BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
Terrence McNally will be a guest of American Stage on Friday as the theater opens a production of his 1987 play, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. It will be a homecoming of sorts for McNally, who was born in St. Petersburg in 1939, though he spent only a few years there.
McNally is a giant of modern American theater. He is the author of more than 30 plays, including two that won Tony Awards for best play: Love! Valour! Compassion! and Master Class. He has also won Tonys for the books he wrote for a pair of musicals, Kiss of the Spider Woman and Ragtime. He wrote the book of Catch Me If You Can, now playing on Broadway.
Known for his witty, barbed dialogue, he has written any number of influential gay plays, including Lips Together, Teeth Apart, an early AIDS drama; Love! Valour! Compassion!, made into a movie in 1997; and Corpus Christie, which depicts Jesus and the disciples as gay men in the Texas city where McNally and his family moved from St. Petersburg.
Opera is a theme that runs through McNally's work. He wrote the libretto for Jake Heggie's widely produced opera Dead Man Walking, about Sister Helen Prejean and a death penalty case in Louisiana. The Lisbon Traviata is inspired by a legendary bootleg recording of Maria Callas in a Portuguese production of the Verdi opera.
This month, Tyne Daly is starring in a Broadway revival of McNally's 1995 play, Master Class, inspired by a course Callas taught at Juilliard. I phoned the playwright in New York last Friday morning, when he had a few moments to talk before heading to rehearsal.
Do you remember St. Petersburg?
I don't remember it. I was 3 or 4 when we left. I've got some pictures of me on the beach. My parents owned a bar and grill right on the beach. Is there a part of town called Pass-a-Grille beach?
Oh, sure, it's a fabulous beach.
Well, I don't know how fabulous it was back in 1939, 1940. In my baby pictures, it looks pretty sparse. Very beachy. But you can see the Don CeSar in a few pictures. The hotel seemed to be the main event.
Do you have any family, personal ties to the area now?
None at all. Just the fact that the theater is doing the play. I'm really excited to see St. Pete as an adult, and this time I will remember it. It's a funny kind of nostalgia. A curious nostalgia. We're going to rent a car and spend a couple of days down there.
You know Patrick Wilson is from here. His big break on Broadway was The Full Monty, which you wrote the book for.
When we were casting The Full Monty, I had seen him in a Gershwin revue that ran on Broadway about three nights. But he was off on a cruise ship tour or something and couldn't audition for three months. I told everybody that they had to wait for this guy. So they waited and as soon as he opened his mouth and started acting, they gave the part to him. So I feel some proprietary interest in Patrick's career.
Any plans for your visit?
I'll probably go to Busch Gardens and ride some roller coasters. I hope they have some of the old wooden ones. I like the noisy, clattery ones much more than the ones with rubber tires that go upside down, though I will ride them.
Is Frankie and Johnny your most produced play?
It's one of them. Master Class is another. They go in cycles. I've got four or five plays that stay in the repertory.
I think my favorite would be Love! Valour! Compassion!
I don't have a favorite. I love them all. I know there are two productions of Love! Valour! running right now. A Perfect Ganesh is a steady performer.
How did you like the movie of Frankie and Johnny?
I haven't looked at it in a long time, but some friends saw it the other night, and they liked it. I liked it very much when it came out.
Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer. What's not to like?
Well, there was criticism at the time that Michelle Pfeiffer was too beautiful to be a waitress. I thought that was foolish. If you live in New York City, you will see some very beautiful women, actresses usually, temporarily standing behind a counter and waiting tables. Her performance in it is so raw and naked. I think it was one of the great performances she ever gave in a movie.
How do you like the movie compared to the play?
I like the play better. I do think it's a story best told in a space of six or seven hours as opposed to six or seven weeks.
Even though you wrote the screenplay?
To make a Hollywood movie of it, I was all for opening it up and having it take place over a longer period of time. It's just a different experience in the theater.
Is there a big difference between writing an opera libretto and a book for a musical?
An opera, I think, has to be a much bigger emotional picture, and you have to really work closely with the composer. On a musical, I just sort of provide the structure and dialogue, but I don't write lyrics.
Writing one maybe teaches you some mistakes not to make when you write another, but you're still starting out with a blank screen, or blank piece of paper. Through experience, you develop a kind of a technique and a sense of the possible pitfalls that lie ahead. You just have to keep your wits about you and approach each piece as a fresh piece. It doesn't get any easier. You tell the story of Sister Helen and her convicts very differently than you tell the story of Frankie and Johnny. You try to get inside their heads and souls and figure out how they talk.
When musicals go wrong, the book always gets the blame.
That's because most people really don't understand how a musical is put together. To write the book of a musical is like being the center or somebody on the line of a football team. No one really knows what they do, but they know when they don't do the job well.
Now I see you're adapting John O'Hara's book for a revival of Pal Joey.
I think Pal Joey is a problematic show. My own feeling is that O'Hara and (lyricist) Larry Hart went off on a drinking binge, and left (director) George Abbot and (composer) Richard Rodgers to write most of the second act, where it becomes a very different, turgid, murky show. I don't know if I'm going to be able to rescue it, but I have done a very bold adaptation. There is not one line of John O'Hara's, and there are new characters and it takes place in a new time setting. But it still has that glorious score. So stay tuned for about a year from now.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.