Theatre yesterday and today



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Twenty-five years ago this evening, Angels in America: Millennium Approaches landed on Broadway in a triumphant burst of glory. It was only Part 1 of what Tony Kushner labeled his "Gay Fantasia on National Themes," with Part 2, Peristroika, following in November, six months later. Now both shows are running in Angels' first Broadway revival since then, in a production that just broke a Tony Awards record, when it received 11 nominations, the most ever for a play (for me, it could have easily gone to 12 or 13, had there been a bit more room in the Featured Actor category). How many it takes home on June 10th is anybody's guess, but this revival which came from England's National Theatre, is already a winner. Audiences who have seen it on stage before, or are familiar with Mike Nichols's 2003 HBO film adaptation, are just as enamored of it as are those who are being introduced to Kushner's work for the first time. Without hyperbole, it really is safe to say, that this is one of the most important and historically significant plays to have ever been produced on Broadway. And that it even manages an enhanced power, in a very different Broadway from the one 25 years ago, is another testament to its significance and timeliness.

Stephen Spinella and Tony Kushner on the set of the 1993 Broadway production of Angels in America.

Far more sophisticated writers than I have analyzed Kushner's work over the years, so I think I can reserve my two cents here. For some really deep thinking by the people who were there at the beginning (and beyond), run-and-don't-walk to purchase the recent book The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America, by Isaac Butler and Dan Kois. From the play's birth pains to a quarter-century later, now with Angels performed the world over (and even taught in our nation's schools), the interviews conducted by Butler and Kois make for a fascinating read.

My own personal journey with both Parts 1 and 2, began when I saw it in its earliest stages at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. It was November, 1992 and Part 1 had already taken London by storm. Frank Rich, then the chief theatre critic for the New York Times, had seen it there and written a rave review in March of that year, and later, added to his account of it when he wrote: "I was so overwhelmed by Angels after a matinee in London that I canceled my theatergoing plans for that night; I needed time to think." And when I saw Millennium Approaches in L.A. it was indeed close to the masterpiece it is now generally considered to be. But there was much work to be done with Peristroika, which was essentially staged as a work in progress (almost apologetically so), though the two performances of the plays I saw, spending eight hours in the company of these characters, were nights in the theatre I will never forget, especially by way of the quality of the acting: Stephen Spinella (for whom the role of Prior Walter was written); Ellen McLaughlin's Angel and Kathleen Chalfant's Hannah Pitt (each essaying other roles in the play, both male and female), and Ron Leibman's Roy Cohn, all of whom went on to open the show on Broadway (which, incidentally, was a production I never got to see. Living in Los Angeles at the time, and my children only four and two, didn't afford the chance to get to New York as often as I would have liked).

The 1992 cast of the Los Angeles Angels: (top row: Jeffrey King, Stephen Spinella, Kathleen Chalfant, Cynthia Mace (bottom row: K. Todd Freeman, Ron Liebman, Ellen McLaughlin & Joe Mantello).

When I took the drive downtown to the Taper to see both parts of Angels, it was in the company of my now ex-wife and our mutual best friend, who was then the costume designer for the CBS soap opera The Young and the Restless. Being a gay man, his reaction to the show was profound, and I can recall the conversations we had about Kushner's plays, and how deeply he felt things about it that were so true to his own experiences. It was a very short time after that, on a night outside the apartment buildings that we lived in side by side, that he told us he had been diagnosed with AIDS. In 1993, that was a dire thing to be told and to live with, praying that whatever cures were being worked on would come before any further denigration to one's weakened immune system would be fatal. It was a tough time for him, as well as for so many others, who were facing a potential limited life span, forcing young men like him to rely on their own personal courage and optimism in the face of something that was inconceivable only a few years earlier. He succumbed to the disease far sooner than any of us anticipated, and just two years later at the age of thirty-four, he was gone. To this day, I can't read, see or think about Angels in America without thinking of Greg York.

Cynthia Mace as Harper and Stephen Spinella as Prior in Millennium Approaches (L.A. 1992).

After this weekend's Tony nominations were announced, the producers of the current Broadway production announced that Angels would extend for two additional weeks into the summer. It is now closing on July 15th. Anyone who has never seen it on stage owes it to themselves to see it, mainly because without so doing, they are missing an essential component of a complete theatre education. And for anyone who has already seen it performed, and therefore thinks they can easily miss this production, is greatly m