Columbians Ahead of Their Time

Courtesy William Morris Agency
"When the lights go down and the curtain goes up, how can you not get a rush? I mean, you'd not be human."

Terrence McNally (1939– )
Columbia College 1960

One of America's leading contemporary dramatists, the playwright Terrence McNally is praised for addressing both specific issues like homophobia and AIDS and universal emotions like "the difficulty in connecting and the need for love in relationships," in the words of one newspaper. The latter is exemplified by one of McNally's best-known works, Frankie and Johnnie at the Claire de Lune, which was initially staged in 1987, adapted by McNally himself for a 1991 film version, and revived to great acclaim in 2002.

McNally's 40-plus-year career as a playwright began in 1963 with And Things That Go Bump in the Night. Although the University of Minnesota deemed Bump offensive, presumably for merely depicting gay characters, McNally has suggested that he never saw himself as especially revolutionary. Nevertheless, 1968's Sweet Eros saw a New York first as Sally Kirkland appeared nude for the entire length of the play, and years later McNally drew extensive criticism for Corpus Christi (1999) and its depiction of a gay Jesus Christ and apostles. McNally's first great commercial success was the farcical comedy The Ritz (1974). Other popular works include his two Tony winners for best play: Love! Valour! Compassion! (1994), about a group of eight gay men, and Master Class (1995), about opera singer Maria Callas. McNally also wrote the book for Broadway musical adaptations of Kiss of the Spider Woman (1992), Ragtime (1998), and The Full Monty (2000). His most recent production, Dedication or the Stuff of Dreams, opened August 18, 2005. He has won numerous awards, including four Tonys and an Emmy.

Recalling his time at Columbia College in a 2002 interview, McNally recalled going to theater productions as often as he could; indeed, he camped out overnight for rush tickets on his first night in New York and many times thereafter. “I don’t know how I survived Columbia,” he said. “I went to the theater so much.” In fact, McNally flourished, writing for the Varsity Show and graduating Phi Beta Kappa. He won a fellowship for some work in a creative-writing class that enabled him to travel to Mexico; while there he wrote the script that started him down the path to a professional career in theater.

McNally received the inaugural Diamond Award at the 2004 Varsity Show.

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