Frankie, Johnny and Terrence McNally: Audra McDonald on the classic romance

As told to Chris Wiegand
Photograph: WENN Rights Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

There is a musicality to all three of the Terrence McNally shows I did on Broadway: Master Class concerns the great diva Maria Callas; Ragtime, of course, is about a style of music; and in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, each of the characters is moved, without really understanding why, by the Debussy piece that changes the temperature of the room.

Audra McDonald in Master Class. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

Terrence wrote Frankie and Johnny just after getting sober and as he was turning 50. He was told he had basically eaten his last cookie: that he was never going to have a relationship again. He thought that life was over for him but then out of that came this incredibly hopeful play about love after there is no hope of love. Even though you see the pair of them in this raw, sexual act, completely nude at the beginning of the show, they are really at their most closed off.

The play follows the journey that Frankie and Johnny take to becoming vulnerable with each other. Frankie is a wonderful character. She is so closed off and damaged, she has PTSD as a victim of domestic violence, and she protects herself with her sense of humour and by remaining alone. Then Johnny comes in and blows that to smithereens. Frankie’s struggle is one of opening up, then shutting down and being frightened about it, then finally giving up all resistance.

Terrence was not only a colleague and a collaborator but a mentor and a very dear friend, someone I leaned on. So this is a hard loss for me. He was the kindest man, wickedly funny, and still so jovial and innocent and wide-eyed about what we do for a living, the magic of theatre and of actors and writers. For someone who had been in the theatre for as long as he had, he was never jaded.