ArtsLink: The Life of Terrence McNally and Proof that Theatre and the Arts Offers More Than Entertainment

By Jason Young on April 01, 2020 from A&E Blog via Connect-Bridgeport.com

Terrence McNally has passed away.
 
I understand that most of you engaging with this blog probably have no idea who that is. That’s okay; I had no idea who he was either until I was 18 years old. 
 
Terrence McNally was an American playwright, librettist, and screenwriter who has been described as “the bard of American theatre.” In 2019 he won the Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement, and on March 24 of this year, he passed away due to complications from the coronavirus at 81 years old. It is difficult for me to venture what his most mainstream work would be, but if I had to I would put forth the 1991 film Frankie and Johnny starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer.
 
But that’s not how I first encountered Terrence McNally. 
 
In the summer of 2001, I was a recent high school graduate who in the last year had transitioned personally from a wannabe jock to a theatre nerd. I was preparing to enter my first semester of college, and I was obsessed with Nathan Lane. Surely that name is more familiar to you. As a budding—in my own mind—theatrical superstar, my character type at the time—and honestly probably still today—was the clown. I had a big voice, stage presence, and no inhibitions. Nathan Lane was my idol. 
 
By that point in his career Nathan Lane was a Broadway mega-star having already played Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls, and was starring in The Producers as Max Bialystock. The more mainstream entertainment consumer knew him as Albert from the film The Birdcage and probably best as the voice of Timon in Disney’s animated The Lion King. 
 
I spent an embarrassingly large amount of time watching videos of Lane’s performances. I was even lucky enough eight short years later to get to play Pseudolus, a role that became a dream for me after watching a bootleg of his Broadway version. It was during one of those Nathan Lane video binges that I came across a short clip of him delivering a monologue from a play I had never encountered before. My knowledge of plays at the time was very small; I was a musical theatre kid who considered anything without tap dancing and an eleven o’clock number to be beneath my consumption. 
 
This video clip changed that and a lot of other things for me. The play was Love! Valour! Compassion! And the playwright was Terrence McNally. 
 
“The setting is at a lakeside summer vacation house in Duchess County, two hours north of New York City where eight gay friends spend the three major holiday weekends of one summer together for Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day. The house belongs to Gregory, a successful Broadway choreographer now approaching middle age, who fears he is losing his creativity; and his twenty-something lover, Bobby, a legal assistant who is blind. Each of the guests at their house is connected to Gregory’s work in one way or another – Arthur and longtime partner Perry are business consultants; John Jeckyll, a sour Englishman, is a dance accompanist; die-hard musical theatre fanatic Buzz Hauser is a costume designer and the most stereotypically gay man in the group. Only John’s summer lover, Ramon, and John’s twin brother James are outside the circle of friends. But Ramon is outgoing and eventually makes a place for himself in the group, and James is such a gentle soul that he is quickly welcomed.”
 
I lifted that plot synopsis directly from Wikipedia. It does a really nice job of summing up the story, but what it fails to mention is the one thing that all theatre, television, and movies must have, the thing that makes the story compelling: conflict. Running the risk of diluting this beautiful play too much, a major conflict in the piece is the AIDS pandemic. 
 
We have now arrived at a word that we have all been hearing a lot this past month, pandemic. I suppose it is easy for a lot of us to say that COVID-19 is the first pandemic we have experienced in our lifetime, but that’s not true. The HIV/AIDS virus found its way to the United States as early as 1960, but was first recognized as a pandemic in our country when doctors discovered clusters of infections in Los Angeles, New York City, and San Francisco in 1981. To date almost 700,000 people in the United States have died from HIV/AIDS.
 
Very simply put, the play is about the love and the life of these men during the AIDS era. 
 
If you take a look again at the plot synopsis of the play, you could probably guess who Nathan Lane played. Buzz Hauser, a stereotypical gay man obsessed with musical theatre. This character was a tour de-force for Lane. In every clip I have ever seen of Lane in this role he has the audience roaring with laughter, except in this first clip that I encountered that summer almost 19 years ago. 
 
Towards the end of the play, Buzz is running a bath for James, John’s brother, whom Buzz has fallen in love with. James, like Buzz, suffers from AIDS, but is in a more advanced stage of the disease. I am probably being too luxurious with the phrase “running a bath.” I don’t want to make it sound like a particularly soft moment in the play. Buzz is filling the bathtub with hot water because James is suffering from the chills. The monologue is ignited when Perry comes in and asks who is using all the hot water. 
 
Buzz wanders through his anxiety talking about how the moment he and Perry share would be a wonderful lead in to a musical number and then goes on to talk about how he wished life was more like musical theatre. Perry tells him that “not all musicals have a happy ending.” Buzz adamantly refutes that claim, delivers a passionate speech, and finishes in tears admitting his fear of the future. That explanation of the highlights doesn’t do the monologue justice in any way. But, it’s enough for me to make my following points. 
 
In the summer of 2001, at 18 years of age, living in Bridgeport, West Virginia, I had never met an openly gay individual. My introduction to this play opened my eyes to a lot. I sought out a copy of the play and read it. I memorized the monologue. Hell, I even used it as an audition piece once or twice. But beyond the immediate it allowed me to learn about HIV/AIDS; it allowed me to learn about the history of gay culture and the struggles the gay community has faced and continues to face. It gave me compassion, empathy, and an ever so slightly greater understanding of the world, without ever leaving Bridgeport.  
 
I am sad today that I had all but forgotten about this wonderful play, that magical monologue, and its amazing author Terrence McNally. I haven’t thought about it in a long time. There is also a heartbreaking synergy that the man who opened my eyes to the HIV/AIDS pandemic has now lost his life in our current pandemic. And finally it makes me wonder who is going to write this play. Who is going to tell the story of life in 2020 when the world stopped, and people stayed home, full of fear and frustration as the economy collapsed and the environment improved? Because someday someone, who is slightly ignorant to history and the world like I was, is going to read that play, and it’s going to help. 
 
To find highlight of Nathan Lane’s performance in Love! Valour! Compassion! on Broadway on YouTube, type in "Nathan Lane Love!," it should be the first choice. Warning, there is some language through this nearly fifteen minute video. The scene that I refer to in this blog starts at the 8:44 mark. 


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