Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Tony Kushner’s two-part, six-hour-long play, won two Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize and thrust Kushner to the top of the list of American playwrights. Not everyone knows, however, that it was Tony Taccone, Berkeley Rep’s artistic director, along with Oskar Eustis, now the artistic director at the Public Theater in New York, who commissioned the play in 1986 when they were both at the Eureka Theater in San Francisco.
Tidbits like that as well as ones about the origin of the play — which is showing at Berkeley Rep through July 22 — Kushner’s struggle to wrestle the two parts into shape, the reaction of the world to a play about AIDS, gay men, Mormons and Roy Cohn fill the pages of an engaging oral history called The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America. Isaac Butler, a playwright, and Dan Kois, a culture writer at Slate, interviewed more than 250 people involved in various productions of the play from its earliest inception to its current Broadway production starring Nathan Lane and Andrew Garfield. The Lambda Literary Review said the book “captures all the twists and turns of fate that went into the two-part epic’s creation with a sense of suspense and drama — from the joy and exuberance to the heartache.”
Butler and Kois will be appearing with Taccone and Stephen Spinella, who plays Roy Cohn in the Berkeley Rep production (and who won two Tony awards for playing Prior, a man with AIDS, in the original Broadway productions), on Monday, May 7 at 8 p.m. in a Page to Stage event. After a discussion, the authors will read a portion of their book.
How will they choose? There are so many delightful insights into the play,s such as the revelation that having the Angel fly through the ceiling of Prior’s bedroom in the first play, Millenium Approaches, presented huge technical difficulties for many productions. One that went awry had a twisting cable take the wig off the person playing Angel.
Here is an insight into the early San Francisco productions, excerpted in San Francisco magazine:
Oskar Eustis (artistic director, 1988–89, Eureka Theatre): Tony [Kushner] has patience. And “patience” is, of course, a synonym for “blown deadlines.”
Debra Ballinger Bernstein (executive director, Eureka Theatre, 1989–92): Spring  was rolling around, we were in rehearsals. Tony hadn’t finished Perestroika [the play’s second part]. It was a nail-biter: Was it going to be done? Was it not going to be done?
David Esbjornson (director in the San Francisco production, 1991): I didn’t have a script when I went into Perestroika rehearsal.
Tony Kushner: During that rehearsal period, someone on the [Eureka Theatre] board gave me their spider-infested cabin on the Russian River, and I went away for ten days — it was early April — and I sat down, and I started writing. And I wrote seven hundred pages of Perestroika in ten days — I just wrote the whole… 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.… And I’m not making this up: I got in the car to drive back, even though I hadn’t slept in eleven 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.
Esbjornson: I say, “What are you doing here?” And he says, “I finished, Dave, it’s done.” It was like Moses coming down from the mountain!
Michael Ornstein (Louis in the San Francisco production, 1991): I don’t remember a hell of a lot about the rehearsal process, but I remember the day Tony brought Perestroika in. Holy shit, man. I remember what I was drinking! I had my coffee and Tony had on a bright purple cotton hoodie. He sat down with this gigantic phone book, and he placed it on the table, and we all realized, Oh my God, that’s the fucking script.
Esbjornson: We started at 10:00, and 6:30 came and went and we were still reading it.
Ornstein: It took us two days to read through the entire thing.
Harry Waters Jr. (Belize in the San Francisco production, 1991): I remember we were sitting there, reading the script for the first time, and Kathy Chalfant was just weeping because it was so amazing. How could anyone write this?
Kushner: In this seven-hundred-page really long version, there was a lot of shit. I mean, something with a homeless kid… A chauffeur?… God, there were, like, all these other characters. One of the reasons that I could write for days without stopping is I was just, “Nobody ever has to know what I’ve done here.”
Dennis Harvey (San Francisco theater critic): By the time it opened, people were anticipating the great new thing of American theater.
Ellen McLaughlin (the Angel in the San Francisco production, 1991): There was no budget at all. We had about twenty dollars and fifty cents to spend on the entire set.Read Berkeleyside’s review of Angels in America.
Berkeleyside caught up with Butler and Kois to ask them about the oral history book which started as a piece for Slate, which they later expanded. They answered our questions by email.
What is it about ‘Angels in America’ that makes it such an important American play?
Oy vey, where do we begin? In terms of its historical importance, Angels in America helped change the way that gay men and people with AIDS were portrayed in US culture writ large. It’s a play written in the late ’80s that makes its Broadway debut in the early ’90s whose everyman hero is an effeminate gay man with AIDS. And because it was a big hit and widely beloved, this play and its representational politics got discussed everywhere. It’s not every Broadway show that’s regularly being written about in the New York Review of Books. Showing gay characters in all of their complicated humanity, and having a person with AIDS who is still alive at the end of the play — those were not common things back then.
But there’s another reason why it’s so important. Angels in America is at its core about the fundamental questions and themes of American identity. Do we embrace change or look backward? How does multiculturalism — what one character calls “the melting pot that never melted”— shape our destiny? What do we owe to each other, and what do we owe to ourselves? These are going to be important questions for as long as America survives, and this play puts those right front and center and forces you to confront them. Thankfully, it’s also one of the funniest plays ever written.
How has the play affected you?
Both of us saw Angels in America when it was first on Broadway, in two parts, in 1994. We didn’t know each other then, but we had the same experience of feeling like our lives had been changed forever. Angels made clear how great art and great political inquiry could weave together to form something uniquely powerful. Also, just on a basic level… the language is electric, the characters compelling, the debates thrilling, the jokes land, it’s got spectacle. Everything you want in a play is right there.
What we discovered after we started working together is that pretty much everyone we interviewed had a very similar experience of being changed by the play. Whether they were in it, saw it, worked backstage, taught it, whatever, they had an intense, life-changing experience with it.
How did you get the idea to write the book? How long did it take?
The book started as a cover story that Dan proposed at Slate, where he is an editor. It became very clear that it was too big a project for one person very early on, so he brought Isaac on board (forgive the weird third person here, there’s two of us writing these answers!). And then very quickly we realized it needed to be an oral history. And very quickly after that, we realized there was just too much material for it to be contained in an article.
But we did the best we could. The initial draft of the article was 40,000 words! It got cut down to like 15,000 words, which was still one of the longest articles Slate had ever run. Two of the original cast members we interviewed, Ellen McLaughlin and Kathy Chalfant, separately told us they thought we were maybe writing a book, not merely an article, and during the process of cutting that initial draft we clung to that notion: Don’t worry it’ll be in the book! That was, like, the only way we could kill our darlings. Then the article was a hit, so we actually got to sell the book and start interviewing a whole new wave of people.
From our first meeting over dumplings to talk about the article to handing in the finalish draft of the book was about a year and a half. Having two authors really allowed us to work much faster.
You interviewed 250 people. Was this a project Tony Kushner was happy to participate in? Was there anyone who wouldn’t talk to you?
Tony Kushner likes to joke about his fraught relationship to being written about. When we first approached him about expanding it into a book, he said something like, “Oh, I thought no one would do this until after I died.” And there’s a book of interviews with him where he wrote the afterword and the first line is something like “Why did I ever agree to do this book?”
But it turned out that Tony Kushner was extremely generous with us. He gave us hours of his time to do interviews. His assistant helped us track down interview subjects, photographs, old pieces of writing, and all sorts of other Angels ephemera. He let us use a personal polaroid that Annie Leibowitz had taken of him back in the ’90s. And most important, he was very, very generous with his stories and letting us in on decades of his own life story, and making those stories come alive even though many of them are ones he’s told at innumerable cocktail parties and galas over the years.
There were many people who didn’t talk to us. Sometimes they were off filming, or their publicists would turn us down without (we think) actually conveying the request, or they just didn’t want to talk about it. And, of course, a lot of people involved in this story are dead. Robert Altman, who tried to make a movie of Angels in the ’90s, Gordon Davidson, who ran the Mark Taper Forum while they were developing Angels. Several actors who had worked on the show, etc. That said, it’s worth noting that our batting average was crazily good, way better than any other interview-heavy project either of us has ever done — because, we think, of the passion so many of those people had for their experience with Angels.
I was struck by how much Kushner rewrote the play. It seems as if he would still like to make a few adjustments. While all plays progress as they are performed, the process for ‘Angels in America’ seems distinct. Is it? And how did it contribute to the creation of what is largely considered a masterpiece?
Angels in America is actually two plays. The first play, Millennium Approaches has been pretty much set in stone for decades now. Kushner wrote a tiny little bit of extra text for it to cover a costume change for the Broadway production. Millennium is a perfect play. One of our interviewees described it as a tightly wound bow, and if you nock the arrow at the top of the show and let it fly, you’ll get a pretty decent production. The trick is living up to its brilliance.
Perestroika is a totally different beast. It’s huge, five acts instead of three, and it is really about change and the nature of change, and its canvas spreads everywhere from Antarctica to Heaven. It’s a much more ambitious, deliberately messy, complicated work, in part because it’s dealing with the world broken apart so perfectly by Millennium. And as a result, it will never be truly “finished.” That’s part of what makes it a singular and brilliant play: It’s about change, and it will never stop changing.
Do you think the play, which talks about the early days of the AIDS crisis, Mormonism, Roy Cohn and Ronald Reagan, is relevant to today’s issues?
Oh God yes. On a basic level, Roy Cohn is a character in the play and the real-life Roy Cohn’s protegé is our current President. So you can kinda see all the Cohnian tactics that Trump learned, as Frank Rich explicates out in New York magazine. But beyond that, Angels in America portrays the debates roiling both the left and right wings in this country with remarkable prescience. And it’s a play in part about the nature of citizenship: Who gets to be a citizen? What does it mean to be an American? Those questions have lost none of their importance.
Also, it feels a bit like we’ve returned to the psychic terrain of the world when Kushner began working on this play. In 1988, Reaganism felt impervious. There was a new plague. It felt like the world was turning backward and going to hell all at once. And the play is set in 1986, a just as dark — if not darker — time. By the time it premiered on Broadway, Clinton was president and it was still early enough in that presidency that it felt like things were going to get better. Now, we’re at another dark time, and this play’s sense of hard-won, furious hope, and belief that change is not only possible but necessary and vital.
How many times have you seen the production?
We’ve both seen Angels in America many times. If you mean the production that’s currently on Broadway, we went to London to see it when it was at the National and meet and interview the entire cast. The second to last chapter of our book follows them as they work on the play in real time. Additionally, Isaac has seen the Broadway version of that production twice. And we’re really looking forward to seeing the Berkeley Rep production, starring the first Prior either of us ever saw, Stephen Spinella, as Roy Cohn.