Oral history of Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America.

Aymann Ismail

Aymann Ismail

160627_ARTS_Angels-00-Angel
Bethesda angel sculpture in Central Park, New York.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo via Creative Commons.

I

How Angels in America Became the Defining Work of American Art of the Past 25 Years

I

How Angels in America Became the Defining Work of American Art of the Past 25 Years

Read this first.
June 28 2016 9:01 PM

Angels in America: The Complete Oral History

How Tony Kushner’s play became the defining work of American art of the past 25 years.

Twenty-five years ago this summer, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America premiered in the tiny Eureka Theatre in San Francisco’s Mission District. Within two years it had won the Pulitzer Prize and begun a New York run that would dominate the Tony Awards two years in a row, revitalize the nonmusical play on Broadway, and change the way gay lives were represented in pop culture. Both parts of Angels, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, put gay men at the center of American politics, history, and mythology at a time when they were marginalized by the culture at large and dying in waves. It launched the careers of remarkable actors and directors, not to mention the fiercely ambitious firebrand from Louisiana who wrote it—and rewrote it, and rewrote it, and rewrote it again. Its 2003 HBO adaptation was itself a masterpiece that won more Emmys than Roots. But the play also financially wiped out the theater that premiered it; it endured casting and production tumult at every stage of development, from Los Angeles to London to Broadway; its ambitious, sprawling two-part structure tested the endurance of players, technicians, and audiences. Slate talked to more than 50 actors, directors, playwrights, and critics to tell the story of Angels’ turbulent ascension into the pantheon of great American storytelling—and to discuss the legacy of a play that feels, in an era in which gay Americans have the right to marry but still in many ways live under siege, as crucial as ever.

Tony Kushner (playwright of Angels in America): Around November of 1985, the first person that I knew personally died of AIDS. A dancer that I had a huge crush on, a very sweet man and very beautiful. I got an NEA directing fellowship at the repertory theater in St. Louis, and right before I left New York, I heard through the grapevine that he had gotten sick. And then, in November, he died.

Advertisement

And I had this dream: Bill dying—I don’t know if he was actually dying, but he was in his pajamas and sick on his bed—and the ceiling collapsed and this angel comes into the room. And then I wrote a poem. I’m not a poet, but I wrote this thing. It was many pages long. After I finished it, I put it away. No one will ever see it.

Its title was “Angels in America.”

160624_ARTS_Angels-Ch-01-Kushner
1 The Origins of Angels, 1981–86

Angels in America was the work of a young graduate of the NYU directing program who had gravitated toward writing in the final year of his studies—and a politically progressive San Francisco theater company looking for a play about the epidemic sweeping its community.

Stephen Spinella (Prior in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York): I guess we met the fall of 1981, I wanna say? We were both students at NYU’s graduate program. We had an argument about the New York Review of Books versus the Village Voice. He was on the side of the Village Voice.

Advertisement

Mark Bronnenberg (Kushner’s lover, 1982–86): He was directing a play I acted in called Age of Assassins. It was a wonderful play about Emma Goldman and these five anarchist assassinations. The Italian premier. Archduke Ferdinand.

Stephen Spinella: I had to kill the empress of Austria.

Mark Bronnenberg: We moved in together in Brooklyn like six months later, something like that. We were on Clinton Street down near Luquer.

Stephen Spinella: We formed a ragtag theater company with a number of other people. Three of them were people he met at the U.N. Plaza Hotel, where he used to work in the switchboard office. All of us were pulled pretty much into his vortex.

Advertisement

Mark Bronnenberg: They did a show called La Fin de la Baleine, The End of the Whale.

Stephen Spinella: “A poem for the end of the apocalypse.” There was a whale ballet in which a choreographer danced en pointe with a sousaphone.

Joyce Ketay (Kushner’s theatrical agent): Tony had at that time a musical called Heavenly Theatre and a play called A Bright Room Called Day. I told him that I don’t know how to read musicals, so the play was really what affected me. All the other agents told him, “Oh, I love the musical,” and no one mentioned the play. So that’s how I got him.

Tony Kushner: We rented a theater on 22nd Street, one floor below a Korean S&M bordello, “At the King’s Pleasure.”

Advertisement

Stephen Spinella: It sat 28 people. And that thing was packed out every night. This beautiful redheaded dancer with a little moustache would come in and quote some Hitler. We would dance around in pig masks singing songs called “Eat the Rich.”

Mark Bronnenberg: I can remember how disappointed Tony was. They couldn’t even get the Village Voice’s critic to come see his work.

Oskar Eustis (dramaturg, Eureka Theatre, 1981–88; artistic director, 1988–89; co-director of the Los Angeles production): It was the spring of 1985. We were supposed to see a show at the Public, and we’d missed the curtain. There was no late seating. But we could make it up to this little room in Chelsea and see A Bright Room Called Day because that was an 8:30 curtain.

Tony Kushner: And the set fell down, and—

Advertisement

Oskar Eustis: At that point the first act ended with the singing of “The Internationale.”

Tony Kushner: —somebody in the audience started singing along and knew all the words.

Oskar Eustis: I sang along with it! It was a eureka moment. I just knew I was in the presence of a major artist, and one that had the same concerns I have.

Tony Kushner: Oskar called me the next day and said, “I want to have a reading of A Bright Room Called Day in San Francisco.”

Oskar Eustis: In what should’ve been a clue as to the future of our relationship, it took five months for Tony to send me the script.

Tony Kushner: Oskar was kind of already something of a legendary figure in theater. The Eureka had interested me, because it was kind of a progressive, serious left theater in San Francisco.

Oskar Eustis: I flew Tony out to meet the company and talk about Bright Room. I was innocent enough to think what a gay writer wanted to do as soon as I picked him up was go to Candlestick Park and watch a Giants game. He was very polite about it.

Tony Taccone (artistic director, Eureka Theatre, 1980–88; co-director of the Los Angeles production): We were just—who is this kid? We produced Bright Room Called Day. Oskar directed the show. Spinella was in it. It was a seminal event for us. It featured our company, we were introducing a writer into the field. We were saying we believe in this guy.

Tony Kushner: Oskar asked me, after that had opened and closed, if I would do a play on commission. I wanted to call it Angels in America.

Oskar Eustis: I thought that was great.

Tony Kushner: My titles usually suck. I’m sure he was, like, thrilled.

Andy Holtz (business manager, Eureka Theatre, 1987–89): Tony Taccone and Oskar were aware that Larry Kramer had written a very political play about the AIDS crisis called The Normal Heart. Here we are, the political theater founded in the epicenter of this epidemic, we have to do this play! And the rights went to Berkeley Rep. And Tony and Oskar were so angry they said, “We’re gonna write our own AIDS play!”

Tony Kushner: A Bright Room Called Day was three hours long, and Oskar felt very strongly that it would be better if it had been shorter. The contract of the Eureka offer stipulated that the new play could not be longer than two hours. And I wanted songs in it, so I made them include that it would have songs. So it was gonna be a two-hour play, with songs. The NEA offered this $50,000 grant, and $40,000 would go to production, and $10,000 went to the playwright. That was more money than I’d ever made for anything. We had to submit a description of the play, and I said, “It’s gonna have five gay men and an angel.”

Oskar Eustis: We knew it had to have parts for the core actors in the Eureka. We had four actors, three of them were women, so it had to have parts for three women. Tony complained for a long time, What is this play about gay men doing with these women?

Tony Kushner: Anyway, then we got the grant, and I got a check for, I think, $3,000 or $5,000—this really impressive check, and it had the seal of the people of the United States on it, and it was a big moment for me. I was really moved by it. The federal government’s commissioning me to write a play. So I should really—you’ve got people of the WPA, and James Agee, and all these people that had done things on federal paychecks. And I’m a patriot, and it just meant a lot to me. So I think that’s sort of where it started.

160624_ARTS_Angels-Ch-02-Cohn
2 Interlude: On AIDS, Roy Cohn, and Mormons

In two parts and seven hours, Angels in America tells the story of an array of characters in New York City in 1985 and 1986. At its center is a young man named Prior Walter, who in an early scene reveals to his lover, Louis Ironson, that he has AIDS. An overwhelmed Louis abandons Prior and falls for Joe Pitt, a closeted clerk at the federal courthouse where he works. Joe, a Mormon, struggles with his relationships with Louis; with his anxious, pill-popping wife, Harper; and with Roy Cohn, the power broker who wants Joe to move to Washington to be his eyes and ears in the Reagan administration. Cohn is also in the closet and battling AIDS; his nurse, Belize, is close friends with Prior. Watching over all these tangled relationships is the Angel, who has a message for humanity and who chooses Prior as the prophet who will deliver it.

This sprawling epic began, however, with Tony’s pitch to Oskar Eustis and Tony Taccone at the Eureka Theatre: a play about AIDS, Roy Cohn, and Mormons.

Oskar Eustis: This was 1986, in the heart of San Francisco. We knew it had to be responsive to the AIDS crisis.

Dennis Harvey (San Francisco theater critic): So much of the area felt absolutely consumed by the epidemic.

Anne Darragh (Harper in San Francisco): AIDS was so horrible, it was so horrible, it was a lethal diagnosis. You went from lesions to death and people were afraid to sit on toilet seats, and people with AIDS were so vilified.

Frank Rich (chief theater critic, the New York Times, 1980–93): If you were on the theater beat, you had to notice that young men, featured actors, no one super famous yet, were dying. The theater caught up with it relatively fast, at least by the standards of American pop culture. There were some early plays, William Hoffman’s As Is and Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart.

AIDS / San Francisco
Marchers at a San Francisco parade honoring Harvey Milk, May 3, 1983.

Bettmann/Getty Images

Joe Mantello (Louis in Los Angeles and New York): The Normal Heart was instrumental in propelling me to become a volunteer at Gay Men’s Health Crisis. I remember going to a hospital with a man who I was working with. It was at the time when the food service people were not required to come into the room. They could leave the trays outside the door. They were covered like astronauts.

Jeffrey Wright (Belize in New York and in the HBO miniseries): That visit to Prior’s hospital bed was something I had experience of, as everyone had.

Stephen Spinella: I wasn’t a core member of ACT UP, but I was on the issues committee and knew all those people. So I started to get a really more politicized view of AIDS issues. Then I found out one of my good friends, a teacher at NYU, Paul Walker, was sick.

Jeffrey Wright: The first director who hired me at Arena Stage in D.C., Hal Scott; my favorite teacher at NYU, Paul Walker; these people were so important to me in my early days, and they all died of AIDS.

F. Murray Abraham (replacement for Roy Cohn in New York): When I did The Ritz, that was a big cast. Eighty percent of that cast died of AIDS.

Mark Bronnenberg: I remember when Tony read me the first scene in Act 2 where Prior really breaks down physically, where Louis comes to the conclusion that he can’t deal with it, that he’s going to abandon Prior. Prior shits his pants and has blood all over him. Tony said, “I don’t want this to just be about AIDS. I want people to see AIDS.”

Oskar Eustis: Tony knew he wanted to write about Roy Cohn. He made specific reference to an obituary that Robert Sherrill had written in the Nation. It’s a particularly nasty piece of homophobic leftism.

Cohn was rumored to have humped, or been humped by, … his dirt-supplying pal J. Edgar Hoover. … To his death he denied that he was homosexual, but the Dorian Gray scene of his dying of AIDS said it all.
—Robert Sherrill, the Nation, May 21, 1988

Oskar Eustis: While we were working on the play, the AIDS Quilt had its first public display at the Moscone Center. We came across a panel that said, “Roy Cohn: Bully, Coward, Victim.” Tony looked at it and said, “If I can write something half as dialectical as that, it’ll be a great character.”

160624_ARTS_Angels-Ch-02-Quilt
Memorial AIDS Quilt square in tribute to Roy Cohn.

Marc Geller

F. Murray Abraham: I was on a plane, and this man next to me said he had a case against Roy once. And he said, “He was a son of a bitch, but I couldn’t take my eyes off him.”

Wesley Morris (critic at large, the New York Times): It would’ve been so easy to make a play about Roy Cohn, maybe even him having AIDS. But for a gay Jewish man to completely reappropriate Roy Cohn’s story, wrestling with the legacies of shame and hypocrisy among his own people, on his own terms, that was really new.

Mark Bronnenberg: I knew it was about Roy Cohn. I knew it was about AIDS. I knew it was about the Reagan era, but I couldn’t quite grasp where the Mormons fit in. I’m not sure he did either.

Tony Kushner: I think if you have a title Angels in America, you’re gonna start to think about American angels, and there really is only one native American angel. I took the F train into Manhattan daily to go to school. And the summer before I left to go to St. Louis, these incredibly adorable Mormon missionaries showed up at the entrance of the subway station, with their little white shirts and their little ties, and their “Elder this” and “Elder that.” I, of course, always loved stopping and talking to them, ’cause I’d actually read this stuff. One of them, especially, was just— I couldn’t wait to get to the subway station.

Frank Rich: It’s a history play, in the sense that it transcends what AIDS means in our culture now, or what it meant when the epidemic first hit, but it puts it in the context of America in general, not just the Cold War. Not just even in terms of Roy Cohn and certain kind of overlaps with the McCarthy era. But also the Mormon church, the most American creation among religions. And the sense of the sweep of the country over roughly a century, going back to immigration in the 19th century. It’s all there.

160624_ARTS_Angels-Ch-03-SF
3 The First Workshops, 1989–90

Angels was advertised as the final show of the 1988–89 Eureka season. That didn’t happen. Soon Oskar Eustis had taken a position at the Mark Taper Forum, and he took the development process of Angels to Los Angeles with him. The Taper, Too staged a workshop of Millennium in May 1990.

Andy Holtz: We got the grant and figured, Wow, I guess we better write the play then.

Oskar Eustis: Tony has patience. And patience is of course a synonym for blown deadlines.

Mark Bronnenberg: I think he worries about finishing a paragraph. A page. An act of it. But the thing is that he doesn’t give up.

Andy Holtz: The clock ticked and we did our first and second productions and it was getting to be later winter or early spring, and no one had seen any pages of this play, and rehearsal was supposed to start April of ’89. And we had sold subscriptions based on this world premiere.

Tony Kushner: Oskar decided he’d had enough of waiting for the play, so he summoned me over to read what I had.

Lorri Holt (company member, Eureka Theatre; Harper in early workshops): I think the very first time we read a draft of Millennium at the theater, afterwards it was like, Oh my god, this is something—this is going to be amazing.

Sigrid Wurschmidt.
Sigrid Wurschmidt.

Richard Seyd

Tony Kushner: There’s an actress named Sigrid Wurschmidt, and the second act of the play was dedicated to her. She was diagnosed with breast cancer right when I was starting to work on the play. Sigrid played the Angel. Ellen McLaughlin was her best friend, so Ellen read Prior.

Lorri Holt: I poked my head out of the office and the first draft had come out of our laser printer and it looked like a phone book.

Tony Kushner: I really had gotten into trouble, I knew, because my outline said that the Angel was gonna come through the ceiling before intermission, and I had written 120 pages, which is two hours—a minute per page. And I wasn’t—she hadn’t come through the ceiling yet.

Oskar Eustis: He came to me and said, “Oskar, I can’t get these people to change fast enough!”

Tony Kushner: Sigrid told me to walk with her. She said, “Well, what happens next?” I told her what I knew of the plot, and she said, “Have you written any of it?” And I showed her, in my notebook, when we got to her house, this thing that I had written just sitting in the park that turned into Harper’s monologue on the flight to San Francisco at the end.

HARPER: Souls were rising, from the earth far below, souls of the dead, of people who had perished, from famine, from war, from the plague, and they floated up, like skydivers in reverse, limbs all akimbo, wheeling and spinning. And the souls of these departed joined hands, clasped ankles, and formed a web, a great net of souls, and the souls were three-atom oxygen molecules, of the stuff of ozone, and the outer rim absorbed them, and was repaired.
Perestroika, Act 5, Scene 10

Tony Kushner: And she read it, and she cried a little, and she said, “This is gonna have to be in the play.” And I said, “I know, but what am I gonna cut?” And she said, “Why don’t you make it two plays?”

Oskar Eustis: I had no idea it was Sigrid’s idea to make it two plays! Either I’ve repressed that or Tony’s blaming a dead girl.

Andy Holtz: We all gathered, the management of the theater and the actors, and Oskar said, “I think this is a really significant piece, but we don’t have the resources to mount this in six weeks.” We substituted the season-closing play with something else.

Jeff King (company member, Eureka Theatre; Joe in Los Angeles): Then we did a reading of Millennium after a weeklong rehearsal process in some weird former military installation in the Marin Headlands. It was a reading, nothing was staged, but it took five hours. Then we had an audience talk back afterwards, and there was a guy who said, “It’s not a play, it’s a novel, it’s too long!”

Andy Holtz: The fact that we couldn’t do that play when we had promised it really affected subscription sales for the following season. Tony Taccone left, Oskar hung around for a season and then he left.

Tony Taccone: I left for Berkeley Rep, which at that point was like the bourgeois house on the hill. I know Oskar was disappointed. Within a year, he was at the Taper.

Tony Kushner: Oskar was headhunted away by Gordon Davidson and brought down to L.A. to work at the Taper, which was a very big—the largest—regional theater in the United States at that point. Gordon Davidson was like Joe Papp.

Oskar Eustis: I left my theater in effect to protect Angels, because the Eureka didn’t have the resources to develop it. I could either throw my hat into the ring with Angels, or I could stay in San Francisco and keep the Eureka going, and I chose Angels.

Tony Kushner: Suddenly, Gordon Davidson had read my play and was calling me up. I mean, things started happening.

Kathleen Chalfant (Hannah in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York): We did all the developmental work at the Taper starting in 1989.

Oskar Eustis: Sigrid remained through that first reading we did of Millennium at the Taper, Too. It was one of the grimmest nights. The cancer had returned; it was affecting her eyesight.

Tony Kushner: She had these huge, really thick spectacles, and we had to blow up every page of her script to these giant pages, because she couldn’t really see anymore. That’s why the angel in the play calls herself the bald eagle—I was hoping that Sigrid would make it, and I said, “Look, she’s bald.”

Oskar Eustis: I was sitting in the far house right; I could see backstage. Sigrid was sitting with her head in her hands, she had completely missed her entrance. There was maybe 20 seconds of silence and then she put her head up, realized what was going on and ran onstage. And that was the last time she went on a stage.

Ellen McLaughlin (the Angel in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York): I took over for her when she was ailing at one of the workshops. It was a terrible thing to get a part that way.

Jon Matthews (Louis in the Taper, Too workshop): It was a fucking shitstorm of energy. It was clear that Tony felt that Oskar needed a different eye on it. We had 3½ weeks to put up a full production, the biggest production the Taper, Too had ever had, and there were huge rewrites. The hot dog scene between Joe and Louis, I think it was completely rewritten seven times.

Mark Bronnenberg: Tony called me and said, “Something really strange is happening, at the end, people are just going crazy. They’re cheering and applauding.”

160624_ARTS_Angels-Ch-04-Monolith
4 Interlude: “Democracy in America”

The centerpiece of Millennium Approaches’ third act is a remarkable argument between Louis, who has just left his sick lover, Prior, and Prior’s friend, the AIDS nurse Belize. The argument begins with pages and pages of Louis talking about democracy in America before Belize ruthlessly interrogates the guilt driving Louis’ monologue.

Tony Kushner: I got sort of stuck after I finished the second act. In Bright Room, all the characters had behaved and obeyed the outline that I had written. I didn’t know what to do next, and for the first time ever I asked one of the characters to explain to me what the play was about, and I picked Louis because he was sort of the most like me—

Jon Matthews: Louis is Tony if Tony is anybody.

Jason Isaacs (Louis in the second London production): Tony was clearly the model for Louis. The way he talks and his energy.

Joe Mantello: I wanted Louis to dress like Tony, vintage overcoat, hoodie, glasses, Converse high tops.

Tony Kushner: —at least demographically. And I sat down at the writing table on Clinton Street, and said to Louis, “What is this play about?” and then just started writing. And the first thing he said to me was, “Why is democracy succeeding in America?” Then I realized he was nervous, and he was talking to somebody, and then I realized it was Belize.

Angels in America, Diner Scene, London
Marcua D’Amico as Louis and Joseph Mydell as Belize in the National Theatre’s 1992 production of Millennium Approaches.

John Haynes/Lebrecht Music & Art

Christopher Shinn (playwright): I’d never seen anything like that ever on a stage. There was a real difference between those characters that wasn’t capable of being resolved through discourse.

Joe Mantello: In rehearsal, when we got up to that scene, people would leave the room. They’d take a little break. It’s incredibly boring to watch an actor work through it.

Jason Isaacs: All this tortured syntax and Dickensian back-looping—it’s just a man trying himself in knots and desperately attempting to put that wall up.

Tony Kushner: You don’t have scenes that are like that. He talks for four pages before Belize gets a word in.

Mary Klinger (stage manager, Los Angeles and New York): The democracy in America scene was a nice break, because they just talk for like 45 minutes. I’d say, “Oh thank god, I’m going to get some tea.”

Jason Isaacs: Of course that monologue is all about Belize. For 20 minutes I’m talking, but for 20 minutes you’re thinking—when is Belize going to say something to him?

Joseph Mydell (Belize in London): You have to know how to listen. You really do. And then when Belize finally starts talking, when he gives that speech, you have to go for the jugular. You have to just wipe. Him. Out.

Ben Shenkman (Louis in the HBO miniseries): Louis gets his ass kicked by Belize in the most satisfyingly theatrical way possible.

Jeffrey Wright: Belize really expresses his intellectual and moral clarity in that scene, respective to his place in the struggle and Louis’ place on the periphery of it.

George C. Wolfe (director of the New York production): Belize was as smart and had just as aggressive a degree of intellectual rigor as Louis did. That was very, very important to me, because I didn’t just want a black gay clown.

Jeffrey Wright: Belize’s place there is not comic relief, although he’s witty and all of that.

George C. Wolfe: Belize has read Democracy in America. He’s not bored because he’s stupid; he’s bored because Louis’ take on it is that it’s all legitimizing his own smallness.

Jeffrey Wright: It was kind of a cathartic moment for the audience because finally someone was calling out Louis on his shit. Once after the show there was this older Jewish woman who said to me, “That scene, a Jew and a black at a coffee table—that’s New York!”

160624_ARTS_Angels-Ch-05-Forward
5 Eureka Theatre Premiere, San Francisco, 1991

Despite Oskar Eustis’ departure, the Eureka managed to enforce its contract with Kushner, landing the world premiere production of Angels in America. Millennium Approaches opened on May 7, 1991, with staged readings of Perestroika beginning a few weeks later.

Debra Ballinger Bernstein (executive director, Eureka Theatre, 1989–92): Tony Taccone and Oskar were gone. Kushner didn’t have relationships left at the theater beyond the actors who were involved. So after the boys left, there wasn’t the same loyalty there.

Ellen McLaughlin: Sigrid was a great actor, person, and human being. When she died, the Eureka fell apart.

Tony Taccone: We tried to wrestle the rights from the Eureka. The Eureka, wisely, did not allow that to happen, and forced Tony’s hand, and forced him to let the theater do the first incarnation of Angels.

Joyce Ketay: The contract was with the Eureka Theatre, not with Oskar.

Tony Kushner: It turned into this very ugly struggle. I hadn’t written Perestroika yet, but to fulfill my contract, the Eureka insisted that we do a production of Angels.

Joyce Ketay: They didn’t have an artistic director; they had a board, which was mostly lawyers.

Elizabeth Zitrin (attorney, board member of the Eureka Theatre in the early 1990s): My fiduciary responsibility was to the Eureka Theatre Company. Oskar was my good friend, and I certainly cared about him. He said he thought it would be difficult for the Eureka to produce Angels, and he could take it to the Taper. I opposed that. I was not the only one.

Joyce Ketay: Oskar felt they should have let him take it. I understand them saying, “Hell no.”

Elizabeth Zitrin: There was no question but that it was the most important thing by far that the Eureka had going on.

David Esbjornson (director of the San Francisco production): I don’t think Tony and the Taper thought that was going to materialize. And then it became clear it was going to.

Tony Kushner: So David, who I went to graduate school with, came to the Eureka.

Debra Ballinger Bernstein: Spring was rolling around; we were in rehearsals. Tony hadn’t finished Perestroika. It was a nail-biter: Was it going to be done? Was it not going to be done?

Tony Kushner: During that rehearsal period, someone on the board gave me their spider-infested cabin on the Russian River, and I went away for 10 days—it was early April—and I sat down, and I started writing. And I wrote 700 pages of Perestroika in 10 days—three times as much as would ultimately be in it, all by hand. And it was literally like The Red Shoes—I could not stop writing. If I tried to go to sleep, I would wake up two minutes later and just go. And a lot of the best stuff that’s in the play now was in that first draft. I got in the car to drive back, even though I hadn’t slept in 11 days, and I was literally shaking from exhaustion. I didn’t have a computer—it was just a big stack of legal paper. And I thought, if I go off the cliff into the Pacific Ocean, no one will ever know what happened, so I have to be really careful.

David Esbjornson: It was like Moses coming down from the mountain! We went out that night to celebrate with champagne. I said, “Tomorrow we’ll read Perestroika.” So we started at 10, and 6:30 came and went and we were still reading it.

Tony Kushner: In this 700-page, really long version, there was a lot of shit. I mean, something with a homeless kid. ... A chauffeur? One of the reasons that I could write for 10 days without stopping is I was just, “Nobody ever has to know what I’ve done here.”

David Esbjornson: I did finally just go, Oh, shit. There was no money. It’s not like you can just throw bodies and cash at it, you just have to do it.

Robert Hurwitt (theater critic in San Francisco): As with any theater community, there were people who were saying “Oh my god, they are going to fall flat on their face.” This thing has gotten blown all out of proportion and the second part isn’t even ready yet!

Dennis Harvey: Even by the time it opened, people were anticipating the great new thing of American theater.

Mark Bronnenberg: I came to opening night. And I saw them have that reaction, just: This Is Completely Amazing and Overwhelming. The audience just went crazy.

Kathleen Chalfant: It was in some ways the most beautiful version of the play, and the most poor-theater version of the play.

Ellen McLaughlin: We had a curtain that went across. We had some stuff on wheels. That was it.

Dennis Harvey: For scene transitions they would just whip the shower curtain across, one actor at the front and one at the back, and when they got to the other side, it would be a new scene.

Deborah Peifer (theater critic in San Francisco): When the angel comes! And crashes through the ceiling! How funny is that! It’s an angel, you’d think they could just float through somehow. But of course she doesn’t, she crashes through the ceiling, and it’s hysterically funny but profound in many ways. That’s how change will come, not slipping through.

Tony Kushner: To this day, no one has ever done better with the magic. David is incredibly clever designing and building gizmos, so every magic trick in the play, David figured out a way to do it. There was no money or anything. He built all this shit—it was incredible.

Deborah Peifer: Perestroika was done as a staged reading so I didn’t review it, but I did write about it.

Mark Bronnenberg: I remember it going on, and on, and on. I did think Oh, Tony, you have got to cut this, honey.

Deborah Peifer: I think there might have been 22 acts. I’m exaggerating, but not by a lot.

David Esbjornson: I made the actors hold the scripts in hand while they moved around. And then at one point in each act, they laid down their scripts and acted out what I considered to be the central point of that act.

Ellen McLaughlin: I came out as the Angel with the wings and everything and stood in front of the curtain and said, “Act 5: Heaven, I’m in Heaven.” And this woman in the front row said, “Act 5?! Oh my God! Do you know what time it is?!”

And I said, “No.”

And she said, “It’s midnight! How long is this act?”

And I said, “We’ve never done it so I don’t know, it’s 45 minutes?”

And she said, “The buses won’t be running!” Then she turned to the rest of the audience and kind of wondered aloud if they should stay. And they decided to stay, but she said, “That’s the end, right?”

And I said, “Well, there’s an epilogue.”

And she said, “Are you nuts? You have to tell him to cut it!”

Tony Kushner: That was insane. Lots of people maintain that it was the greatest performance of Perestroika they saw, because the play was this sort of illimitable text. You had no idea what was in all those pages, and they were being thrown all over the stage.

Stephen Spinella as Prior Walter
Stephen Spinella as Prior Walter in the world premiere of Angels in America, Eureka Theatre Company, San Francisco, 1991.

Katy Raddatz/Museum of Performance and Design

Stephen Spinella: Not to trash the Eureka Theatre, but they’re hemorrhaging money, they haven’t had a hit for a long time. And they have a hit with lines around the block. And they schedule another show after this show!

David Esbjornson: It could still be running today if it were still open.

Elizabeth Zitrin: Board members were like, “Whaddya mean, we’re closing it?” The staff did not make provisions for extending it. It was the best play in the world, and it was the world premiere, and people were lining up around the block, and they were like, “OK, it’s done!”

Debra Ballinger Bernstein: The Eureka had a budget of about $650,000 a year. Angels’ budget was around $250,000. That’s an enormous strain to put on a company that was kind of flailing.

Elizabeth Zitrin: It was catastrophic for the Eureka.

Tony Kushner: The lawyers contacted us and said, “That didn’t fulfill your contract. You have to do a production of the whole play, with Perestroika.” So I took the first three scenes from Perestroika, and then the next scene was: “All of the characters of the play have assembled around the base of the Empire State Building. They look up as a dark shadow covers all of them. It is an atomic bomb falling on the Empire State Building. The bomb lands. There is a blinding light and a deafening roar. End of play.” And I sent that in. And ... I don’t know how we resolved it.

Elizabeth Zitrin: There was a lot of weight against the Eureka doing another production of it. It was not a secret that Tony did not want us to do it.

Andy Holtz: That was the end of the Eureka Theatre as a producing company. The play that cemented the Eureka’s place in the history of American theater was also the play that was too epic for such a small company. It’s like, the mom died giving birth to this amazing baby.

David Esbjornson: San Francisco deserved the play. There was something about it that felt absolutely right.

Deborah Peifer: The play opened when we were still in the throes of the AIDS epidemic. But the play was filled with hope! And those were words we needed to hear.

Ellen McLaughlin: We didn’t have money, but it hit people where they lived. It was a 250-seat house. We blew the roof off it night after night. You only get that once, the birth of a play.

160624_ARTS_Angels-Ch-06-Life
6 Interlude: Is Perestroika a Letdown?

Ellen McLaughlin: At some point in San Francisco, Tony was talking about what he was going to with Perestroika. The Angel was going to come down and do this prophecy. Prior would have to return to heaven, but first he would wrestle like Jacob. And I said, “Yeah right. You’re never going to be able to do that.

Tony Kushner: The first great two-part play is Faust. Faust, One is an absolutely perfectly made play—it’s like this great little folk play. Faust, Two, which he wrote over 50 years, releasing acts as they were finished, was not really meant to be performed.

Tony Taccone: Obviously Millennium is like a perfect play.

Sean Chapman (Prior in the first London production): The first play, despite the openness of its ending, works tremendously well on its own.

Tony Kushner: That play—it just is a machine. It’s very hard to fuck it up.

Michael Riedel (theater columnist, New York Post): Part 1 is much better than Part 2. If I were running a theater, I’d just do Millennium and ignore Perestroika.

Joyce Ketay: Angels still gets done, but sometimes they only do Millennium. I think that would be so frustrating! They have plans to do the second part the next year, but it doesn’t happen.

Sean Chapman: Perestroika, it seemed to me, was a much more indulgent and less disciplined piece of work.

Tony Kushner: It’s also, you know, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The White Album, or London Calling and Sandinista!—you know. You discipline yourself to write something that’s tight. And then you just let your brain splatter all over the page.

Joseph Mydell: When we started working on Perestroika, I thought at first that it was just insurmountable. The relationships are intricate. The politics are complex. It was more expansive. You’ve left Earth. It was ... incredible.

Jeffrey Wright: It is a world that’s been built up that’s now burst open and has to be reshaped. Not just thematically but in terms of the dramatic narrative.

Tony Kushner: Robert Altman said after he saw Perestroika, “Really, I think it’s the better play of the two.” And I thought, “Well, that’s nuts.” Then when I met George to talk about doing it on Broadway, he said, “I love Millennium, but I really love Perestroika more.” I wasn’t sure why they were saying that.

George C. Wolfe: Perestroika went through all of these changes and grew, and kept growing and growing in, I think, depth and complexity and expansiveness. That was astonishing to me. Part 1 is astonishingly ambitious, but I consider Part 2 to be messier and more human and more political and a thrilling, thrilling, thrilling masterpiece.

Michael Riedel: Perestroika felt to me like, “I’m reaching for the mantle of epic dramatist!”

Tony Taccone: There’s a deeper soul in Perestroika. There’s an artist who is grappling with the deepest parts of himself. The scene in heaven where God has abandoned them, the brilliant monologue the Angel has that’s a description of the world, and Harper’s night flight to San Francisco speech, these are things that live on inside you.

Ellen McLaughlin: He pulled it off!

160624_ARTS_Angels-Ch-07-London
7 The Royal National Theatre, London, 1992–93

Oskar Eustis began preparing for the Mark Taper Forum’s production of both parts of Angels, scheduled for 1992. But the Royal National Theatre in London was also interested and mounted Millennium Approaches in January 1992, following it up with a production of both parts in November 1993.

Sir Richard Eyre (director, National Theatre, 1987–97): Gordon Davidson sent me the play and said, “I think you’d be interested in this.” By Page 2, I’d decided I wanted to do it.

Declan Donnellan.
Declan Donnellan rehearsing Angels in America.

John Haynes/Lebrecht Music & Art

Declan Donnellan (director of both London productions): Tony has become an extremely close friend. I adore him. He and I had a feisty relationship. We would have cheerful conversations at quite high volumes, because we are very similar and very opposite at the same time.

Nick Reding (Joe in the first London production): Declan responds very much in the moment. He doesn’t give blocking, so it felt incredibly free, what we were able to do.

Tony Kushner: I flew to London and saw one of the last run-throughs in the rehearsal room before they go into tech.

Nick Reding: I remember Tony Kushner sitting through a run-through, making notes continually, throughout, not looking up once, he just took notes the whole time.

Tony Kushner: I had seen Declan’s production of As You Like It, which was magnificent. But the run-through that I saw was horrendous. I was in despair. Weeping. I arrived in New York; I had spent the entire flight just typing up notes. There were, like, 50 pages of notes. I hit the send button on the fax machine as soon as I landed, not thinking about what time it was in London.

Declan Donnellan: We came home, and I thought we’d been burgled because there was so much paper floating around! It turned out it was all coming from the fax machine.

Tony Kushner: At first with Declan it doesn’t look like there’s anything there at all, and all of a sudden it clicks into this really remarkable shape. I don’t know how he does it.

Joyce Ketay: One of the reasons we were really excited to have it in London was not to be in New York, because Frank Rich hated Bright Room Called Day.

An early front-runner for the most infuriating play of 1991.
Frank Rich, the New York Times, Jan. 8, 1991

Frank Rich: Look, not everyone has an auspicious beginning.

Angels in America: London
Jason Isaacs as Louis and Daniel Craig as Joe in the National Theatre production of Angels in America, London, 1993.

John Haynes/Lebrecht Music & Art

Joyce Ketay: I get a call from Alex Witchel, Frank Rich’s wife, and she says, “I’m going to London, and I’m going to see Angels in America, and I want to know how long it is.”

I said, “Is this going to be reviewed?”

And she says, “I’m not a critic. I’m a reporter.”

If I had had any balls, I would’ve said, “Is your husband reviewing it?” But I was too scared of her! So for weeks we sat there with our hearts in our throat.

Tony Kushner: Joyce and I had this incredible moment of panic. I said, “I’ve written something that everybody’s excited about, and he’s gonna come and kill it.” Joyce calmed me down, which is a lot of what she did back then.

Mr. 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.
Frank Rich, the New York Times, March 5, 1992

Tony Kushner: When I got back to the apartment in Brooklyn a light that I’d never seen before was flashing on my answering machine. The tape had been used up. Everyone I had ever known was calling.

Joyce Ketay: Producers knew about the play, but they also knew it was long and about AIDS, so I was not getting any calls. And when that review came out, everything went nuts.

Tony Kushner: When Declan agreed to do Perestroika in 1993, he said he’d only do it if I promised not to come into the United Kingdom during rehearsals. He was hoping there wouldn’t be many rewrites, but there were thousands of them. I was sending them over day after day after day.

Declan Donnellan: We’d be getting new characters while we’re rehearsing. They’d be coming through on the fax, and I’d be phoning Tony, yelling at him.

Tony Kushner: At some point, Declan said, “We’re not going to do any more rewrites. We’re going to do what we have now.”

Declan Donnellan: There was already quite enough for an evening’s entertainment.

160624_ARTS_Angels-Ch-08-LA-Taper
8 The Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles, 1992

Millennium and Perestroika opened at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles on Nov. 8, 1992. Stephen Spinella, Kathleen Chalfant, and Ellen McLaughlin remained from the Eureka production; the rest of the roles were recast. Oskar Eustis and Tony Taccone co-directed.

Tony Taccone: So when we did the project in L.A., it had problems. Not the least of which was Part 2 wasn’t written completely when we started rehearsals.

Tony Kushner: First was the Frank Rich review. Then Ian McKellen at the Tony Awards getting up and saying, [Ian McKellen voice] “There’s a play in London, it’s going to win every Tony.”

Jeff King: When I saw Ian McKellen on the Tonys, I thought, My god, how do you know about this? It’s this private thing we’ve been making and showing to our friends for years, putting everything into it, why are you telling everyone about it?

Tony Kushner: For some reason Angels is always terrible at the first table read. It’s so long, and it doesn’t get its laughs because the actors aren’t going for laughs; they’re just trying to figure out what’s going on. It’s never been a play that leaps to its feet. I was already freaking out about Perestroika. After the read I went out to the plaza behind the offices. Joe Mantello was eating lunch, and he said, “You seem very unhappy.”

I said, “It’s clear I haven’t figured out this second part yet, and I feel as though I need to apologize to you.”

And Joe said, “You’re out of your fucking mind. You have nothing to apologize for.” That meant a lot to me.

K. Todd Freeman (Belize in Los Angeles): All I remember about the table read is making sure I got my laughs.

Mary Klinger: It was being rewritten constantly.

Tony Taccone: I remember being in rehearsal, blocking a scene, getting to the end, and being like, “And we have no idea what happens next, so we’ll have to wait to see where you go.”

Oskar Eustis: The thing he did, and it remains the most brilliant thing I’ve ever seen a writer do: He took this difficulty of making these characters change, and he made it the content of the play. Angels is about how incredibly hard and incredibly necessary it is to change. He united the form and the content. You watch Angels, you read Angels, it feels truer than other plays. I feel like I had a front-row seat to watching Tony struggle for six years to tell the truth.

Joe Mantello: I remember getting ready to go out for the first preview. We had to make our entrance by pushing on a park bench. It was so frightening. Right before we went on, we were both just shaking. Stephen reached over and took my hand. And then we went out.

Tony Kushner: The audience had been to Millennium and loved it, and so they went to the first preview of Perestroika ever. It was endless with these technical glitches. There was a horrifying moment—I had written in the Council of Principalities scene that there was a rain of paper that falls constantly. Oskar found a paper sorting machine that would throw pages of paper from up in the flies. But where are we going to get the paper? Somebody on stage management had this great idea: There were these recycling bins full of hundreds of thousands of sheets of all the rewrites of Perestroika. Let’s just load it up with that. We had never tested it before, so we did it for the first time during first preview. And it starts sending out these things. And they don’t fall down, because they’re paper. They start going out into the audience. And they are rewrites of the fucking scenes. People were not having it. They were literally picking up the rewrites and passing them around. I just thought, This is it. This is my big chance, and I’ve completely destroyed it. I fled the minute the lights went down to what I thought was a back staircase and took this wrong turn, and the audience starts coming through after the very short and tepid curtain call. I was stuck. They didn’t know who I was, so I was stuck with all these people saying “What happened? The first part was so great, and this is terrible!”

K. Todd Freeman: OK, look, we hated that Council of Principalities scene [in which all the actors but the one playing Prior portray angels].

EUROPA: I I I do not want to survey, it is beneath us, these anthill excursions, and between this crippled gadget and the mephitic plumes of that human-conceived Diabolus, there is not a scintilla of difference …
AFRICANII (Overlapping on “anthill”): The positive electrons travel through a … They are negative, You are correct, I I I …
ANTARCTICA: I I I I do not weep for them, I I I I weep for the vexation of the Blank Spaces, I weep for the Dancing Light …
Perestroika, Act 5, Scene 5

K. Todd Freeman:: We felt weird. The costumes were strange. No one understood what we were doing, including us! I just thought, Oh god, how can I get out of this? So I told Tony I had religious differences with saying that God was dead, or something like that. So he reduced my participation to a bare minimum.

Ellen McLaughlin and Stephen Spinella at the Mark Taper Forum
Ellen McLaughlin and Stephen Spinella in the Mark Taper Forum production of Angels in America, 1992.

Craig Schwartz/Mark Taper Forum

Ellen McLaughlin: I got a 15-page rewrite the night after the last preview. It was Tony’s and my first fight. I had friends at the show, and I wanted to go out with them, and Tony wanted to read the new pages, and I said no. I went down to see my friends, and Tony stormed off, and my friends and I went to the bar. We went to the corner of the bar and read it, and it was good! So I had to stay up all night memorizing it. And then we had to tech it because it had flying. And then that night was opening night and I had to do it in front of Frank Rich and God and everyone.

Mr. Eustis and Mr. Taccone have not departed radically from the London choreography of the overlapping scenes and celestial revelations. But the execution can be plodding, and the fabulousness of Mr. Kushner’s writing, so verdant with what one line calls “unspeakable beauty,” is sometimes dimmed.
Frank Rich, the New York Times, Nov. 10, 1992

K. Todd Freeman:: After the Times came, and we knew it was going to Broadway, you know, people start showing up: There’s Kim Basinger, there’s Bob Altman, there’s Jodie Foster.

Joe Mantello: It was a thing. We started to feel it. We could feel the buzz around it.

Margo Lion (producer of the New York production): There was this flood of people going out to L.A. to see it, and I was one of them.

Tony Kushner: I met Rocco Landesman, and I loved him. He was so smart and so funny. He said, “I have the perfect house for this,” and he took me to the Walter Kerr. It wasn’t like the Shubert houses; they hadn’t jammed it full of so many seats you couldn’t breathe. They had done a stunning job redoing it. It’s a fantastic dramatic house. It’s the right size for the play.

Rocco Landesman (producer of the New York production as president of Jujamcyn Theaters): We really, really wanted the show. Shubert went after it big time. We were going after it. We were at a disadvantage. They had all those great 45th Street playhouses to offer. We had only one theater: the Walter Kerr.

Tony Kushner: There were a lot of hard phone calls, but nothing compared to talking to Oskar about the fact that he wasn’t going to go with it. There’s very few things I’ve ever had to do that were harder. Oskar is a wonderful director. He’s my best friend. We’re perfectly attuned as writer and dramaturg. I would never have written Angels in America without Oskar. He was essential. But I needed to take care of the play. I’m a director, and there was a certain look for it that I wanted, a certain kind of showbiz panache that I felt that I needed, and a kind of directorial attack that I didn’t feel I was going to get. All of those decisions had been made long before Frank came and reviewed it. There was a grumbling that I took my marching orders from him.

The director switch “was not caused by Frank Rich,” Eustis said, “although I hope I don’t meet him in a dark alley.”
Don Shirley, Los Angeles Times, Dec. 20, 1992

Michael Riedel: What amused gossips like me was that despite the fact Oskar and Tony were friends, as soon as mighty Frank Rich weighed in, Tony abandoned his friend and George Wolfe took it over.

Tony Kushner: That’s nonsense. I would never, ever do that. Things had gotten really bad, so I don’t think it came as a total surprise, but it was really devastating for him. I suspect that Oskar probably still believes that it was just something in my nature: that somebody needed to be sacrificed on the altar on the way to propitiate whatever, and that that was him. That may be the case.

160624_ARTS_Angels-Ch-09-LA-Flight
9 Interlude: Making the Angel Work

If you are mounting a production of the play, and you plan to have an airborne angel, which is a good thing, be warned: It’s incredibly hard to make the flying work. Add a week to tech time.
—Playwright’s notes, first (1994) published edition of Perestroika

Tony Taccone: We made lots of mistakes with the flying. Poor Ellen.

Mary Klinger: We worked seven days a week, because Monday, the normal day off, we worked on the flying with Ellen. Which is fine because they were paying us. But we were getting so exhausted, I had to call the union and ask them to intervene. Which they did; they placed a polite call and said, “Hey let them have a day off. They’re exhausted. They might hurt themselves.”

Tony Kushner: I’ll never forget Ellen hanging at a wire at the Taper, and it was on some sort of pivot thing that they were trying out. And she couldn’t stop spinning, and the wire caught her wig and some of her actual hair, and it was starting to scalp her. I ran up onstage, and I grabbed a broom, and we unwound her and got her off of it.

David Milling (stage manager for both London productions): Flying somebody in the Cottesloe was not going to be an easy proposition. Our production manager had seen Michael Jackson in concert, maybe the Bad tour, and he went to the company that had done the flying for that tour, and we got to rent their rig.

Nancy Crane (the Angel in both London productions): There was this guy, Lenny, who sewed lambswool padding into the harness. But there were bolts on my hips. So it wasn’t comfortable.

Ellen McLaughlin: I had to get a massage every week and go to a chiropractor.

Tony Kushner: I was nervous about the Epistle [scene in Perestroika]. So I thought, OK, you’re going to have somebody really doing these amazing acrobatics and flying around in the air. George agreed, we got the Foy brothers, they went down to Philadelphia with Ellen and George, and they did all this flying and somersaulting and things like that.

160624_ARTS_Angels-Ch-10-Broadway-Wolfe
George C. Wolfe in rehearsal, from a 1993 American Playhouse documentary on Angels in America.

PBS

George C. Wolfe: I used to say that Ellen was more comfortable in the air than she was on the ground.

Cherry Jones (replacement for the Angel in New York): Ellen was like a bat. During tech rehearsals the blood would drain from her head to her ankles, and so she would flip upside down.

Ellen McLaughlin: I had a human being on the line with me, and I got to choose my fliers. Bernie did horizontal flying, Doug did the up and down. He’s the one who had my life in his hands. I knew that he was steadfast and strong and calm and utterly, utterly reliable. We spent a lot of time learning how to dance together, basically. It convinced me I was really flying. It was like those dreams you have where you suddenly realize you can fly. It felt effortless, for me. I adored him.

Cherry Jones: My very first night, once I was in position above center stage, I noticed all these little fingerprints. And then I noticed all these little black pastilles, little throat lozenges? They were all Ellen’s. It was like going to the moon and seeing what Neil Armstrong left behind.

David Milling: I think it was in dress rehearsal, though not in a show, Nancy did end up upside down. One of the wires had been strung the wrong way on a pulley, so instead of raising her on both sides, it turned her upside down.

Nancy Crane: I got dropped once. I could see the flash of a stage manager’s hand, and I just thought I’m aiming for that, and I hit him, and it was OK.

Tony Kushner: There’s now an author’s note in the script that says, “Bring her in through the ceiling when she arrives, and then unhook her.” Because if you try to do the flying thing, in addition to the fact that it won’t help the scene at all, because there’s nothing that motivates her to give an aerobatics display, it’ll eat up all of your rehearsal time, and you’ll never get it good. I mean, Spider-Man had five and a half years. And five or six people were smashed into pillars and things.

160624_ARTS_Angels-Ch-10-Broadway
10 Millennium Approaches on Broadway, 1993

Millennium Approaches, directed by George C. Wolfe, opened at the Walter Kerr Theater on Broadway on May 4, 1993. Three of the players from the Taper production were recast.

Tony Kushner: Joe Mantello called me on the phone right before the show opened at the Taper, before any of the decisions were being made about what happens next. He said, “I wanna ask you point blank: Am I coming to New York?” As I recall, I said on the phone, right away, “Yes.”

160624_ARTS_Angels-Ch-10-Broadway-Spinella-Kushner
Stephen Spinella and Tony Kushner talk during a rehearsal of Angels of America: Perestroika, at the Walter Kerr Theatre, New York City, 1993.

Joan Marcus

Stephen Spinella: I gotta say, I always felt like: Just try and find another actor who’s 112 pounds and the right age who can do it like I do. Just try.

Marcia Gay Harden (Harper in New York): My agent Brian Bloom, who recently died, was so eager for me to look at this play, in a way that he wasn’t usually. He was one of many gay agents in New York, and it was clear that it spoke to him in a deeper way.

Jeffrey Wright: Just after Christmas I got called in to audition for Angels. I read the script; it was incredibly daunting. But also it was inclusive of all the reasons that I’d wanted to be an actor in the first pace. Particularly having this kind of inclination toward the political.

Marcia Gay Harden: From the minute I walked in the door for the audition, I forgot everything. I just couldn’t stop crying. The anger was expressing itself in tears. I remember needing to wipe up a puddle on the floor. I had fallen over on my knees, and I had gotten the floor wet with how angry I was, how much I was crying.

George C. Wolfe: I remember very specifically Marcia’s audition. You know, before she even opened her mouth, she deeply affected me. And she was stunning and I instantly—I instantly responded to her.

Jeffrey Wright: I just tried to focus on the ideas and the language. I think I went back for a callback, and George hired me. After we were in rehearsal he said, “I saw a thousand negroes. I chose you.”

Kathleen Chalfant: Marcia and Jeffrey were so clearly wonderful choices, because they were both kind of centers of anarchy. They were the clearest expression of George’s aesthetic and the kind of danger that George inserted into the process.

George C. Wolfe: I think so much of what I did on Part 1 was keeping the hype out of the room and letting everybody play and discover. Because the hype was monumental, the hype was ridiculous, but you can’t work from hype, and you can’t create from hype. God knows you can’t discover anything new.

Joe Mantello: George insisted Stephen and I go back to square one. You have a brilliant director who goes back and asks you not to settle for things you think you know.

George C. Wolfe: I mean, they knew what they knew. And so it was my job in some respects to contaminate what they knew.

Joe Mantello: So his take on the Prior-Louis couple, I remember his saying: Now there’s a third entity in the relationship, which is illness. The two of them are learning how to navigate that third entity. So in that scene that takes place in bed, George would say: “There are new rules here. It’s not Prior and Louis going to bed for the night. There’s another entity there, which is illness.”

George C. Wolfe: They’d gone through various directors, you know? They’d gone through a whole process, which I really know nothing about. I love talking to actors, and I like actors, and I believe they—that I gained—I believe, I don't know, you could ask them—I believe I gained their trust fairly early on.

Joe Mantello: You know, if you’ve never met George Wolfe, he’s got the metabolism of a hummingbird. He talks fast. There’s a lot coming at you. If you receive it, if you open yourself up to it, it’s completely fucking inspiring.

Marcia Gay Harden: He’s like a bass guitar. He’s like a tune that can’t stop playing. He moves constantly. He speaks, and moves, and directs in syncopated rhythms. I clearly remember one day, George says, “OK, OK, OK, Marcia Gay, I see what you’re doing. I want you to come to the door more of ba da ba bamp bwow!” And I said, “I think I need to come to the door more like baaaaa, BOW!” And he said, “OK, try that.”

George C. Wolfe: I mean, to be really honest with you, there are two schools of directing. You stand where you are and demand actors come to you, or you go to where they are and you charm, seduce, empower them to go on the journey in the direction that you think is correct.

Jeffrey Wright: Unveiling my inner Belize was a serious challenge over the course of the rehearsal process.

George C. Wolfe: We were working in a very methodical way, and Jeffrey was finding his way inside the material.

Jeffrey Wright: There was no small degree of frustration with me by the powers that be.

George C. Wolfe: I remember having a very difficult conversation, calling him up and saying, “Jeffrey, today. Bring it today.” Which I’d never done to another actor, but there was really a tremendous amount of panic about whether he could deliver.

Ellen McLaughlin: Tech went badly on Broadway. There was flying. People were getting hurt. We were putting things in during the day. Taking things out. Doing a different version every night.

Mary Klinger: We canceled previews because we weren’t ready.

Joe Mantello: I remember the night of the first preview. We had been in tech for a very long time. There was deafening buzz. The show had been delayed. It was scary. George understood how scared we were. He said, “Oh please, please, please. Tonight is nothing. We’re allowing the peasants into the castle to see what we’ve been up to.” And we were like, “Yeah. We’re allowing the peasants into the castle to see what we’ve been up to.”

Kathleen Chalfant: Everybody knew the night that the New York Times was gonna come. On that night George went around and talked to each of us separately. I don’t know what he said to anybody else, but he said to me: “Now, just be sure to be clear.” Brilliant! Because one of the things I pride myself on is clarity. And I thought, What?? GodDAMMit. You want clear, I’ll give you clear. He must have said exactly the right thing, because each of us hit the stage on fire.

160624_ARTS_Angels-Ch-10-Broadway-Wig
Marcia Gay Harden's wig.

PBS

Marcia Gay Harden: I perceived Harper’s innocence and her Mormon-ness through her hair. So I had a wig, a beautiful red wig that made me feel like her. It was thick, brownish red. It fell down past my shoulders. It felt biblical and pure. George told me, “You need to take the wig off. We need to see you.”

George C. Wolfe: Well, I just—she had on this very sort of, like, “I am a woman of the plains” brownish wig. I knew it had to go—and then Tony was going, “It has to go, it has to go, it has to go.”

Marcia Gay Harden: Opening night, we had a tug of war with the wig.

George C. Wolfe: Like, we’re literally wrestling with the wig, and I’m trying to get it out of her hands. And I said, “You're beautiful. You don’t need this.”

Marcia Gay Harden: I was furious with myself, but I’m sure it looked like I was angry at George, you know, “I want my FUCKING WIG!”

Aaaaand PLACES!”

George C. Wolfe: I mean, it was just really drama; it was really just crazy.

Marcia Gay Harden: That night, my agent came backstage, and he hugged me so hard he popped the strap on my bra. And years later, when he passed away, I understood what the play meant to him. After, the streets of New York were like a Hopper painting. The streetlights were putting up perfect little triangles of light. When we left there were hordes of people, because they were waiting for us. And everyone was wearing long gowns and monkey suits because they had just come from the play. We passed this one Korean fruit stand, and someone had taken one of those plastic milk crates and was standing on it, and they were in that triangle of light, and they were reading the review that had just come out. And every time they would read a good sentence the crowd would cheer.

Any debate about what this play means or does not mean for Broadway seems, in the face of the work itself, completely beside the point. Angels in America speaks so powerfully because something far larger and more urgent than the future of the theater is at stake. It really is history that Mr. Kushner intends to crack open.
Frank Rich, the New York Times, May 5, 1993

Ellen McLaughlin: John Deary, who helped to make the wings for Broadway, had AIDS. He was quite sick while he was making those wings. They were gorgeous, an incredible accomplishment because they could close and open. He got to opening, he got to see them, and he died thereafter. It was something to behold.

160624_ARTS_Angels-Ch-12-Heaven
11 The Broadway Run, 1993–94

Millennium was open and Perestroika was scheduled to join it in repertory in the fall. Millennium won the Tony for Best Play as well as awards for Ron Leibman, Stephen Spinella, and George C. Wolfe. Part 2 opened on Nov. 23, 1993. It also won the Tony for Best Play as well as awards for Spinella and Jeffrey Wright. Both parts closed on Dec. 4, 1994.

Frank Rich: This was before the redo of Times Square, before Disney on Broadway. No one wanted to produce plays on Broadway. Theaters literally sat there dark for months, sometimes years at a time.

Joe Mantello: For a lot of us, that production was like going from zero to 100 in our careers, going from being unknown to the play everyone was coming to see.

Marcia Gay Harden: I’d walk through the West Village, and people would come up to me and say, “I took my parents to see the play, and then I told them I was gay.” Or: “I took my parents to see it, and then I told them I was dying.” And we would cry on the street. That happened once every couple of weeks.

Stephen Spinella: It got kinda creepy. People would come up backstage, basically asking me, “Are you dying of AIDS?” The New York Times asked me if I was HIV-positive or not!

When Stephen Spinella takes his clothes off on stage, the murmurs in the audience are frequently audible: “He's so skinny!” “The lesions, are they real?”
Bruce Weber, the New York Times, June 5, 1993

Stephen Spinella: It was kind of a strange time.

Joe Mantello: I remember we opened, and shortly thereafter awards season started. All of a sudden, being in the mix for awards, that changed the group dynamic.

Tony Kushner: We had to go into rehearsals for Perestroika, and I didn’t have a new draft, I was just, like, blocked.

Stephen Spinella: He got very mad at me at his birthday party. We went to Union Square Café for his birthday in July. We’d all been waiting to start rehearsals for the second play for like a week and a half, and I said something like, “How’s the play going? Did you finish the play?” He threw a napkin at me and yelled, “You ruined it! You ruined my birthday!”

Tony Kushner: María Irene Fornés said to me, “Oh, nobody’s going to fix this play for you. You don’t need a dramaturg. You’re the only one alive who can fix it, so go and fix it.” So I—I think I did. I rewrote and rewrote and rewrote the Anti-Migratory Epistle in 75,000 different ways. I got rid of about five scenes that were in Perestroika at the Taper. And then, uh, I don’t know.

Marcia Gay Harden: You know, when you look back on something that requires such a herculean effort, you think, Huh, why does it only seem herculean now? At the moment, it just seemed like, this is what we were doing. I would get up, ride my bike to the theater. Go to rehearsal, go to dinner, do a three-and-a-half-hour show. I don’t remember if I was exhausted. I really don’t think I was. I think I was exhilarated.

Jeffrey Wright: We were a well-muscled organism by then.

Joe Mantello: I remember George saying early on: “It’s a new play. We’re going to continue working on it, and as we chip away at it every single day, one day the seesaw will tip, and it will start to feel smooth. But it won’t feel that way at first.” When someone describes the context like that, you can breathe a little. You can relax.

George C. Wolfe: I’m in heaven in that world. I understand that world. I know how to protect that world. I know how to nurture that world.

Tony Kushner: We had to cancel a week of sold-out performances. George insisted so that I could have another week to work.

Rocco Landesman: Each day you don’t play, you’re another $40,000 away from recouping.

Kathleen Chalfant: If ever there was a war, and you had to pick a general to get through it, you should pick George.

Tony Kushner: George protected me like nobody’s business. Nobody was allowed to give me notes, not even Rocco.

Rocco Landesman: We weren’t panicking. But anxiety was really high. Money was going out the window.

Ellen McLaughlin: Technicians come up with nicknames for shows, and ours was called “the Money Store” because they got so much overtime.

Tony Kushner: The first preview was fucking horrendous. It was like 90 hours long.

Marcia Gay Harden: And then cuts would come in. I don’t remember how much of mine was cut.

Rocco Landesman: Personally, I think the show is a bit long, particularly in Perestroika. I was lobbying for cuts and got none of them. Tony was very gracious. He would hear me out politely and do what he wanted to do, which was not cut. It was like a conversation with August Wilson but worse.

Stephen Spinella: Frank Rich was gonna come review it on a certain day. And we pushed back the opening, and he was gonna come, and he pushed it back again. And it ended up being the very last play Frank Rich reviewed in his tenure at the New York Times.

People no longer build cathedrals, as they did a thousand years ago, to greet the next millennium, but Angels in America both spins forward and spirals upward in its own way, for its own time.
Frank Rich, the New York Times, Nov. 24, 1993

Michael Riedel: I don’t think it made money, Part 2, did it?

Rocco Landesman: It barely recouped. It would’ve been a great money-maker if we had just done Millennium. It became a riskier thing because we did both parts. But Angels is the most important thing we’ve done.

Kathleen Chalfant: When we were doing both parts, that was when we became a cultural phenomenon.

Rocco Landesman: It was unusual to have a running play on Broadway discussed in the intellectual press—the New York Review of Books, things like that.

Meryl Streep (Hannah in the HBO miniseries): It was all anybody was talking about. Certain writers meet their moment. They emerge with a sensibility that explains it all to us and we recognize it. I don’t know why that is or how it happens. The play was the Hamilton of its time.

Mary-Louise Parker (Harper in the HBO miniseries): What was exciting was something that was worthy of excitement. There are times when things are swept up, and people get on the train of this or that, and I get kind of depressed about it. But this, much like Hamilton, was so worthy of it. It was really encouraging—that’s the word I’d use.

160624_ARTS_Angels-Ch-12-SF-Flight
12 Interlude: Harper’s Final Speech

One of Perestroika’s final scenes is a short, lovely monologue by Harper, who’s left her husband and is flying across the country.

Tony Kushner: When I told Marcia Gay Harden everyone worried about where Joe was at the end, she said, “Why aren’t they worried about Harper? She’s still lost.”

I said, “No, she’s going to San Francisco.”

And Marcia Gay said, “Right. She’s leaving her gay husband, and she flies to San Francisco. She still doesn’t quite get it.”

Anne Darragh: I love that scene so much. It was such a gift to have Harper end up there. I just felt, thank you. You could easily drop that character in so many ways, to just say, “Oh, there goes the loony toons wife,” and instead you get this great, great scene.

Mary-Louise Parker: It’s a speech I could do for the rest of my life and not be satisfied with. You really need to let the audience hear it and get out of its way. There’s a danger of acting it and letting the audience be impressed by your acting. But that’s not what an actor playing Harper should do. The audience should be impressed by Tony. Not even Tony—by Harper. By Harper’s words, which are Tony.

Marcia Gay Harden: I’m tingling right now thinking about it. The synchronicity of the immune system of the Earth, and that can be healed by the people who are suffering with the holes in their own immune system, the tragedy of the souls of those who have been hurt forming a web of protection around the Earth. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever said—or read—in my life.

Mary-Louise Parker: We shot it in an airplane hangar, and I was really trying to rein in my emotion. I just didn’t feel I quite reached it. I went to lunch, and I was so distraught, and I went to Mike [Nichols, who directed the miniseries] and said, “Can I do it again?” They were literally taking down the wall, and he said, “Oh, my child,” and turned to the crew and yelled, “OK, put the wall back up!”

Zoe Kazan (Harper in the 2010 Signature revival): I don’t wanna sound like a dick, and I struggled with a lot of things in that play, but not that speech. It was my pole star. It connects up deeply to what I believe about the universe. I’m not a religious person, but I get nervous flying, and I say Harper’s entire speech whenever a plane takes off and whenever it lands.

Debra Messing (Harper in the 1992 NYU workshop of Perestroika): One of our teachers, our improvisation teacher, his name was Paul Walker. At the time, he had AIDS and was very sick. It was very raw for all of us, watching him slowly get sicker and working on this play. And that speech, you know, it’s so stunning—just the idea that these people, who were not appreciated and celebrated on Earth the way they should be, were the agents of healing up in heaven. I felt such gratitude to Tony Kushner for writing it and for having the privilege of playing Harper Pitt.

Tony Kushner: It’s the best paragraph I’ve ever written.

160624_ARTS_Angels-Ch-13-Miniseries
13 Making the Angels Film, 1991–2003

Cary Brokaw (producer of the HBO miniseries): In 1991 we had dinner at the Greenwich Bar and Grill. “In an ideal world,” I said, “who’s the filmmaker you’d want to direct this?” He said, “It’s going to surprise you: Robert Altman.”

Tony Kushner: Nashville is one of the greatest films ever. It redefined the notion of an epic. It doesn’t travel over a great distance temporally or geographically. It takes a couple for days for Nashville to unfold, but it’s this crazy quilt of all these intersecting lives.

Cary Brokaw: At that point I was in postproduction with The Player and preparing Short Cuts with Bob. I had Bob go to a preview at the Taper, and he immediately signed on to direct it. We were working with Fine Line and New Line—we went to them first with Angels, and they agreed to develop it as two movies.

Tony Kushner: I was thrilled. I was really excited. When he was doing Prêt-à-Porter he said, “Come, you can follow me around Paris while I do location scouting, and we can talk about Angels in America.” We did not talk about Angels in America. At all. We did smoke pot in his hotel room with Annie Ross and Anouk Aimee. That was—I was happy!

Cary Brokaw: We budgeted the movie and started casting. That was when I approached Al Pacino about playing Roy Cohn. There was at least a preliminary conversation with Meryl and her representatives about playing Hannah.

Meryl Streep: I never even knew about it! I don’t think I even knew it was happening.

Tony Kushner: I think it’s OK to say this: Bob was obsessed with the idea of the angel’s penis. He loved that she’s a hermaphrodite. He had seen two productions, the Taper and Broadway, and he was frustrated. He said, “Why doesn’t she ever have a dick? She says she has one!” Every time I talked to him, he wanted to know! He had some idea for this weird, multipronged penis that she’d—I wasn’t sure why that was of such great interest to him.

Cary Brokaw: New Line balked. They thought because it was about AIDS, it was so controversial, and they passed.

Tony Kushner: After I handed in the script, it was getting harder and harder to find Bob and get him pinned down to working on it. When we worked on it, he would throw out more and more ideas; it was never about refining about what was there. I was beginning to get very, very nervous.

Cary Brokaw: A while later Tony and Altman and I decided to part ways. Mostly amicably. P.J. Hogan attached himself for a period of time. But we still couldn’t get anyone to bite. They would be delicate and tactful: “It’s a very controversial, bold movie about AIDS.”

Tony Kushner: Neil LaBute and I talked for quite a while about it. And then I really decided to give up. I would meet with Cary once or twice a year and say, “Go forth.”

Cary Brokaw: The next beat of the story is in about 2000. I was making Wit for HBO with Mike Nichols and Emma Thompson. I had signed copies of Angels DHL’d to my hotel in London, and I gave them to Mike on Thursday or Friday. Monday morning Mike has this huge Cheshire grin on his face.

Tony Kushner: I put down the phone, and I said to Mark—it was like our first or second year together—“Should I let Mike Nichols direct Angels in America? He’s a great filmmaker, but I don’t know.” And Mark said, “Are you fucking kidding? Call him immediately.”

Mark Harris (journalist and author of forthcoming biography of Mike Nichols; Tony Kushner’s husband): When Mike became the wunderkind of Broadway, it was almost entirely by directing Neil Simon comedies and other lighter plays. As early as 1969 or 1970, one criticism he faced from his detractors was, “Oh, you only direct fluff.” My theory is that later in his career Mike got attracted to taking bigger swings. Death of a Salesman. Harold Pinter. I think he wanted to put his mark on some really big plays that people knew. And Angels had been one.

Cary Brokaw: Three days later Colin Callender of HBO came to visit us on the set. We told him we wanted to do Angels next, and he said, “Well, what’s the budget?” And we gave him a number. It was a little bit out of the air. We called Al. We called Meryl. We enlisted Emma. Colin greenlit it—$37 million and change. It was so fast.

160624_ARTS_Angels-Ch-13-Streep
Meryl Streep and Justin Kirk in Mike Nichols’ HBO miniseries of Angels in America.

HBO

Meryl Streep: Mike asked me if I wanted to play three parts in Angels in America, and I said, “Yes!” And then we signed the contract, and he said, “Would you play a fourth part for free?” They hadn’t included the Angel in the second play. He got me for four for the price of three! He was a sly one.

Mary-Louise Parker: When a friend told me Mike Nichols was doing it, I said, “I’m so angry that you even told me that, because I’m never gonna get that part, so I wish in the future you wouldn’t give me that kind of news flash that is going to ruin my entire life.”

Ben Shenkman: It was like, yeah, but, you know, it’s Meryl Streep and Al Pacino and Emma Thompson. It’s all going to be household names. And then I heard that Mike Nichols had decided that, for the young men, that they didn’t want household names. He would prefer guys that had some connection to the theater.

Justin Kirk (Prior in the HBO miniseries): I guess Mike Nichols had seen me in plays in New York. I don’t think he was a big Jack and Jill aficionado.

Jeffrey Wright I heard whispers about the movie. My thought was that no one was going to play Belize other than me, and if they tried to bring that into being, some sets might mysteriously burn to the ground.

Cary Brokaw: Jeffrey was so brilliant onstage; there was no reason not to cast him. We struggled a lot with Stephen Spinella, who was also so brilliant onstage. We agonized over it, but we realized he would just be too old.

Jeffrey Wright: What I understand is that Mike came to a play that I was in at the time to see another actor who was in the play, names redacted to protect all involved. He came to the play with the intent of hiring another actor for Belize. And then, after seeing the show, he realized that he was mistaken, and so he wisely [laughs] asked me to be in the movie. He didn’t want anyone from the Broadway Angels, and I just happened to, in a Belize-like way, force my way into the door.

Mary-Louise Parker: So often with scripts I’m just trying to make it sound like a human being is saying it. But with Angels, it’s like I’m just trying not to ruin it. It felt sacred.

Justin Kirk: I’m sure lots of people more famous than me wanted that part, so I wanted to make Mike feel as though he’d made the right decision. I went home at night every night thinking, Oh God, you didn’t hit it.

Cary Brokaw: We shot in spring and broke at the end of July. And then we ramped up again in September and finished shooting in the fall. Mike was 74 years old; it was important to him to have a break.

Frank Rich: It’s one of the very, very few successful film adaptations of a major American play. Maybe one of three: Elia Kazan’s Streetcar, and Nichols’ Virginia Woolf. Both Nichols and Kazan came out of the theater. They were able to shepherd these works to a new medium more successfully than—I mean, we could sit all day and talk about the embarrassingly bad movies of terrific plays.

Ben Shenkman: I’ll tell you, it was so easy to imagine people saying, as is true of other plays, “Oh, one of the best plays I ever saw. Isn’t it a shame about the movie?” Or it was even easier to imagine like, “Isn’t it a shame about the movie? I mean Meryl Streep was great, but who were those guys?” But, yeah, to my great relief, it was not received in that sort of head-shaking way.

Mary-Louise Parker: I just wanted Tony and Mike to be happy. I’ll never be happy with what I did in that movie, but as long as they were satisfied, I was OK.

160624_ARTS_Angels-Ch-14-Coda
14 The Legacy of Angels

Larry Kramer (playwright and activist): What can I say that hasn’t been said by many others?

Frank Rich: There were really great writers like David Mamet, August Wilson, Stephen Sondheim, but it was not a good period of theater. British musical spectacles dominated. It was the era of Cats as much as it was anything.

Terry Teachout (theater critic, the Wall Street Journal): The fact that it made it to Broadway, was commercially successful, had such a long run is important. People knew about AIDS in 1995. They knew a lot about it. But it mainstreamed it as a topic, at least in the broader cultural conversation.

Christopher Shinn : When I saw that play, I really thought, You can be really deep and be on Broadway! I thought that would happen all the time. If I had known it was really that rare, I maybe would have chosen another field.

Ben Brantley (theater critic, the New York Times): Angels brought theater back into the national conversation, in a way that hasn’t happened again until Hamilton.

Robin Weigert (the Angel in 2010 Signature revival): There was a real feeling that a whole community had been muzzled for so long, but this clarion voice coming through made everyone feel like a dam had been broken, and now the way had been cleared for other voices to speak.

Sam Gold (director): I saw Millennium when I was 15. It was the first play I ever saw on Broadway. It was magic, it was poetry, it was enormous. But there were also real people onstage. The whole experience felt like a widening of my lens, of my potential.

Christopher Shinn : Nobody had exposed me to the ideas in that play. For people like me who were young, there was no other mainstream play that had that diversity of inspiration.

Caryl Churchill (playwright): I remember when Angels in America was first done in London how happy I was to find this playwright who wrote with politics, imagination, and passion, and on a grand scale.

Larry Kramer: It’s a very important play, and it’s wonderful that it’s still being performed all over the world. That the two major AIDS plays, Angels and my Normal Heart, are still being performed so extensively is quite remarkable and a testimony to the power of the theater to deal with gay history.

Rocco Landesman: It was exhilarating. There was rapid change around the attitude toward gays, and Angels was a catalyst for that without being didactic. It was explosive but rich, textured, complicated. It really engaged a discussion that hadn’t been going on before, to some degree, in the culture at large.

Jeffrey Wright: There are limitations to art as a political tool. I think art and artists can raise the flag of awareness and then leave the hard work to others to do. But in the case of Angels, I have never been a part of something that was so evidently powerful and empowering for the audience and so obviously a public validation in the mainstream square that had been thirsted for for a long time.

Frank Wood (Roy Cohn in the 2010 Signature revival): He wrestled an awareness out of me that up until that moment I had thought of gay people as marginal—and not only because they were marginalized by other people, but because they were marginal in my own imagination. The task of a great writer is to convince an otherwise passive soul that their passivity is destructive. And the humanity of that play gave me the joy of discovering and joining a world that I had been previously unaware of.

Emily Nussbaum (TV critic, the New Yorker): It was the only time I had ever seen gay history taken seriously in that way and placed in the center of the culture creatively in this grand, defining way. And the specific struggles of gay men in terms of being closeted, in terms of intimacy, in terms of the question of solidarity with each other.

Jeffrey Wright: Certain nights, seeing people in wheelchairs—people clearly sick, dying—is something that will never leave me, you know? And so I think that the arc from that period, the work that came before, Stonewall to ACT UP, the arc to Obergefell v. Hodges, is a pretty clear one, and I think that Angels has a meaningful place along that arc.

Mikell Kober (theater producer): I first read Angels in high school. It struck me as a Mormon first. These weren’t just Mormon characters; these were different. I hadn’t met characters like this, because I didn’t know any openly gay adults. I couldn’t imagine myself as lesbian any more than I could imagine myself an astronaut.

Travis Foster (professor of English, Villanova): I cry every time I read it. The play really changed my understanding of coming out. To come out is not this sort of individual project of self-affirmation. It is a really political project that is profoundly interconnected.

Ellen McLaughlin: What Angels did for writers all over the world, including me, is that it challenged us to write ambitious work. There were a lot of plays inspired by Angels that didn’t work, but I’d rather see a big, fat mess that attempts something that’s out of a playwright’s reach than to see a neat, tight bundle that stays with me not at all.

Michael Riedel: Great plays and musicals don’t change the theater. They launch the careers of people who are gonna change the theater.

Terry Teachout: If Angels continues to live on the stage, then it will undoubtedly be produced in ways that are intended to underline its continuing contemporary relevance. It will be treated with the same flexibility that we treat Shakespeare’s history plays. I think it has those prospects. As problematic as I think it is as a work of art, it still works. It really works.

Wesley Morris: Angels is too American not to be timeless. Its fundamental questions are fundamentally American human questions, the ones we never seem to be able to solve.

Marianne Elliott (director of the forthcoming 2017 National Theatre revival in London): It’s about people going to the pit of hell and finding a way out; that’s a massive statement for all of us to continue to keep hearing. That’s an important story for us to hear, that we need to hear again.

Lee Siegel (cultural critic): The play could have made itself more relevant by being more angry and less easy to assimilate. There was more to the AIDS crisis than Kushner portrayed, and in many places in this country and in the world, gay survival is not anything that is guaranteed. Great social progress obscures the intense pockets of hatred and resistance that are the backlash to it. Orlando, sadly, is not a revelation. It's a reminder.

Wesley Morris: Based on what we know at this point about this guy in Orlando, this shooter, I’ve been thinking a lot about what you do about a person who at some point doesn’t know what to do with himself. In some ways we’re talking about mental illness, in some ways about upbringing and religion and what you’re exposed to, but at the same time we’re also talking about there still not being enough culture in this country that is explicitly and politically gay. There’s virtually none at this point. You could introduce Angels in America right now—he could have sat on this for 25 years and put it up in 2016—and I think people’s minds would still be blown.

Larry Kramer: I wish that Tony would write more about gay history, but he has a much wider sphere of important interests than I do, and we should be grateful for whatever he writes. He is a great writer.

Wesley Morris: All oppressed peoples want is to be left alone. You want to be included, but also not persecuted due to the attributes that made people want to enslave you, murder you, deny you rights, etc. You want to be visible, but you don’t want to be conspicuous. But the great thing about this play is that it demanded you be as conspicuous as possible.

Lee Siegel: I think Kushner’s humanity, his generosity and forgiveness are more consequential in the end than his lack of anger and defiance.

Wesley Morris: It was putting all of its subjects out of business. It perfectly handled homophobia, AIDS, living in the closet, becoming a moral and political hypocrite; it was trying to put all those things away—and now some of those things are running for office!

Ellen McLaughlin: What I mostly remember from that time in my life was joy. I felt like we were doing something important with the medium that I had given my life to. That is one of the great privileges, the greatest gift I could have ever been given.

Jason Isaacs: I remember near the end of the run I was sitting despondently in the wings. Harry Towb and Susan Engel, who played the older characters, walked by, and they could see I was a bit down in the dumps. They said, “You all right, Jase?”

I said, “I’m worried nothing I do in my career will ever touch this.”

And instead of doing what I hope I would do now and saying, “Oh, I’m sure that’s not true,” they said, “Oh yeah, we were just saying we’re glad this came toward the ends of our careers.”

Jeffrey Wright: We went out for drinks after some crazy, long night. Everybody was so excited, we were trembling with excitement, and George was saying, “Miracles are happening! Miracles are happening!”

George C. Wolfe: We had all these little rituals. Just before we would do a run-through, Ron Leibman would say, “Everything that happens in life happens in this show.” And then I’d laugh, and then we’d start.


Chapter photo illustrations: Lisa Larson-Walker. 1. Tony Kushner. (Schwartz/Thompson) 2. Roy Cohn. (The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images) 3. The Golden Gate Bridge. (Tareq Saifur Rahman/Getty Images) 4. Ben Shenkman and Jeffrey Wright in the
Angels in America miniseries. (HBO) 5. Harry Waters Jr. and Stephen Spinella in the Eureka Theatre premiere of Angels in America, 1991. (Katy Raddatz, Museum of Performance & Design) 6. Ellen McLaughlin in the Eureka Theatre premiere of Angels in America, 1991. (Katy Raddatz, Museum of Performance & Design) 7. Royal National Theater, London. (Man vyi/Wikimedia Commons) 8. Stephen Spinella and Joe Mantello in Angels in America at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, 1992. (Schwartz/Thompson) 9. Ellen McLaughlin in Angels in America at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, 1992. (Craig Schwartz) 10. Ellen McLaughlin in the Broadway production of Angels in America. (Joan Marcus) 11. Ellen McLaughlin and Stephen Spinella in the Broadway production of Angels in America. (Joan Marcus) 12. Mary-Louise Parker in the Angels in America miniseries. (HBO) 13. Emma Thompson and director Mike Nichols on set of the Angels in America miniseries. (HBO/The Kobal Collection) 14. Kathleen Chalfant, Joe Mantello, Jeffrey Wright, and Stephen Spinella in the final scene of the Broadway production of Angels in America. (Joan Marcus)

Isaac Butler is a writer and theater director, most recently of Real Enemies, which premiered in the fall of 2015 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Dan Kois edits and writes for Slate’s culture department. He is writing a book called How to Be a Family and co-writing, with Isaac Butler, an oral history of Angels in America.