He lampooned the anxieties of Broadway’s elite on an opening night (“It’s Only a Play”) and fused the stories of immigrant and white America at the turn of the 20th century (the musical “Ragtime”). But some of McNally’s most memorable work revolved around the art form that brought us together in the Kennedy Center Opera House a decade ago: his plays sparked by a passion for Verdi, Puccini and Bizet.
McNally died Tuesday in a Sarasota, Fla., hospital at the age of 81 of complications from the coronavirus. It was a bitter irony, in that in “Love! Valour!” — which earned him one of his four Tony Awards — the playwright explored the devastating fallout of another epidemic, made worse by government failure.
On that night long ago, I watched him watch Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin,” and it felt as if I was getting a big dose of the real McNally. He was not a wide-eyed enthusiast, full of effusive praise. He assumed the confident posture of a demanding critic, noting small details and gestures in the performances (well, as small as opera allows). Every so often, he would lean over and whisper about some enjoyable or dissonant moment — the bravura of the conductor’s baton, the ill-fitting costume on the mezzo soprano.
This was for me the platinum-level prologue to the Kennedy Center’s 2010 festival of McNally’s opera plays: “Master Class,” built around his idol, Maria Callas; “The Golden Age,” a new piece set in 19th-century Italy that proved, generously speaking, ordinary; and, to my mind, one of his most wonderful, “The Lisbon Traviata.” The last, which premiered in 1989, fused subjects that would circulate in his later plays — a love of art and the art of love in gay life.
These fascinations would combine and recombine in McNally’s plays and books of musicals like strands of DNA. Some of his most memorable characters were operatic in every sense of the term, which was why performers capable of a certain grandeur — hilarious or explosive — could make lasting impressions in his plays, such actors as Nathan Lane, John Glover, Kathy Bates, Tyne Daly, Audra McDonald, Zoe Caldwell.
Caldwell, who died last month, gave expansive, entertaining breadth to one of McNally’s great conjurings, the vain and intimidating Callas, who bullies and inspires a series of opera students in “Master Class.” Seeing her, you felt the apotheosis of collaboration between an interpretive artist and a dramatic voice. Though it happened on Broadway 25 years ago, I recall the cruel evaluation by Caldwell’s Callas of McDonald’s unsuspecting Sharon as if it were last week.
McNally was versatile and prolific and contentious. The man who wrote “Corpus Christi,” a lightning-rod play in the late ’90s that recast Jesus and the Apostles as gay men in Texas, also wrote the book for the stage musical version of “The Full Monty.” My first encounter with his work was as an undergrad: the 1974 birth at Yale Rep of “The Tubs,” which later became “The Ritz.” I saw it with my equally stage-struck friend, Scot Osterweil, and after the show we dissected it with the intensity common to know-it-all theater nerds the world over. “The Tubs” was pure farce, a zany escapade in a gay bathhouse, and an unburdening for an audience wound up tightly in Watergate. McNally would compose in many other keys over the years, the poignant notes of 1987’s “Frankie and Johnny,” in particular, revealing a gift for a tone as removed from the operatic as one could imagine.
The playwright’s own moods sometimes reflected a man devoted to the theater who didn’t always think the ardor was returned by the scribblers who covered him. “I’ve never felt like a critic’s darling,” he told me a decade ago. It’s true that the favor in which McNally was held seemed to rise and fall; perhaps his reputation suffered at times as a result of his own productivity and even versatility. This may have been why he was so moved when the Kennedy Center bundled his opera plays and made a festival of him. Perhaps there was a soupcon of Callas lurking in McNally’s nature: a dedication to the technique and craft of making art, but a powerful craving for validation as well.
There’s a line in “Master Class” that seems to speak for both of them. Callas is explaining the personal fortifications that must be erected if one is to succeed as a great artist. “Mut,” she says, using a German word for courage. “Coraggio!” she adds. “It takes more than a pretty voice to build a career.”
McNally had a pretty voice. And he had mut, too.