Terrence McNally is, in a sense, over the moon that the stars aligned the way they have, as he rings in his 80th birthday with a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre and a revival of his 1987 two-hander Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. Directed by Arin Arbus, Audra McDonald (a McNally veteran) and Michael Shannon take on the title lovers, who together navigate the early morning after a late-night tryst.
With 24 Broadway credits, McNally bore modern classics from musicals like The Ritz and Kiss of the Spiderwoman and Ragtime, to plays like Love! Valour! Compassion! and Mothers and Sons and, of course, Frankie and Johnny.
Prior to the revival’s opening at the Broadhurst Theatre (recently home to another McNally production, Anastasia), McNally sat down in a rehearsal studio to reflect on writing the play, the 30 years since, and the yearning for connection that hasn’t changed.
From exploring queer relationships to celebrating classical music, you seem to have a “write what you know” approach.
Terrence McNally: That’s the only way I can write. I wouldn’t want to research a play. Ever.
Frankie and Johnny isn’t explicitly about queer relationships or classical music. What did you know that inspired you to write it?
I was just turning 50, and I was thinking, “Is it over for me?” Friends said, “You’ve had your last cookie.” That was a strong image, and I rebelled against it. So I wanted to write a convincing encounter about two mature people who knew the ups and downs of life. There is a constant danger to withdraw. Gay or straight, men or women—we all have that tendency to get frightened to get too intimate. True intimacy is what this play is about.
Where does Frankie and Johnny’s fear of intimacy come from?
The city was going through a very grim period. AIDS was rampant, but it wasn’t just AIDS. It was a big financial downturn. People were walking the streets without a place to sleep. It reached a gray area, and a lot of people talked about leaving. So it inspired me to want to find what’s positive that can still happen. Life can’t just be about people dying from one another. Then we’d just isolate ourselves completely.
Considering what Frankie and Johnny are doing as the play starts, the threat of HIV/AIDS must be on their minds.
The straight community was as worried about AIDS. They were transmitting AIDS, too. Not in the [same] number as the gay community, but it was a period where people seemed dangerous. When I first came to New York, there was a “let’s sleep with whomever we want” mentality. But people started getting very scared about that. The fear and mistrust of people was palpable.
Do you feel we’ve since evolved from that?
I’m far from the young scene, but I know many young gay men and women really don’t remember the AIDS crisis. I still know people who have been living with HIV for 30 years. Just as I’ve been living with lung cancer for 20 years. Medicine has made strides, but there was that cloud. I feel New York is a much more optimistic city in terms of relationships and finding happiness.
Including in the queer community?
I can’t believe the New York I came to in 1956 as a freshman at Columbia, when there were maybe two gay bars. And you made sure no one would see you before you darted in. I remember seeing one of my professors at Columbia at a gay bar, and the minute he saw me, he fled. There’s a long way to go for America, but I think we’ve made huge steps for gay rights, and I’m not worried about them being pushed back into the closet. People are out for good, and I hope it makes adolescence easier for a lot of young men and women. I think it already has. It’s not something you have to sneak around, or look in the back of the index to see if it says “lesbian” or “homosexual” anymore. It’s kind of wonderful.
But it’s still a challenge to find connection.
Yes. And now, people do something very different. They seem to live on their phones, and people aren’t talking to one another. I’m so glad this play was written pre-cellphones and pre-too much entertainment. There’s a thing getting between people, and I hope people realize that. It’s not easy. You have to want to connect.
One thing these two connect over is a piece of classical music. What is it about that language that speaks to you?
I’m tone-deaf; if I try to sing, it’s horrible. But I consider myself a musical person. I responded to opera at a very early age. It was like ice cream; I just heard it when I was 10 years old, and I loved it. Opera’s been a great companion in my life, and I hope my writing can, in a sense, be operatic. I’m very much aware of musical form when I’m writing.
Is there a musical form to Frankie and Johnny?
The play begins with the Goldberg Variations by Bach, which is first a short little aria played on the piano. It’s 30 variations, and it ends back with the little aria. I think this is like saying “I love you,” and then 30 variations of the complications to getting back to saying, very simply, “I love you” again.