Theatre yesterday and today



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The Emmy Awards were doled out last night, 9/18. Twelve years ago on 9/19, HBO's Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, adapted by playwright Tony Kushner from his Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning plays, took home 11 trophies (then a record). I recently watched the entire mini-series again for the third time and it's hard to believe that a dozen years have gone by. The actors in it all look the same today and it almost goes without saying that the resonance of the writing continues to deepen and glow.

The real angel: Emma Stebbins' 8-foot tall bronze statue at Bethesda Fountain in Central Park

Kushner's achievement was unique. Not only did he write two plays, ambitious in their length and complexity, but they were presented individually in back-to-back seasons, resulting in his winning the Tony Award twice in a row; one for Millennium Approaches in 1993, and one for Perestroika in 1994. It was six months after Millennium Approaches opened that Perestroika joined it in repertory, allowing for audiences to appreciate both plays on either the same day or a week apart, whichever they preferred. I never saw this Broadway production, a true regret of mine. I was living in Los Angeles and my children were two and four years-old at the time and trips to New York were scarce. I didn't feel out of the loop however, since it was in Los Angeles, when Angels premiered a year prior to New York. There I got to witness and appreciate its genius first-hand from, if memory serves, the front row of the theatre.

In 1992, the plays were performed at the Mark Taper Forum in downtown Los Angeles, even though Perestroika was very much a work in progress. Kushner originally received a commission to write Millennium Approaches from San Francisco's Eureka Theatre (by way of the Federal government), and he was being shepherded by Eureka’s then co-Artistic Directors, Oskar Eustis (now the head of the Public Theatre) and Tony Taccone (now the head of the Berkeley Rep). However, while Angels was in development, Eustis was hired away by the Taper, where he fought to bring Kushner's play with him, resulting in something of a custody battle. As Eustis tells the story in the recent Slate Magazine online article, Angels in America: The Complete Oral History, "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." Matters became further complicated when, as Kushner tells it, "I hadn’t written Perestroika yet, but to fulfill my contract, the Eureka insisted that we do a production of Angels."

All this was going on behind the scenes while I saw Millennium Approaches in what wound up as its world premiere at the Taper. I also saw (the following evening) the very long and nearly indescribable Perestroika. I know it sounds cliché, but the only way I can describe them is mesmerizing. The quality of the writing, the themes Kushner was interweaving through his disparate characters, and the overwhelming theatricality of it, were staggering. And, as I understand it, the next version (the one that came to Broadway with George C. Wolfe as its new director) was even more theatrical, due to an increase in budget and entirely new scenery by Robin Wagner.

For all the minute details of the Angels story, it is essential to immerse one’s self fully in The Complete Oral History, as it is told by the participants in their own words. It is required reading for anyone interested in the full saga.

As witness to the kind of theatre Angels was ushering in, I stood up both nights I saw the plays in Los Angeles and took notice. I mean, how could anyone not? The work was raw, impassioned, intellectual (overly so, as some critics have stipulated), but undeniably powerful. And that doesn't even take in the roles that Kushner supplied for his actors, which were numerous, as everyone in the cast played more than one. Half the company came out of those involved in the early stages at the Eureka in San Francisco with Stephen Spinella as Prior Walter, Ellen McLaughlin as the Angel and Kathleen Chalfant as Hannah Pitt, remaining with the play through its Broadway incarnation.

It also featured Joe Mantello as Louis Aronson and Ron Leibman as Roy Cohen, who would go on to Broadway as well. Mantello would be Tony nominated and Leibman would win Best Actor in a Play for Millennium Approaches. Stephen Spinella’s Prior would take home the Featured Actor in a Play Tony.

Wolfe’s production also boasted Jeffrey Wright as Belize, who would go on to win a Tony the following season for Perestroika (as well as an Emmy) for the role. Stephen Spinella would win a second time for playing Prior Walter, this time as Best Actor in a Play. Marcia Gay Harden and David Marshall Grant as Harper and Joe Pitt were Tony nominated too, as well as Kathleen Chalfant. Close to the entire cast Mike Nichols brought together for the HBO version were in the Emmy race with wins going to Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Mary Louise Parker and the aforementioned Wright, and nominations to Patrick Wilson, Justin Kirk and Ben Shenkman.

Its lure for actors can't be underestimated, as the original Broadway production found worthy successors for these world-class parts with the likes of F. Murray Abraham, Cynthia Nixon, Dan Futterman and Cherry Jones.

I also got to experience its most recent revival at the Signature Theatre in 2010, with a wonderful cast that included Christian Borle, Zach Quinto, Billy Porter, Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck, Robin Weigert and Frank Wood. This time I attended both plays in one day (highly recommended) with my daughter, who had studied it in high school (yay!).

So now what do you think are the odds that I’m lining up a trip to London next year to see a new production of Angels in America being readied at the National Theatre that will feature Andrew Garfield as Prior and Nathan Lane as Roy Cohen? The answer (slipping back into cliché mode) is that wild horses couldn’t stop me.

If you would like to comment on any of these posts, please do so below. I look forward to hearing from you.