THE FULL MONTY by David Yazbek and Terrence McNally, directed by Jack O'Brien, with Kaye Ballard, Andrea Burns, Chris Diamantopoulos, Susann Fletcher, Bret Fox, Danny Gurwin, Carol Linnea Johnson, Larry Marshall, Brett Murray, Daniel Stewart Sherman, Steven Skybell and Rod Weber. Presented by Fox Searchlight Pictures, Lindsay Law, Thomas Hall and David and Ed Mirvish at the Elgin Theatre (189 Yonge). Runs to July 15, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday, Saturday-Sunday 2 pm. $40-$99. 416-872-1212. Rating: NNNNN
looking at terrence mcnally this late morning, it's hard to believe anyone would want him dead. The youthful 61-year-old wears a gentle expression on his laugh-lined face as he sips his coffee.
Sure, he's a little tired and punchy after last night's opening preview of The Full Monty, the musical for which he wrote the book. But that's no reason to kill the guy.
McNally's had bad reviews before -- not for The Full Monty, which has already filled its G-string with cash in New York and begins its North American tour here in Toronto.
But nothing compares to the unofficial review he got three years ago when his play Corpus Christi was set to open off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club.
The Catholic League and other conservative religious types criticized the play -- without seeing it -- for its depiction of Christ and his disciples as gay men. Picketers protested.
Besieged by controversy and bombarded with anonymous threats, the theatre withdrew the play.
"They cancelled it," explains McNally without melodrama. "They didn't ask my permission. They fired me. I didn't agree to be fired. They said they couldn't go ahead in view of what was going down."
Then, suddenly, the arts community rallied and the MTC decided to put on the play after all. They installed metal detectors at the entrances. Nothing bad happened. Nothing happened later either, when the play was mounted in London, despite a Rushdie-like fatwa on the playwright's head.
"The support of the theatre community was incredibly moving," says McNally today. "What really changed things was (South African playwright) Athol Fugard. He called the MTC and said if they were going to cancel my play, then he would withdraw his play, too. Actions -- that old cliche -- speak louder than words. Any writer will decry censorship. But to take your play off a roster, when it's so difficult to get something produced in the first place, is a huge gesture. I am in awe of Fugard."
The Corpus Christi affair (the symbolic title is a reference to the Texas city where the playwright grew up) will probably go down as a defining moment in American theatre, one in which politics, sex, religion and art all intersected. And at the centre of it was McNally, whose only brush with politics up to that point had been of the interpersonal kind, in tightly written, Chekhovian dramas like Love! Valour! Compassion! and Lips Together, Teeth Apart.
When McNally accepted the Tony Award for the book for the musical Ragtime a few weeks later, he thanked the theatre community.
"Without you," he said, "I wouldn't be standing up here, and eventually none of us would. So this is for freedom."
After this life-altering experience, it's no wonder McNally hasn't written a serious play since.
"I hope it hasn't affected my work," he says soberly. "But when you're reviled this way, you wonder if you're going to lose your confidence. You think, "Oh, maybe I won't write about this subject next time. I don't want to upset people.' But sometimes the purpose of art is to upset people. Things have to be said."
Which brings us to The Full Monty. Inspired by the acclaimed 1997 movie about a group of unemployed British steelworkers who decide to put on a strip show to raise money to help out a friend, the musical should appeal across the board -- even tempting those angry Christians to buy a ticket or two.
"I like to laugh as much as the next person," says McNally when I point out that the subject of this musical seems thin in comparison to his others, like Ragtime and Kiss Of The Spider Woman.
"But there's a serious note to this show, as there is in any really good comedy. It's about self-image, friendship, adversity, the workforce, the changing roles of men and women. If it had been joke-writing and keeping the audience interested until the strip at the end, I wouldn't have done it. I'm not writing down. I'm just working with a slightly different palette from what I'm used to."
Clearly, McNally has already fielded dozens of questions about musicals. Most successful ones are adaptations of something else. There's no glory in writing the book to a musical. The straight play isn't dead, even on Broadway.
Old hat. We talk briefly about his career, which spans nearly 40 years. He sighs, puts down his fork.
"If you do this long enough, you have ups and downs," he says. "I started with the fantasy of being 24 or 25 with my first play opening on Broadway. The movie version was a big flop and I left to work at a magazine. Two years later I wrote a play for James Coco, and Elaine May ended up directing it. Another turning point. Then another play closed out of town, and I went into a fallow period.
"One day I was at a record shop and someone asked if I was Terrence McNally -- he recognized my voice from the opera quiz broadcasts. I thought, "My god, that's how I'm going to be remembered. I'd better get back to work.'
"I wrote Frankie And Johnnie after that, which was another turning point. The 90s were a good period. And then" -- he pauses here -- "came Corpus Christi. That's going to be a turning point, too, I think, although I don't know where I'm headed."
He smiles, looks around.
"I have a sign over my desk," he whispers. "It says No More Musicals."
selectED resume Terrence McNALLY 2000 The Full Monty 1998 Corpus Christi 1997 Ragtime (Tony Award) 1996 Master Class (Tony Award) 1994 Love! Valour! Compassion! (Tony Award) 1992 Kiss Of The Spider Woman (Tony Award) 1991 Lips Together, Teeth Apart 1990 Andre's Mother (TV movie; Emmy Award) 1989 The Lisbon Traviata 1987 Frankie And Johnnie In The Clair De Lune 1975 The Ritz 1969 Next 1962 And Things That Go Bump In The Night