When the Guild asked me to have a conversation with Terrence McNally, it was a full circle moment for me. When I was fifteen years old and living in Scranton, I fell in love with Terrence’s play, Master Class (I’d seen a clip of Zoe Caldwell on the Tony Awards). That play was not only an introduction to Terrence’s incredible body of work, but also to the world of opera and the triumphs and trials of a life in the arts. My first play was a parody of Master Class called, “Master Ass” (don’t ask). When I finished it, I did the kind of thing only a weird teenager from Scranton would do. I put it in an envelope and mailed it to Terrence c/o the Dramatists Guild. Some kind soul at the Guild received this package and forwarded it onto Terrence McNally in 1996. Terrence wrote me back:
Years later, we met at an opening, and I learned he’d seen a play of mine. I told him about the letter he wrote me. He had no memory of it, likely because, for Terrence, this act of remarkable generosity was second nature to him. For all his astonishing success, Terrence remains a fierce champion of new talent and aspiring playwrights. I was honored to be able to sit down with him discuss the incredible year he is having, with his 21st and 22nd Broadway plays all opening in 2014-15.
STEPHEN KARAM: You are having an incredible year. It’s not the first time you are having an incredible year, but what has this been like? You are entering the final stretch of previews for The Visit at the Lyceum and at the same time you have It’s Only A Play at the Jacobs. Did you think that these two shows would be running on Broadway at the same time? And less than a year ago Mothers and Sons was at the Golden.
TERRENCE MCNALLY: You just have to do your work in this business. Every day is different and it’s one day at a time. The best-laid plans in the theatre usually go awry anyway and unexpected things like “Hey, let’s do The Visit in Williamstown” last summer turn into something else. Nathan Lane always said, “I would like to do It’s Only a Play one day.” Suddenly he was free and all these other wonderful actors were also free. If we had planned any of this, none of it would have happened.
STEPHEN KARAM: When did you learn The Visit was coming to Broadway?
TERRENCE MCNALLY: After we did it in Williamstown, the producer Tom Kirdahy said, “I think this show should be on Broadway and I’m going to get it there. And I just say to you all – I can’t promise you – please don’t take a job without calling me first.” And people trusted him and turned things down. Tom would say, “I really think I can make this happen.”
Inside he must have been terrified and made of steel too. Because that’s a big commitment to make to people: don’t take another job hoping that this will come through. And then getting a theater in a very busy season. He made it all happen. And John Doyle and Graciela Daniele reinvented a way of making this musical work as it never had before. I always believed in The Visit and John Kander and Chita Rivera always believed in it, too. The older you get, the better you get at waiting.
STEPHEN KARAM: The first production was what, 2001?
TERRENCE MCNALLY: Yes, with Frank Galati [directing] and Ann Reinking [choreographing]. And it was a terrific production. But the time has to be right and things just didn’t come together after the Goodman Theatre production in Chicago. I would never belittle the wonderful work Frank and Ann did. But because the show had been done before, John and I were more willing to look at in a different way when a new director and choreographer came aboard. Fred Ebb died shortly after [we did it in] Chicago. John and I always “check” with him first before we make a change. We think he would love the new energy and vision and interpretation John Doyle and Graciela Daniele have brought to our material. There has been some rewriting, of course, but it’s a different way of interpreting the story and we were more open to change because we had seen our vision of the show when it was first produced at the Goodman. And this incarnation all started with a student workshop production at Pace College two years ago in downtown New York. John and Grazie showed us their intentions and we were thrilled at this new take on by now very familiar material.
The Visit was good before but it wasn’t great. Now for me, it’s great. Whether you or anyone else agrees is something else. I’m proud of it. I really think we have all done something special and I think New York is lucky to see it. Chita is giving an unforgettable performance that will be talked about forever. I’d put it up there with Merman in Gypsy and Lansbury in Sweeney Todd.
STEPHEN KARAM: Does it feel special to have a year that seems reflective of your body of work – a year where you have a new play, then a new musical opening alongside a Broadway revival of a play that you wrote, years ago?
TERRENCE MCNALLY: It’s Only A Play closed out of town ignominiously in Philadelphia almost 30 years ago. And now it’s playing in the same theater where my first play, And Things that Go Bump In the Night, opened ignominiously in 1965. So that’s kind of a wonderful reversal of fortune. I get to say some rather rude things about critics eight shows a week and then live to tell the tale.
STEPHEN KARAM: I have a grey acting edition of It’s Only A Play play from, was it from a Manhattan Theater Club revival?
TERRENCE MCNALLY: It’s essentially the same play, but 80% of the dialogue is new. But it’s the same situation. The playwright’s prayer and the review are the main things that have not changed.
I always wanted to do it again on Broadway. A play about Broadway should be done on Broadway. We didn’t do it with the right people the first time. If you don’t have the right people, and assuming your script is good (and sometimes our scripts aren’t good), if you don’t have the right actors and director and designers the play is doomed. I always say Shakespeare had great actors. He wouldn’t have written great parts unless he had actors he knew could play Hamlet and Lear.
And then you know, there’s a young man in It’s Only a Play, Micah Stock. I am so glad there’s someone in my play making their Broadway debut who got his part the old fashioned way. And I don’t mean sleeping with anyone.
Two years ago, I was commissioned by the Pearl Theater Company off-Broadway and wrote a play called And Away We Go. And Micah came to an open audition and I just said, “This guy is great. He hasn’t done anything yet but so what? He’s great” And then I said to Jack [O’Brien] and Nathan [Lane]. “Do you remember that young man in that play?” “Oh my god, yeah.” And now he’s on stage and opens the play with twenty minutes with Nathan Lane. Nathan is a genius actor and very generous, but if someone is not playing at his level – off with their heads. He loves working with Micah. What a lesson Micah is getting about what it means to be a stage actor. Eight shows a week opposite Nathan Lane! Just as a young dancer, actress, singer, Michelle Veintimilla in The Visit who plays young Claire is having a similar “wow” debut. I said, “You are learning more being on stage eight shows a week with Chita Rivera, than you would ever get at any conservatory.”
STEPHEN KARAM: Who gave you your first shot on Broadway? Let’s also establish this is your…what? How many Broadway shows have you had? Do you even know at this point?
TERRENCE MCNALLY: I don’t count them, but I’m told this is number 22. Broadway, off Broadway, off-off – they’re all theatre and they all demand the best of us. I felt every bit as much pressure at the Pearl as I do at the Lyceum. Right after college, I got a job as a stage manager at The Actor’s Studio and I wrote a play called And Things That Go Bump in the Night. And they did it at The Playwrights Unit. And in the audience was someone from the Rockefeller foundation. I always tell people, you never know who is out there. There is always one person in the audience who can help you. And they were trying to find two plays to launch their new American plays series at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.
In the early 60’s the theater and new American playwrights were really hot. Sam Shepherd, Edward Albee, David Mamet, they were all on the cover of Time and Newsweek. To be an American playwright was sexy. It seemed everyone wanted to be a playwright and plays were just getting picked up and produced without today’s development and workshops. My play was chosen. We did Bump in Minneapolis to interesting, controversial, mixed reviews. Ted Mann and Paul Libin of Circle in the Square had been so successful downtown with their O’Neill and Williams revivals, they wanted to do Circle in the Square uptown on Broadway and I was going to be their calling card, so we did the play at the Royale, now the Jacobs. My first play went from The Actor’s Studio to Minneapolis to Broadway. I was so nervous and green. I think with playwriting you have an instinct for it or you don’t and then it’s self-learning.
STEPHEN KARAM: But everybody doesn’t have the instinct that you have to go from creating your own original plays to the kind of collaboration that you have to accept to write a musical. Do you find that you can work with a variety of different kinds of lyricist composers? Are there certain qualities in the ones that you like to work with?
TERRENCE MCNALLY: I have to like their music. The music trumps everything, including the book. We have to see eye to eye on the “sound” of the show. The lyrics have to sound like the same character when they sing as when they speak But I have been really lucky. I worked David Yazbek on his first show and I think David is so wonderfully talented. I learned a lot from Kander and Ebb. Lynn [Ahrens] and Steven [Flaherty] are just joys to work with. I choose my collaborators on a musical as carefully as I choose a life partner. It’s a long haul from first day of work to opening night.
STEPHEN KARAM: It seems like you are invigorated by the people whose work you are drawn too, but you don’t seem fazed by taking a chance on new talent, which is inspiring. It was Yazbek’s first big, Broadway show, right?
TERRENCE MCNALLY: People took a chance on me. You have to. People ask, “Where do you get your amazing casts?’ I go to the theater! I have friends who are very successful playwrights and they don’t go off-Broadway. They don’t go off-off. And they seldom go to Broadway either. You find Nathan Lane and Micah Stock before they are Nathan Lane and Micah Stock.
STEPHEN KARAM: You see lots of things off-Broadway. I mean, that’s how I met you.
TERRENCE MCNALLY: Yeah. But most of my theatre friends don’t even know about that room [Roundabout Underground] where Speech and Debate was done.
STEPHEN KARAM: You have to go down a lot of stairs.
TERRENCE MCNALLY: I found an elevator when it was over. I “discovered” Tracee Chimo there a year or two ago. I discovered you there. I mean, why else live in New York unless you go to the theatre a lot. I mean, like every fuckin’ night. I’m serious.
STEPHEN KARAM: So do you still get excited and thrilled? You don’t sound remotely jaded.
TERRENCE MCNALLY: I’m not jaded, but I think the first time I really took it in was during Mothers and Sons last spring. I suddenly saw the marquee as if for the first time, It said, Terrence McNally’s Mothers and Sons and I suddenly let my shoulders drop a foot or two, “Yes, this is what I wanted to do with my life.” It only took me 75 years.
STEPHEN KARAM: What was it about that moment?
TERRENCE MCNALLY: I don’t know. I didn’t take it in when Master Class was in the same theatre. Which was certainly a bigger success.
And then the other day, and this was like a scene from a movie, I left a preview of The Visit and slipped in during a matinee of It’s Only a Play. It was sold out. The audience was laughing and they were really moved where I wanted them to be moved. The play is much better now than when it opened in September. It’s deeper and richer and more nuanced. And just as funny. I think it’s being heard as a play and not just a comedy. And the audience was happy. And it made me happy that I had made 1,000 people happy and I felt proud of that. I was proud of the actors work. I was proud of our work. But for the first time I was really proud of me and I felt good about it. I think that’s the polar opposite of jaded.
STEPHEN KARAM is the Tony Award-winning author of The Humans, Sons of the Prophet, and Speech & Debate. For his work he’s received two Drama Critics Circle Awards, an OBIE Award and is a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist. He wrote a film adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull starring Annette Bening, which was released by Sony Picture Classics. His adaptation of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard premiered on Broadway as part of Roundabout’s 2016 season. Recent honors include the inaugural Horton Foote Playwriting Award, the inaugural Sam Norkin Drama Desk Award, two Outer Critics Circle Awards, a Lucille Lortel Award, Drama League Award, and Hull-Warriner Award. Stephen teaches graduate playwriting at The New School. He is a graduate of Brown University and grew up in Scranton, PA.