There Will Always Be More “Angels”

I never had the same joy as an actor after that. No production is. Eustis would go on to become artistic director of the Public Theater, producing shows like Hamilton and Fun Home. In Los Angeles, at the Mark Taper Forum, a difficult rehearsal process nonetheless produced a bigger staging that “sealed your sense that this was the play of its age,” according to San Francisco theater critic Robert Hurwitt. And yet, for all the production’s distinctiveness — for the electric field of feeling that seems to follow the performers; for the eerie, neon buzz of the design; for the sheer legibility of the script across the decades — it’s hardly the last word on Angels in America. Directed by Declan Donnellan, this production unfolded on a mostly empty stage dominated by a huge American flag on the back wall. “There were a lot of hard phone calls,” says Kushner, “but nothing compared to talking to Oskar about the fact that he wasn’t going to go with it. (Cries.) It touched me very deeply.” Carolyn Swift, from the national tour, recalls,
It kind of ruined me in a sense. Wolfe, the New York production was far more elaborate than any that had preceded it; stagehands called it “the Money Store” because of all the overtime they earned. I lost my taste for doing these plays that I didn’t feel were important, that I didn’t feel as much for. Profiling a multitude of Angels productions — not just the original Broadway staging, but others that came both before and after — The World Only Spins Forward makes the case that Angels, like all truly great pieces of theater, transcends any individual production that might lay definitive claim to the play. This new staging, more than any I’ve ever seen, matches the ambition and heart of Kushner’s text. Directed by George C. As Frank Rich says in The World Only Spins Forward, “It’s one of the very, very few successful film adaptations of a major American play. (His many hits include Wicked and The Humans.) Stars like F. When it was over and I went back to auditioning, I knew that it would never be the same for me. The World Only Spins Forward refuses to partake in such theatrical rubbernecking. That, at least, is the unspoken message of The World Only Spins Forward, a new oral history of Angels, written by Isaac Butler and Dan Kois, who conducted, edited, and arranged the 250 interviews that constitute the guts of this propulsive, moving account. The production, starring Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane, is as close to a perfect representation of the AIDS-era masterwork as any theatergoer could hope to see: the play’s alternately intimate and epic impulses are here happily aligned, and under Marianne Elliott’s direction, the two-part play more than lives up to its extravagant subtitle, “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” Twenty-five years have passed since Angels first came to Broadway, and though the play remains politically relevant today, such relevance registers as beside the point: its themes now feel not so much “national” as borderless. Roughly half of The World Only Spins Forward is devoted to versions of Angels that followed in the wake of its Broadway debut. No matter the artistic context, the play thrived. We learn not just about the national tour, but about an opera treatment, a controversial student production, auteur-driven productions from Ivo van Hove and David Cromer, and London’s 2017 National Theatre production (the production now playing on Broadway). Again, the book here emphasizes the play’s pluralism, and demonstrates how Angels was propelled forward by the labor of all the actors who worked on it, not just the ones who opened the show on Broadway. Reviewing the show in the Bay Area Reporter, Deborah Peifer wrote, “To call this a brilliantly realized, profoundly funny, wickedly thoughtful piece of theater is to discover the severe limitations of language. Maybe one of three: Kazan’s Streetcar, and Nichols’s Virginia Woolf.”
The effect of reading about this interpretation, and the others brought to life in this book, is to make Angels appear all the more impressive and timeless an artistic achievement. Angels was such a monumental experience that it made other projects feel insubstantial in comparison. Kushner has created an original theatrical world of his own, poetic and churning, that, once entered by an open-minded viewer of any political or sexual persuasion, simply cannot be escaped.”
Other pre-Broadway productions also demonstrated the play’s multiplicity, its capacity to thrive under vastly different budgets and directorial visions. “Very few people have that chance, being involved in something that is truly grand and important,” says Michael Ornstein. Legitimate quibbles can be made about the film — in literalizing the play, some of its imaginative magic is lost — but Kushner’s vision still comes through with force and clarity. With a work as great as Angels, there are no lost opportunities. At the tiny Eureka Theatre, where Part One made its world premiere in 1991, director David Esbjornson staged the expansive play using the humblest of materials: a shower curtain, bungee cords, sawdust. In this way, though the book’s focus is on the past, it ultimately points to the future: even if you don’t get to see a production as wonderful as the current Broadway revival, you still haven’t missed out. To increase the play’s tension, Donnellan overlapped the beginning and ends of scenes. It’s not conquerable. More Angels. “It’s never been defined by a single production, and I don’t think it can be […] It’s like The Cherry Orchard. Most painfully, Kushner opted not to bring Oskar Eustis, a close friend who had commissioned the play and co-directed the Los Angeles iteration, to Broadway. Wolfe, who’d had a recent success with Jelly’s Last Jam on Broadway, because he felt Wolfe could bring the right kind of razzle-dazzle sensibility to the project. MAY 21, 2018
THE FIRST-EVER Broadway revival of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America recently opened at the Neil Simon Theatre in New York City. Frank Rich of The New York Times wrote, “Mr. Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Mary-Louise Parker, and the film’s other stars are excellent. Joe Mantello, who starred in Angels on Broadway, is now one of the best and most prolific directors in New York. This is true of the later productions as well. It’s a play that can work whether it stars an Oscar winner or a high school student; whether it has a Broadway-sized budget or no money at all; whether it enjoys a Hollywood special effects team or little more than a shower curtain, a bungee cord, and a pile of sawdust. It could hardly be better. Having worked on such a singular piece of theater, it became harder for the play’s alums to go back to more earthbound productions, whose shortcomings were rendered all the more apparent in the wake of Angels in America’s achievements. “Here’s what I think might be the thing about Angels in America,” says director David Cromer. Readers who know Angels will appreciate the effect of this overflow more than those who don’t, but even the uninitiated are sure to be moved by the play’s impact on the world. ¤
Still, Angels launched far more careers than it ended. “It was in some ways the most beautiful version of the play,” says actress Kathleen Chalfant, “and the most Poor Theater version of the play.” There was something deeply moving and oddly funny about the production’s handmade ethos. Robert Altman was Kushner’s first choice to direct, but budgetary problems and creative differences ultimately brought the project to HBO and Mike Nichols, whose theater background made him an ideal candidate for the gig. “I stopped acting after Angels in America,” says David Marshall Grant. One leaves the narrative hungry not for productions past, but for productions yet to come. And yet, though many of the actors who appeared in the Broadway premiere — among them Stephen Spinella, Joe Mantello, and Marcia Gay Harden — gave performances that are now legendary, The World Only Spins Forward situates these actors among a vast ensemble of other performers who also worked on the play as it grew. He is an MFA candidate at Columbia University’s nonfiction writing program. “There were eleven thousand workshops,” one of the play’s early stars tells Butler and Kois. Audiences were ravenous for the play, and on the power of this enthusiasm, Angels quickly moved up the theatrical food chain. I saw the whole production — all seven-and-a-half hours of it — over the course of a single Saturday, and left the theater freshly awed by the play’s endless appetite for life in all its wonderful and terrifying variety. It was like having a brilliant lover, and after that lover goes, you just know. I found myself wanting to say, simply, it’s more than I ever imagined.”
A swift, spare staging of Part One subsequently opened in 1992 at London’s Royal National Theatre. Naturally, many of the actors who didn’t follow the show to New York had strong, complicated feelings about the whole matter, and The World Only Spins Forward makes quite a bit of hay from this unavoidable fact. Murray Abraham, Cherry Jones, and Debra Messing all appeared in the play, whether in development or on Broadway. “This was a masterpiece.”
The complete, two-part play finally opened on Broadway in May and November 1993, respectively. ¤
Kushner’s play first appeared before the public in April 1989, in a staged reading produced by the Eureka Theatre Company in San Francisco. Indeed, to read The World Only Spins Forward is to marvel at how many theater artists currently working in the United States began their careers, in some way or another, on those early productions. This sentiment is also shared by those actors who did ride Angels to Broadway. Indeed, one of the book’s most interesting chapters bears the subtitle “Getting Fired From Angels in America.” Kathleen Chalfant, one of the performers who did make it to New York, says, “There was, in one way or another, quite a lot of blood on the sand, as there always is in a long development process.” Many actors who worked on the show were terrified of being replaced. It’s a mountain you can never totally climb.” It is this idea, as manifest in Butler and Kois’s kaleidoscopic and fabulously entertaining book, that firmly turns the book’s attention to the future. Conversations about a film adaptation began as early as 1991, before Angels had even made it to Broadway. I thought about how the gods took the life of the runner of Marathon, because they knew he would never feel that way again, after he ran to announce the victory of the battle. This was only one of countless developmental steps on Angels in America’s long road to Broadway. Critics loved it. “It was well developed.”
More than any piece of theater that preceded it, Angels both reflected and transcended contemporary concerns like AIDS, Reaganism, and gay rights. So many books about the theater derive their power from the sentimental idea that the best productions and performances remain in the past, beyond the reach of the present-day reader. I felt like it touched me — I’m getting emotional, I’m sorry. And yet, for some of the fired artists, their experience working on those early versions of Angels counted as extraordinary and life-changing. The book also traces the play’s winding journey to the small screen. In illustrating this fact, The World Only Spins Forward makes Angels seem like an endlessly productive volcano, one that spits out productions of all shapes and sizes, each scorching with the desire for “more life,” a blessing the play’s hero gives the audience in the Epilogue for Part Two. A host of theaters presented early versions of the play while Kushner was still writing and revising it; to read about these separate interpretations, some of which featured different creative teams and casts, is to marvel at the sturdiness of Angels. There’s very few things I’ve ever had to do that were harder.” Kushner gave the job to George C. And I kind of began plotting my departure from the theater after that. “I didn’t think there was anywhere else to go. More life, the book seems to exclaim. ¤
Harrison Hill’s writing has appeared in The Threepenny Review and American Theatre Magazine. At the Juilliard School, Michael Stuhlbarg (Call Me by Your Name), Elizabeth Marvel (Homeland), and other students showed that the play could work in the hands of young actors. Jeff King, who played one of the lead roles early on, says, “It felt like my neck was stretched over a stump and I was waiting for someone to chop my head off.” The axe fell, and King was cut. Here, too, the response was rapturous.