud, all in appreciation of an artist and friend who was generous to a fault. An audience of theatre people, in a theatre, in tribute to a true man of the theatre, made for a profoundly touching ceremony.
In his alternately moving and hilarious tribute, Nathan Lane, who shared a thirty-year friendship and collaboration with Terrence, remarked: “I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure Terrence is here right now. He wouldn’t miss this for the world. With his beloved Tom here and all of his nearest and dearest gathered for a huge celebration of him and his extraordinary legacy, please… I’m sure he got here before anybody else did and got the best seat in the house.”
Nathan also echoed what most every speaker expressed when he said, “It’s inconceivable to me that I’m talking about him in the past tense, but of course he will always be with us in the plays and the musicals and the operas and the eloquent and moving speeches he gave, and the love and kindness he so graciously shared and all the people he inspired. There are countless stories, just like mine, of young artists he has supported and mentored and given their first chance.”
The list of those who spoke personally of Terrence (see below) consisted of a chosen few handpicked by him. Audra McDonald led the way, a veteran of Master Class and Ragtime, which brought them both well-deserved Tony Awards. She also starred in the 2019 revival of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, the last of Terrence’s plays to open on Broadway in his lifetime. His first, an adaptation of Alexander Dumas’ The Lady of the Camellias in 1963, was when he was a mere twenty-four years old.
His brother Peter, who bears a striking resemblance to Terrence, was pure love and light in his remembrance, drawing an indelible picture of the bedroom they once shared with posters of James Dean, Maria Callas and William Shakespeare on the walls (all Terrence). Peter was relegated to one of Mickey Mantle.
Playwright Matthew Lopez, a recent Tony Award winner for The Inheritance, was mentored (as were so many others) by Terrence. Driving home the point of how it was impossible to pigeonhole him as any one kind of writer, he articulately stated that “with every play [Terrence] wrote, he reinvented himself.”
The musical tributes were sparse: a quiet piano piece by Bach (performed by Donald Shaw), a lyrical aria by Bellini (performed by Angel Blue), and "Make Them Hear You" from Ragtime, sung by Brian Stokes Mitchell, reminding everyone not only of the power of that musical, but how one person can fill a theatre with a voice that feels heaven sent. “Less is more” is a tenet of the arts, and the admirable restraint of not having it be a more musical tribute left room for the speeches, which is why we were all there in the first place.
Everyone gave the best of themselves in honoring Terrence, but on a personal level, the last three to speak, Joe Mantello, Nathan Lane, and Terrence’s husband Tom Kirdahy, lovingly elevated things to profound levels of sensitivity. As his husband of almost twenty years, the portrait Tom painted of their final days together was heartbreaking and necessary. The pain in his voice raw with emotion, Tom soldiered on and brought the ceremony to a close with love and conviction that couldn't have been more appropriate. To coin an old, but suitable phrase, there wasn't a dry eye in the house.
“How could you not be inspired by that kind of beautiful language, blazing intelligence, incomparable wit and raw emotion," Nathan Lane asked? And Terrence McNally, through his plays, has left a legacy few writers of the American theatre can match. But that legacy also extends to his family and friends, as well as the young artists he cared so much about. In Terrence's words, "In the end, it's the people we love who matter most in life."
I couldn't sleep last night. The sounds of laughter and stifled tears reverberated in my head and kept me awake until 4 a.m. It was worth a sleepless night to have experienced such a wondrous afternoon of theatre. Honestly, there was no better way to celebrate the life of Terrence McNally.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, follow me here on Scrollstack and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.