I post this interview with producer Tom Kirdahy on March 24, 2020, the day it was announced that his beloved husband, playwright Terrence McNally, died from complications of having contracted the coronavirus. For the past two days here in my loft in Hudson, New York, Tom’s recorded voice has kept me company during these lonely days of self-quarantining that is the way we live now. I have had this interview in my recorder for a few months but only have now gotten around to transcribing it.
There are no coincidences.
This conversation was a source of company and solace to me the last couple of days just as I now wish solace for Tom as he begins to mourn the death of his husband Terrence whose voice as a playwright was so often one that itself gave voice to generations of gay men.
Terrence’s talent and focus and output as a dramatist always inspired me.
Tom’s work as an activist and lawyer and producer have inspired me as well.
But their love story – that inspiration – is what I celebrate today and the fact that they were married in a country that recognized the dignity of their love. Their work as gay men helped to foster that recognition. Gave rise to it. There was a delight and dignity to Terrence’s work. There is dignity to Tom’s, too, as he so often finds the delight in political activism and mentoring others. Their love itself was ordained with a dignity and a delight that death will not end.
Tom and I met for coffee close to their Village home one Saturday. It was before The Inheritance had officially opened. It was still in previews as was his production of Little Shop of Horrors. His other show, Hadestown, was still packing them in. Kirdahy’s other productions have included The White Chip and Anastasia, along with The Jungle and the recent revival of Frankie & Johnny in the Clair de Lune. Other past productions: It’s Only a Play; The Visit; The Goat, Or Who is Sylvia?; White Rabbit, Red Rabbit; Mothers and Sons; After Midnight; Ragtime; and Master Class.
There are a few questions and statements in this interview that allude to Terrence McNally who was then still alive. I have left them as they were … as they are … for Terrence through his work will live on. We will always have his words. And I’m sure Tom will continue to produce his work as he did when Terrence was alive. Tom was his greatest champion as well as his husband.
I came across this quote from McNally about his parents and their own marriage and the ironically ineffable quality of love. “My parents’ marriage was not without strain,” he said. “I come from a family of heavy drinkers, so that was an aspect of growing up. But I mainly felt left alone, not blockaded. They were the original ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ They could be quite charming, too. One year, Toscanini was conducting Aida, and the best radio in the house was with the TV. Remember consoles — a TV and record player in a beautiful cabinet? So my parents sat in the car, listening to the football game, and left me be in the house, listening. I think that’s more love than saying, ‘I love you.’ I remember them out there in their coats; it can get cold in South Texas in the winter.”
I like to think that Terrence finally found in Tom someone to sit inside with him, and listen.
KEVIN SESSUMS:Don’t take this the wrong way, but think The Inheritance is like binge-watching a great Netflix series.That is the cultural lingua franca now.So I mean that as praise.
TOM KIRDAHY:I hear it as that. The time flies while you’re watching it.If we heard one criticism early on in London, it was that there was too much time between seeing the two parts.People wanted to have a quick dinner and get right back into the story.Clearly people are hungry for story and audiences have been trained – because of binge-watching – to sit and take in an expansive story
KS:But it has to be as good as The Inheritance is because we have also been trained to just click onto something else if we are not satisfied with the story.
TK:But no one has quite heard or seen the story in The Inheritance because it is the story of generations.
KS:But it is the story of Howard’s End by E.M. Forster so they have seen and heard – and even read – this story.It’s based on Howard’s End.
TK:It’s not.It’s inspired by Howard’s End.It’s not Howard’s End.I don’t agree with that statement.It’s inspired by the novel.I think there is a distinction.
TK:A story, a book, a novel launched a series of ideas in another person for him to tell a story in his own way and through his prism through very different characters.
KS:Then why is E.M. Forster in the play as a character himself?
TK: You saw the play.I think it is all there in the writing.There is a fabulous scene between one of the lead characters Toby Darling – the playwright character – and Forster himself in which Toby challenges Forster for not having been out in his lifetime. We are left to wonder: Was that a luxury he had or did he not have and what might have happened if he had not felt social pressure because of it in his writing? Forster’s novel Maurice set in a drawer for decades because he was afraid of revealing his sexuality.
KS:Do people who are closeted have an impulse to create their art in a way that they wouldn’t have created if they were out?
TK:I think it is a legitimate question.
KS:Is there a legitimate answer?
TK:I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all answer.
KS:You’re such a lawyer.
TK:No.I think artists are really complicated human beings.I think for some of them it is an impulse that drives their expression and for others it is an excuse for a copout.
KS:You are married to an artist and playwright who seems quite conscious of being a gay man in his work . Not all the time, but certainly a lot of the time.So there is a part of you who found love with the opposite of that question.You found love with the anti-Forster in that regard.You found love with an out gay writer.
TK:I’m in love with truth-telling.And I probably revere artists who expose themselves more truthfully than others.I understand that many artists expose themselves in ways that hinted at their sexuality or their pain and was the source of great art.But I’m not in love with artists who play it safe. I do think there is a big distinction.
KS:But I am also saying that you are personally in love with a husband who is open and out and writes from that point of view. He often says he writes what he knows. And he has done so bravely since he is from a generation that did not often do that.
TK:Yes. I mean, I suppose.But .. well .. yeah.Yes.Okay.Yeah. Yes. Yes.
KS: That’s a lot of yeses.
TK:To go back to The Inheritance and the question of why Forster is a character in the play – I think it is because it challenges us to be more forgiving of generations prior because it is very easy to dismiss generations for not having had the guts to be out, and I think that it is one thing that this play does very, very successfully, among the many things it does successfully, is it provides a context for what it was like before 2019 and a very woke post-marriage-equality post-Truvada world.
I frankly suffered so much loss I never… well, I have a lot of young people who work in my office and because I did AIDS work for so many years, I have been able to talk about my experience. But I don’t think anything has told this story as successfully – at least onstage – to this next generation as The Inheritance does.It lets them know what was our normal.
KS:The first time I saw The Inheritance I was shocked by how deeply I felt the response – especially a that coup de théâtre at the end of Part One.I had no idea how much grief I was still carrying around with me and how it is just scabbed over.The end of Part One pulled off that scab; it lanced the grief.It was truly cathartic.I talk about theatre as a healing experience a lot, but seldom do we get to experience that healing so deeply as we do at the end of Part One of The Inheritance.Thank you as the producer for being a conduit for just that: a healing.Maybe that is why the beginning of Part Two put me off in some way with all its Jackie Susann-ness. And yet that is how so many of us responded to the AID crisis.We started living a Jackie Susann novel.Maybe that cut too close to the bone for me since I didn’t become a drug addict myself until I became HIV positive in my 50s.
TK:I didn’t become an addict until my late 30s.When I think back on it, I think we were numbing a certain pain – yet still filling our days – with the work ofactivism and caretaking and not recognizing that we were sort of killing ourselves in the process.
KS:I have never officially thanked you for all the service you did back during the darkest days of the AIDS epidemic.I don’t think people are thanked and acknowledged enough.Maybe that is some of what The Inheritance is about.But people do move on. Maybe that is the point: we move on.
KS:I am always shocked when I am out with someone young and I mention ACT UP and they don’t know what I’m talking about it.And yet that was also sort of the point: they don’t need to know in some way anymore in their real lives. Their not knowing is a kind of success. But I do resent a bit the know-nothingness of it and lack of curiosity about one’s own history.
TK:Exactly.I walk a line about it.
KS:Is it our fault for not mentoring them?
TK:That’s a great question. I really do walk a line about this.On the one hand I think, be careful what you wish for.We’ve gotten all these rights and it’s manifesting in ways that we never quite imagined or hoped for.I guess that’s like parenting in a way because I had a certain notion of what it would all look like and it’s not that. On the other hand another Supreme Court seat hangs in the balance and if we don’t talk about our history and we don’t educate the next generation, we’re fucked. That’s the bottom line.So that is what draws me to the work.
KS:Do you not only have a sense of mission as a producer in artistic and commercial ways, but do you also have a sense of service about it all?
TK:Absolutely.Yes.I am also right now producing a play called The White Chip which is the first chip you take in AA and in recovery. I’m about to go to a run-through after we have our coffee here.Its a comedy about alcoholism.
KS:Why were you drawn to produce Little Shop of Horrors?Just the joy of it?Joy can be a kind of service, too.
TK:I love Little Shop.There is something pernicious happening in the country right now, too. I mean, yes, I love the joy.Emma Goldman said, “I don’t want to be a part of your revolution if I can’t dance.” I think that quote is about remembering joy. And I think Little Shop is very, very funny and is brilliantly crafted.It is also very smart.It’s a smart show about greed and corruption.We are not putting a Trump-like wig on Audrey. We’re not going there.But I do think it is a story worth telling at this moment.And it is clearly connecting with audiences.
KS:I saw director David Cromer recently and he told me he thought Little Shop was the perfect musical.
TK: Yea.It’s the perfect musical.
KS: Both Hadestown – which won the Tony – and Little Shop have cult-like followings.When I went to see Hadestown it felt as if half the audience had seen it before and was reacting with certain reactions in unison.That was part of seeing the show for them.It was a cult-like communal experience.
TK:Yeah.Hadestown feels like a happening.It’s interesting that you said it feels the way you felt, but I don’t think it’s actually true about what is going on. Yes, we have some groupies, but a lot of people show up knowing the music already.
KS:But there seems to be a knowingness in the audience, just not a knowledge of the show.
TK:There is a knowledge of the show.There is a deep knowledge.I travel a lot and the knowledge is out there in other places.I talked to young people in Austin and Sarasota and they all knew and loved the music not having seen it yet.
KS:I saw Hadestown early on at New York Theatre Workshop when it was much more simple as a production.It had three iterations before it arrived on Broadway – NYTW, a production in Canada, and one at The National Theatre in London.I saw The Inheritance at the Young Vic in previews and then it moved to the West End before arriving on Broadway.Could you talk about what it is like to nurture a work as a producer?
TK:When you are birthing a new work … well, I remember reading your take on The Inheritance when you first saw it in London at the Young Vic and I thought the piece you didn’t say in that was that it was a new work. What you wrote was generous with reservations, but it didn’t acknowledge that a new work is being born.Works evolve.The election scene, as an example, in which Trump defeats Clinton has a different form of trauma watching it on Broadway than it did at the Young Vic earlier on. But I don’t think Matthew is writing toward headlines.The play is not about that.
KS:The older wealthy gay character is the one who has the biggest arc in the play.
TK:I think so, too.I think that’s good writing.
KS:But it is rather troubling.I’m old now so I do respond to the older characters in plays like this. That’s just narcissism finally.But there is a part of the good writing in that role that sort of allows him to win the argument when the politics are argued about his giving money to Trump. He’ s not just a Republican; he’s a Vichy Gay.
TK: Do Vichy Gays not exist?Are they not educable?You just said he had the biggest arc of any of the characters so I think that is a question we have to ask ourselves.
KS:There is a line one has to a walk however.I don’t find Vichy Gays sympathetic even if they have an arc and he is presented as sympathetic in this play in a way that made me uncomfortable. And yet, having said that, maybe that is what really good plays do, make us uncomfortable – especially about our preconceived notions.
TK. But do you think we don’t try to educate them?
KS:We can educate them but maybe, more important, they should educate themselves.Why should it fall on us to save them?I think there has to be reconciling more than forgiveness.What did they have in South Africa?Truth and Reconciliation Commissions? It is not a one-way street that we must educate them and then forgive them.A reconciliation has to be earned.
TK:I think good dramatic literature answers those questions and problems, and Matthew has written great characters. I am not nervous about those kinds of take-aways.
KS:I agree with you in an artistic way, but there is a difference between art and life and in life I would have a lot less sympathy for that characterthan I do as a writer appreciating the skill and artful way he has been written and as an audience member observing him.The first time I saw it, I didn’t have the same take on him as many of my friends did who discussed this with me.My reaction was not a visceral as some of my friends.All of that said, I don’t want you to think I am not deeply grateful to you as a producer for putting this play on.I am deeply, deeply grateful as a gay man and a lover of theatre.I’m just doing my role here as an interviewer.
TK:Thank you.I understand.
KS:I know that this was not easy to get to Broadway.
TK:There are a million challenges, but quite literally there was never a doubt in my mind that I would be bringing this to Broadway. When I first read it, I got through Walter’s monologue in which he tells the story of arriving in New York in 1981 and going straight to The Stonewall and how it had become a Chinese restaurant.My story is very similar.I arrived in New York in 1981 and my second day in New York I went to The Stonewall because I had read about it and it was a bagel shop.It devastated me.There was no indication that it was the birthplace of our revolution.Not a plaque.Not a sign.Nothing.But I went inside and I just prayed for the strength to come out and find my peace in the world.
KS:And have you?
TK:I think I have.
KS: You seem to have.You went from being the valedictorian of your NYU class in 1985 to law school to being a successful lawyer to being of service in the HIV/AIDS plague years to being one of the most successful producers in the theatre to the husband of playwright Terrence McNally. You came full circle from that boy who was neighbors with Donna Murphy and would put on shows in your backyards as kids.
TK:We’d put on beauty pageants.I was always Miss Trinidad and Tobago and she was always Miss Ireland.
TK:I won Miss Congeniality.She won the talent competition.
KS:How different would your life have been had Bette Midler been your neighbor?
TK:I’d be even gayer.
KS: Going back to Stonewall, I was walking by it on Christopher Street just yesterday and a straight family with little boy had stopped to take their photo there as tourists and as a family.I got teary about it as I witnessed it.They seemed to have made a kind of pilgrimage there. It was on their tourists sites to see.
TK:It’s amazing, isn’t it? It’s amazing. Amazing.I have a nephew who came out when he was around 14 years old. He’s a drag queen now.His parents go and see him perform.My brother was an auto mechanic and his own journey has been incredible. “Stella Virgin” performs in clubs on Long Island on Friday nights.His public-school-teaching parents go to see him perform.It is truly incredible.It’s seismic.It’s really seismic.
KS:And yet we can’t be complacent.
TK:Which is why I produced The Inheritance.We can’t be complacent.It is terrifying to me.Just to be clear – to use your term Vichy Gays: I loathe them.I try to understand what the psychology of a Trump-supporting person is, but frankly I don’t get it. And I’m not sympathetic towards it.And yet I feel: How do I help those people understand that they are killing us? Because I believe that.And I do believe my marriage hangs in the balance because of a fifth vote on the Supreme Court could eradicate all the advances we’ve made. The idea that hate crimes are on the rise in this country is unconscionable to me.It’s unforgivable to me.But what is the most effective means of turning that around?I don’t know. I don’t have the answer to that.
KS:Do you still think of yourself as an activist?
TK:Yes.Although I’m older now.
KS:You’re chicken to me.
TK:Thank you.But I have my husband and my marriage now and sometimes that takes up the time I’d spend in activist pursuits.Like the climate change march a few weeks ago.I just couldn’t make the time for that and that was hard because I still feel like there is nothing like taking to the streets. But part of my biggest fear right now is how “siloed” information is.I do think there is a part of this population that will just never walk away from their racism and xenophobia and homophobia and misogyny and transphobia. That terrifies me.But I still believe that maybe 10 to 15% of those people are just being fed messages on Fox News so are actually believing what they are hearing is news and how do we get to them?Because that is where change can happen and has to happen.Because a lot of people really are good at heart.But how do we reach them?
KS:After Trump is out of office, hire director David Cromer and do a production of The Diary of Anne Frank
TK: That’s a good idea.I literally keep a copy of that play next to my bed.
KS:When you won the Robert Whitehead Award for your career as a producer the words that were used to describe you were passionate, smart, considerate, persistent, professional, and kind.If you had to choose one of those words to be part of your personal arsenal not just your professional one, what would you choose.
TK: Can I cheat?I’m an alcoholic so can I have two?Passionate and kind.
KS. The older you get the most important thing in the world becomes kindness.
TK:I do believe that, too
KS:Just one simple unexpected act of kindness can be …
TK: … revolutionary.
KS:Especially in this vulgar age during the Trump Interregnum.
TK: Yet I tell people all the time, don’t mistake kindness for weakness.I value kindness.