When most people go to see a musical, they don’t think about the book writer. Honestly, they probably don’t even know what a book writer does. In the world of musicals, there is a composer, the person who writes the score; a lyricist, the person who writes the lyrics to the songs; and a book writer. What does a book writer do? They write the plot and words outside of songs for the show. They create the connective tissue that takes a song cycle and makes it into a fully fleshed-out musical experience. Terrence McNally, who passed away today at the age of 81, was a great book writer.
I love musical theater. What makes a musical and makes it exceptional is a story that is compelling. For that, you need an excellent book writer. If you don’t get that, you end up with a musical like CATS. Sorry, not sorry, CATS. Or, another example, the second act of Hair, which is a psychedelic mess. Now, I love listening to songs from these musicals but I am reluctant to go see them. I know that I won’t have that catharsis and theatrical connection that Aristotle touted centuries ago.
But you never have that problem with a Terrence McNally musical. McNally, a truly accomplished playwright, was able to add a human element to so many important musicals. He shaped Ragtime into a devastating piece of art that always has me sobbing by the reprise of Wheels of A Dream. Also, one of my favorite musicals, The Full Monty, could have been a boring retread of the movie, but McNally turned it into an American-specific hilarious story that takes place in Buffalo, NY. Plus, McNally’s consistent work with diva and living legend Chita Rivera on many shows and her autobiographical show A Dancer’s Life makes the world of dance accessible and exciting.
All of McNally’s shows have made me want to write. When I was in college, I saw many of them, including Chita Rivera in A Dancer’s Life. I loved how his words came to life and made stories matter. It made me believe in my own trajectory and that we can keep creating throughout mediums and the many years of our lives. McNally’s death today at the hands of COVID-19 is a tragedy because he was creating work up until last year. We have lost a great playwright, screenwriter, and a truly seminal musical theater book writer.