Librettist/lyricist Mark Campbell, originally scheduled to be our Artist of the Month, has chosen to relinquish his title to the late Terrence McNally and offers an appreciation of his colleague’s work.
New York Festival of Song recently asked me to assume the mantle of their April “Artist of the Month.” I asked NYFOS if I might give up my dazzling tiara to the late Mr. Terrence McNally and write an appreciation of his work in opera and musicals. While some of you may quibble that McNally has never written an art song per se, I would argue that the drama he created in his stories generated some of the best musical moments of the last fifty years. And anyway…New York Festival of Song is never just about songs, which is one of many reasons the organization is so vital to our cultural life.
I wasn’t close to McNally and knew him really only as a colleague. However, we did briefly strike up an acquaintance when we were in residence together at the White Oak Sundance Theatre Lab in 2004. I had sauntered by him in a pair of perhaps too abbreviated shorts (it was Florida in May!) and McNally declared: “nice gams.” I was flattered. Later that day, I was impressed. Mr. McNally was one of a few guest theatrical luminaries that had been imported to White Oak to assist with a work I had created with my two collaborators. After a, shall we say, less than successful reading, he went right for the truth: “I don’t get the feeling that the three of you sat down and decided precisely what this story is about.”
This sounds like a pretty obvious, simplistic statement…but it’s actually everything. Today, so many theatrical works—especially operas—often fail because creators haven’t asked that very crucial question about the story they’re telling. Audiences are forced to rely on program notes to answer the annoyingly big “why?” that dangles from the proscenium because the composer and librettist (or book writer and lyricist) failed to. And because of that, songs from these works die a painful and inconsequential death. Mr. McNally proved again and again that the basis of a good song in an opera or musical is in the story and was therefore able to get such fine music and lyrics from his collaborators, which included Jake Heggie, Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty, David Yazbeck, John Kander and Fred Ebb.
I saw McNally and Heggie’s Dead Man Walking in 2002 at New York City Opera and it, along with Sondheim and Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd and Corigliano and Hoffman’s The Ghosts of Versailles, pointed me toward a career as an opera librettist. Before that, I had been a musical theatre lyricist who kept leaning timorously toward opera. I’ve made no secret of my love for Sondheim, and it seemed to me like opera was an extension of what he was doing dramatically and musically—but I had the misperception that opera was elitist, pretentious, irrelevant, humorless, and…well, dull. Heggie and McNally’s work beautifully confounded my bias: the libretto and music are in perfect alignment with the story and the result is galvanizing.
More recently, McNally joined a coalition of librettists that Michael Korie and I formed with the Dramatists Guild to help all us pesky librettists gain some parity in the industry—something Mr. McNally believed in passionately. One our missions is to help librettists achieve proper crediting for their work. To that end, Korie and I created a short film called “Credit the Librettist.” In an outtake from this film, McNally says: “The biggest problem with contemporary opera is the librettos. They’re not done by people with a sense of theatre. A lot of them sound like they were written over the telephone…you don’t feel the sweat of two heads bumping together. And I really believe passionately that a strong libretto is the basis of a strong opera.”
One quality in Mr. McNally’s work I admire is his political activism, especially for the LGBTQ+ community. There are arguments against the death penalty, racism, homophobia and class inequality—among other issues—in his musical works. But he doesn’t deliver them in screeds. They are found in story, in humor, in character, in situation, in detail. And that’s how they grow so beautifully into song.
By now, you’re probably weary of reading the following quote from McNally’s play Master Class, voiced by his somewhat fictionalized portrayal of Maria Callas. But it just feels too right not to repeat it now, when April has truly earned its title of the cruelest month:
“I’m not good with words, but I have tried to reach you. To communicate something of what I feel about what we do as artists, as musicians and human beings. The sun will not fall down from the sky if there are no more Traviatas. The world can and will go on without us but I have to think we have made this world a better place. That we have left it richer, wiser than had we not chosen the way of art.”