Broadway Direct recently spoke with playwright McNally and his husband, Tom Kirdahy, who is also the producer of The Visit.
The Visit marks the third collaboration between composer John Kander, lyricist Freb Ebb, and playwright Terrence McNally; it is adapted from a 1956 drama by Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt. The star of the new musical is Chita Rivera, who also headlined the team’s previous works, The Rink and Kiss of the Spider Woman. The Tony Award–winning actress plays the Claire Zachanassian, a fabulously wealthy woman who returns to the town of her impoverished youth to take vengeance on Anton Schell (played by Roger Rees), the local resident who rejected her decades before.
Tell us about the The Visit’s journey to Broadway. It seems to have had a somewhat long gestation.
Terrence McNally: It first opened in October of 2001 at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. We wrote it rather quickly the year before that, so it wasn’t a long development. We had done a workshop earlier with Angela Lansbury, but she had to withdraw because of her husband’s health, and we went to Chita, who happily said yes. Frank Galati was the director and Anne Reinking the choreographer. We got excellent reviews, but no one from New York came to see it because it was shortly after 9/11 and nobody was flying at the time. We didn’t get an offer to take it elsewhere until we had a chance to do it at the Signature Theatre at Arlington, Virginia, in 2008. We did it there with the same creative team. John and I were thrilled with that production; by then Fred Ebb had died. We had great hopes for it making a journey into New York after that, but it didn’t happen. Then it was a little dormant; I was busy, John was busy, and then suddenly — this is when Tom enters the picture . . .
Tom Kirdahy: I’m an attorney and was still lawyering full-time, but I was exploring the transition into producing. I was not qualified to produce this show back in 2008, but I did have strong thoughts on how it might evolve. Five years later, when I was deep into my career as a producer, I ran into John Doyle [director of Sweeney Todd and Company] on an airplane and said to him, “I think have a great show for you,” and I asked if he would be interested in reading it. He immediately fell in love with it and we quickly conspired to bring it to Williamstown. And then a show that was two acts and more than two and a half hours long became a tight 90-minute one-act musical. And so, to me, while there has been this long gestation period, the history of this production began in the summer of 2014 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts with John Doyle directing, Graciela Danielle as our choreographer, Roger Rees as our leading man — and Chita. They gave it a completely new lease on life, and the results were thrilling.
Did you do much revision for the new production?
McNally: John Kander and I did some work on it, yes. But it’s not like Kiss of the Spider Woman, where we went back to the drawing board after the first version and it was then totally reinvented. Graciela and John Doyle very much reshaped the show by making cuts, changing the order of the songs — so the feeling is different. I also think it is a very atypical Kander and Ebb musical, one of their greatest shows and a major addition to their cannon of work.
How did work you with Kander and Ebb on the show?
McNally: A lot of people think book-writing is, you write a scene and then say, “She sings a song here about being in love.” That doesn’t inspire a composer or a lyricist to write anything. I give them a play that is overlong and a little riper in language than if I was writing a play of my own that was to be only spoken — with dialogue or some images that I hope will inspire a song. I don’t think I ever wrote a scene where they said, “We can’t find any music in this scene.” Because I do love music. I love musical theater, I love opera. Fred talked a lot about cannibalizing my book; there are whole lines in the lyrics that I guess came from my text, but I don’t feel cannibalized, I feel flattered.
What were your impressions of the play when you first started working on the musical?
McNally: I thought it was a great love story. Other people see it as an anticapitalism piece or something else; the politics are built into the story. But to me, it was an epic love story, filled with cruelty, retribution, wrongdoing, but also forgiveness and redemption. Anton is a doomed man heading straight for hell when the play begins, and I think he has saved his soul by the end of the show. Every theme in the show I found in Dürrenmatt’s original, although I read it in translation. The Ingrid Bergman movie [1964, costarring Anthony Quinn] was no inspiration at all. I did see the Lunts in it [Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt, 1958 on Broadway], but I can’t say I remember them. I was too young to appreciate that kind of old-school style of acting. It was the height of Actors Studio and the Method and I felt they were very artificial — I was unfair to them.
Speaking of a love story, when did the two of you meet, and what’s it like working together professionally?
Kirdahy: We met in 2001. I had studied dramatic literature in college and I thought I would be an entertainment lawyer. Then AIDS happened, so rather than following that path, I worked for almost 20 years providing free legal services for people with HIV and AIDS, and doing pro bono work in the LGBT community. But my passion for the theater never went away. So in 2001, along with a theater critic, Isa Goldberg, I produced panel conversation called “Theater From a Gay Perspective.” Terrence and Lanford Wilson and Edward Albee were on this panel. It was during that conversation about the theater that we fell in love. Then we became very much a part of the marriage-equality movement — I really believe Terrence’s work has contributed to the evolution of LGBT visibility in this country and in this world. As our lives evolved, I became more and more involved with the theater community, and my passion for the theater just grew and grew and it felt like the right time to make the transition back to the original dream. We had to navigate a complicated process — Terrence jokes and calls me management sometimes . . .
McNally: Sleeping with the enemy!
Kirdahy: We are husbands and that’s the greatest gift in the world. But it wasn’t always easy. As collaborators we’ve learned how to respect our differences and how to manage our arguments professionally, because they inevitably exist. I do believe that we bring out the best in each other. I really understand Terrence’s voice as a playwright; he has certainly demonstrated his trust and we actually have a great time together.
McNally: Tom gets things done. He doesn’t dither. There are so many people who will talk about producing and two years later they have done nothing. People say, “Where are the new playwrights, where are the directors?” I’ve always thought the biggest void on Broadway was producers. There are businesspeople, thank God, who are willing to invest in theater, but there is more to being a producer. Tom doesn’t have his job because he’s my husband and I’m not getting another play on Broadway because I got my husband to produce it — though I’ve heard people say that. I think we are a good team and people like working with us. Tom always says, “Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you and you’ll learn something.” If you just work with people who just blow smoke up your ass, you know you are going to fail pretty fast.
Getting back to The Visit, there is a lot of shared history between the people involved with the show. Does it feel like gathering of old friends?
McNally: Yes, there are very few degrees of separation. John and Fred’s career began the same year mine did; my first play, And Things That Go Bump in the Night, opened a week or two before their first show, Flora, the Red Menace. And with Chita — you can’t talk about her career without Kander and Ebb; there’s a through-line from The Rink to Kiss of the Spider Woman to this. To me she is iconic; when I was a college student I saw West Side Story. Roger, of course, is iconic because of Nicholas Nickleby, and I’ve worked with him before with A Man of No Importance, by Ahrens and Flaherty. And there are all the other histories in the room: Gracie was the choreographer on The Rink. She and Chita go way back — they are both Fosse girls and were in Chicago together. That was Gracie’s first job in New York, dancing in the “Cell Block Tango.” Now John Doyle is the newest member of the Kander, Ebb, McNally, and Rivera family.
Kirdahy: I always feel like I’m at a family reunion of sorts. When you put John Kander and Terrence McNally in the same room, you know that the spirit of Fred Ebb is sitting right there at the table. They laugh and they reminisce and then they roll up their sleeves and they work, and they make things better. The artistic chemistry that they have together can’t be manufactured; it is something one has to witness. And the two times before that this triumvirate has written a musical together, Chita has at least costarred in it, and walked away with a Tony Award. She is providing that same level of electricity in this play.
You have referred to this role in The Visit as “Chita’s Gypsy.”
McNally: Yes, it is that kind of part. And it’s a great time to do the show. Now she’s the perfect age for it. She’s 82 and proud of it, and she’s the youngest person in the room!
Kirdahy: We all know she is a dancer, we all know she can sing, and that she’s a great musical-theater actress. We think we know what she can do? There is more. I mean, she is giving a performance that is so powerful, so precise and jaw-droppingly charismatic in its ferocity. I think New York is going to collectively have its breath taken away. And to take this back to the beginning of our conversation, I think everyone is going to believe that it was worth the wait.