Terrence McNally: Ragtime Speaks to Themes of LGBT Equality

Left to Right: Fiddlehead Theatre Company artistic director Meg Fofonoff, playwright Terrence McNally, and Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.
Photo by: Chuck Colbert
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Left to Right: Fiddlehead Theatre Company artistic director Meg Fofonoff, playwright Terrence McNally, and Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.
Photo by: Chuck Colbert

By: Chuck Colbert/TRT Reporter–

For the second time in five years time, a local advocacy organization has honored a great American playwright who happens to be gay.

And theatre legend Terrence McNally was in Boston recently when the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts awarded him its Beacon of Liberty Award during a cocktail reception and awards ceremony on Saturday evening, Sept. 15.

The timing of the gala reception, held at the TAJ Hotel, located in the city’s Back Bay neighborhood, comes shortly before a new production of the Broadway musical Ragtime opens in Boston this weekend.

McNally won the 1998 Tony Award for Best Book (musical) for Ragtime.

At the reception McNally accepted the award also on behalf of fellow Ragtime creators Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music), who were unable to attend.

“I’m very touched and honored,” said McNally, who, in his brief remarks, paid tribute to E. L. Doctorow, whose 1975 novel Ragtime provided inspiration for the musical.

“Every sentence, every moment could be musicalized,” said McNally. “The greatest challenge was compressing out characters and emphasizing other things, but respecting the spirit of Doctorow.”

“I’d like to think we’ve done that for this great American novel,” which McNally said, “seems wiser, more prescient as the years go on.”

McNally noted the production’s proximity to the 2012 presidential election.

Ragtime’s playing “just a few weeks before a very important election is going to inform the experience,” he said.

“We are at a crossroads in our history,” McNally explained. “This show addresses every issue that America thinks it has solved, but we are asking ourselves the same questions, trying to figure them out, and then have to go back and ask them all again.”

“Why is equality so hard?” he said. “Why, when we get to our place, our hearts start to shut down, and we don’t want other people to enjoy the same” status?

For McNally, the heart of Ragtime is the gesture of a key character, Mother, who picks up an abandoned child and brings it back to life, “without any thought about its ramifications” to her life, he said.

That “impulse of human goodness” is “what we have to find back in all of us,” McNally added.

“If we can stay in touch with the spontaneity,” he went on to explain, that “Each of us is intuitively a brother or sister in one family, but we somehow get talked out of it. We have to remind ourselves we are all in this together, this big ride we are on, and we have to get this shop home safely.”

The local production of Ragtime is a collaborative effort between the ACLU and Fiddlehead Theatre Company, with the enthusiastic support of Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, a big booster of the arts for more than a decade.

Sure enough, the driving force behind the collaboration is Meg Fofonoff, the company’s producing artistic director.

Fofonoff and Rita Fucillo, vice president of New Venture Media Group, served as informal emcees for the short awards ceremony.

For her part, Fucillo, too, noted the production of Ragtime, its timing so close to Election Day, “amidst voter suppression, women’s right suppression,” and “in Kansas they’re trying to take Obama’s name off the ballot” because, “of course, he wasn’t born in the United States,” she said.

“Tonight we are reminded of what is at stake and reminded of the power of our vote,” said Fucillo.

“As an artist in today’s world, I feel it is so critical to help affect the political face of our nation to help ensure that civil rights and civil freedom for all remain our top priority,” said Fofonoff.

It is “especially important,” she added, “That art continues to inspire our spirits in such turbulent times.”

“Ragtime is a musical full of heart, power, and inspiration, just as its lyric story drives its characters to a better place, so they make our hearts sing our toes tap, and our souls dance,” said Fofonoff.

Ragtime runs Friday, Sept. 28 through Sunday, Oct. 7, in the historic Strand Theatre, located in the city’s Dorchester neighborhood.

In addition to Best Book, Ragtime won Tony Awards for Best Score and Orchestrations, and won both the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for Best Musical and Best Score.

McNally’s other Tony awards include Best Play (1995) for the gay-themed Love! Valor! Compassion!and (1996) for Master Class.

The celebrated playwright also won a Tony for Best Book of a Musical (1993) for Kiss of the Spider Woman. 

“Ragtime is the perfect ACLU play,” said Carol Rose, the legal advocacy group’s executive director, “not only because it is about issues of freedom, equality, and human striving for equality, but also because it takes place at an incredible time in our country, with union organizing, immigrant rights organizing, social justice and women’s rights” — and at the time “the ACLU was founded in someone’s living room in Boston.”

“This is a play that speaks directly to issues of equality, for people of different races and gender,” said Rose, adding, “Of course, for LGBT people, the theme — that deep human emotion, which goes to the desire for equality — is applied to a whole new group, a whole new generation.”

“So many people think of the ACLU as organization for lawyers,” said Rose.

And yet, “We are for all people. We want to celebrate freedom of expression in all of its forms and manifestations,” she said. “While we love to have our panels and our talks, nothing is more transformative than the arts to change people’s minds and get them to think about what they believe in.”

Besides, said Rose with a smile, “It’s fun.”

Joining Rose in presenting McNally with its Beacon of Liberty award was gay philanthropist Ron Ansin, who serves as chairman of the ACLU Foundation.

Five years ago to the day of Ragtime’s opening, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) honored McNally with the organization’s Spirit of Justice Award on Sept. 28, 2007.

On that occasion, said Lee Swislow, GLAD’s executive director, “Terrence McNally is one of the nation’s most heralded out gay writers,” adding, “Throughout his career, he has courageously and consistently included LGBT characters in his work. His plays have drawn attention to the AIDS epidemic and marriage equality. We are thrilled to honor him and his support for equal justice under law.”

© Copyright. Chuck Colbert. All rights reserved.

1 Comment on "Terrence McNally: Ragtime Speaks to Themes of LGBT Equality"

  1. Ninfa Dominis | December 2, 2012 at 9:33 pm |

    If it was in NY it is legal to view it.

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