The six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald knew the multi-award winning playwright Terrence McNally—who died this week at 81 of coronavirus-related complications—as both a close friend and professional collaborator since 1994.
McDonald worked on three of McNally’s shows on Broadway: Master Class (1995), about Maria Callas, the musical Ragtime (1996), based on E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel, and the odd-couple comedy drama Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, first performed in 1987 and revived—to critical acclaim—on Broadway last year, starring McDonald and Michael Shannon.
What was Terrence like to work with?
Terrence was an easy creative to have in the room. Sometimes when you’re working on pieces with people who create, they—the writers I mean—can be very precious about their work, and you feel strangled by them in a way. Terrence was so open, so collaborative and he loves actors… (McDonald paused) It’s hard to talk about him in the past tense. He loved actors so much. He was very open, and empathic.
I remember at the end of Master Class when my character, Sharon, finally tells off Maria Callas, when I was rehearsing that moment—what Maria Callas was saying to my character before my character finally loses it—I wasn’t quite getting to the emotion. Terence said, “Is it not harsh enough, what Maria Callas is saying to you beforehand?”
I was very young then. I said, “Actually yeah, because the roles she is saying I should stick to are fine roles. They’d be roles a soprano would love to do, so it doesn’t feel like it’s enough of a slam.” And so Terrence went back, rewrote it, and made it devastating. Maria now said to my character that I lacked the specialness. And that was enough to do it—for me to get to the right emotion to respond to her.
That was an example of him showing understanding and being so keyed into actors. He was so collaborative and willing to make everything right, even if it meant he had to alter some of his own work as well.
What do you think of Terrence’s LGBTQ legacy in theater, and beyond?
It’s hard to overstate it. He was the one who proudly put gay people up on stage and showed them in mature relationships or faltering relationships, and all their flaws and all their triumphs and tragedies. All of it. He proudly put it out there over and over again, not only in Love! Valour! Compassion! (1994). But look at something like Corpus Christi (1997) which he got death threats for, and Kiss of the Spider Woman (1990), and Mothers and Sons (2013).
He was also writing about what he knew, and not only unashamed but shouting to the world, “You need to see us for everything that we are. You need to see us fully. In. The. Flesh.” In every sense of those words. There is no greater way to proclaim “I am what I am” than in the way Terrence did.
Was he proud of his LGBTQ legacy?
I wouldn’t say he was “proud,” it was just what he had to do and who he was. I don’t think he would be someone to pat himself on the back for it. I just think he would say, “This is necessary,” not just for himself, but for the entire community.
What was it like to work on the Broadway revival of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune last year?
It was just a joy to have him in the room. He would sit there and smile, and we sat at the table for a long time before we got up on our feet with that one. He would discuss where the play came from in him, how he felt sometimes he was Johnny and sometimes he was Frankie. He was just very open, like another cast member there with us.
At run-throughs he would say, “I wish had something to say. I don’t. I’m so happy with what you’re doing.” He was like this blessed spirit who was there with us. He had been living with lung cancer for a while, so he wasn’t as active as used to be, but he sat there with us, day in day out, and it was beautiful.
“Just watching Terrence be so tickled with the baby, playing with my baby, brought me such joy”
Do you have a special memory of Terrence that is defining of him for you?
In 2017, when I was in London doing Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, he and Tom came to visit to see the show. They came to my flat and just played with my baby; she must have been about 6 months old at the time. I was sitting on the floor, and Tom and Terrence had the baby on their laps. Just watching Terrence be so tickled with the baby, playing with my baby, brought me such joy. Talking about family, he really was family to me, so that’s a memory that’s sticking very strongly in my mind right now.