In June 2019 Hadestown, produced by Tom Kirdahy ’88, took home eight Tony awards, including Best Musical, and this year the show added to its honors a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album. Kirdahy’s award for Hadestown was his first Tony award, but it was far from his first theatrical success. In the past decade, Kirdahy has produced more than a dozen shows including Little Shop of Horrors (currently running off-Broadway), Terrence McNally’s Frankie & Johnny in the Clair de Lune (starring Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon), Anastasia, It’s Only a Play, The Visit (which received five Tony nominations), Mothers and Sons, White Rabbit Red Rabbit, The Jungle, Head Over Heels, and Ragtime, among others. Most recently, last fall Kirdahy brought The Inheritance to Broadway, after a successful, Olivier award-winning run in London’s West End.
With a list of credits like those, one could easily assume that Kirdahy had spent his whole career in theater. But prior to his work as a producer—which has spanned Broadway, off-Broadway, the West End, and national and international tours—Kirdahy worked for nearly two decades as an advocate for the LGBTQ community and people living with HIV.
Kirdahy’s advocacy began when he was an undergraduate at NYU. He worked with a coalition of students seeking to enact change throughout the University on a variety of issues, including a successful campaign for the placement of free condoms in dormitories and both men’s and women’s bathrooms on campus to help curb the spread of HIV. As a law student, Kirdahy worked alongside Tom Hickey ’88—and with the support of then-dean Norman Redlich LLM ’55—to convince the University to expand the types of employers restricted from recruiting because of their discriminatory practices on the basis of sexual orientation.
Though Kirdahy remembers the 1980s as a challenging time for gay men in New York City, he says that the community he found as an undergraduate and a law student at NYU bolstered his spirit and trained him for the fights to come. “We had a faculty and administration that supported our activist spirit and took our passions and our beliefs very seriously,” Kirdahy says. “And being surrounded by the best and the brightest was galvanizing. It was exhilarating. At any given moment, in any given lecture hall or classroom, there would be lively debates about social issues that we're still grappling with today.… The Law School was an environment that stoked the flames of my passion.”
Following law school, Kirdahy spent nearly 20 years providing free legal services to people living with HIV/AIDS, working at Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), Nassau Suffolk Law Services, and Bronx AIDS Services. Kirdahy recalls spending nearly every day in either housing court or family court. “I learned to run very fast, [responding] to orders to show cause to stop evictions, doing bedside last wills and testaments, and doing healthcare proxies for people who desperately wanted to maintain control of their lives and dignity,” Kirdahy says. “The accumulation of those experiences informs everything I do today.”
In 2001, serving as co-chair of East End Gay Organization, Kirdahy helped produce a panel on “Theater from a Gay Perspective.” The event featured the man who would become Kirdahy’s husband, the playwright Terrence McNally. “He claims it was love at first sight. I was wildly charmed, but falling in love was not on my mind. I just wanted to get through the panel,” Kirdahy jokes. But as he and McNally started spending time together, Kirdahy—who had studied both politics and dramatic literature as an NYU undergraduate—reconnected with his early passion for the theater.
“I started spending more time around theater professionals and very quickly got invited into rooms where works were being created. It seemed I had a natural aptitude for dramaturgy, and for speaking with artists, spending time with them, and helping them realize their vision,” Kirdahy says. “There wasn’t one day where I woke up and said, ‘I’m going to become a producer.’ It happened very naturally over time. But I did ultimately say, if I’m going to do this well, I have to commit to it.”
For Rachel Chavkin, the director of Hadestown, Kirdahy’s reputation as a beloved member of the Broadway community preceded him before he joined the Hadestown team—but it was through working with him on the production that she learned about his advocacy and social justice work, “and how that has infused so much of his work and presence in the art world.”
When Kirdahy received the 2019 Robert Whitehead Award from the Commercial Theater Institute, Chavkin introduced him: “Tom’s reverence for humanity made him mad on behalf of communities that were so much larger than himself, and that fused with his love and his wit to make him a joyful and passionate warrior for making the world better…. He brings that innate knowledge—that none of us stand alone, that all of our fates are intrinsically tied to each other’s—to his work as a producer”
Kirdahy calls The Inheritance, which opened in November, “arguably the natural extension of all my life’s work.” Inspired by E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End, the play examines the legacy of the AIDS crisis, and looks at the relationship between generations. Kirdahy recalls that when he first read the play, he was especially moved by a monologue spoken by a character who goes to the Stonewall in when he arrives in New York in 1981—the same year that Kirdahy first arrived in the city. “When I read that monologue, I thought that the playwright, Matthew Lopez, was speaking directly to me,” he says.
“For years, when I worked at GMHC, every Monday we got a list of people who had died the week prior,” Kirdahy says. “And that’s the way we started our week. It was an enormously painful time. When I speak with people in their 20s, I don’t think they can really wrap their brains around just how difficult a time it was. The Inheritance theatricalizes that reality in a way that is profound. I stand in the back of the theater every night watching the play and thinking, I am just filled with gratitude for Matthew Lopez and our director Steven Daldry for giving life to a generation whose lives were cut short.”
Posted January 29, 2020; Updated, September 9, 2020: In March 2020, Terrence McNally passed away due to complications from a COVID-19 infection.