New Oral History Captures The Magic Of 'Angels In America'

Feb 9, 2018
Originally published on February 9, 2018 11:13 pm

By the time Angels In America got to Broadway in 1993, after workshops, a pair of west-coast stagings, and an ecstatically received London production, it played like the smash audiences had heard it was.

Playwright Tony Kushner had created what he called a "gay fantasia on national themes," a two-part, six-plus-hours theater event that explored the AIDS era with characters real and fictional, in sometimes hallucinatory situations that were seriously out-there. A winged angel flew in at the end of the first half, and that was after the action had leapt from Manhattan to Salt Lake City to Antarctica.

Imagine the actors' reactions at that first read-through. Actually, you don't have to imagine because in their oral history The World Only Spins Forward, authors Isaac Butler and Dan Kois got them to talk about it.

Actress Lori Holt, for instance, who played the Valium-popping wife of a gay Republican Mormon in one of the earliest Angels workshops at San Francisco's Eureka Theater Company, read her journal entries to the authors.

"I wrote in my journal, December of '88: 'The script is outrageously long, the first part alone is 200 pages plus.'"

Two hundred pages-plus of laughter, fury, anguish, poetry, drag queens, closeted lawyers, Mormons, and — especially — politics. And that was just the first half. Today, the plays are a known quantity, having won a Pulitzer Prize, inspired a multi-part HBO adaptation, and having been produced, published, and taught the world over for 25 years. But in the early 1990s, there was a very real question as to whether an audience would even get it. No one knew for sure. Including, the authors discovered, the playwright.

"Opening night, which is critics night," Kushner told them, "is like performing at a stenographer's convention. Nobody laughs. It's horrible. And then they all go home and write their reviews, and the reviews come out."

He's talking here about the first London production, before there was any talk about bringing Angels to New York. He and director Declan Donnellan had disagreed strenuously about the staging. Emotions were running high, and the director told the cast he didn't want anyone to read the reviews. They were all going to meet up at a bar — and actors being actors, one went to a newsstand on the way to the bar and arrived with an armload of newspapers. Once they'd been plunked on a table, Donnelan forgot all about his instructions and started reading them aloud, sight unseen.

"Tony was sort of shriveling on the other side of the table," Donnellan recalls. "And I read all these reviews, and they were all total raves. And then I realized what an awful, risky thing I'd done." '

The book weaves together this sort of in-the-moment remembrance with the reactions of everyone from critics, to gay former Rep. Barney Frank. Its oral history consists of a sort of tapestry of snippets from almost 250 interviews, arranged in chapters that deal with the show's development, its casting, its reception, and its legacy. The point is not just to show how this play found its voice, but also to place it in context. Angels was a product of, and was dramatizing, a moment when the purple splotch of Kaposi's Sarcoma — evidence of a compromised immune system — amounted to a death sentence.

One of the play's more telling scenes finds Prior and Lewis — the central gay couple played by Stephen Spinella and Joe Mantello in the original Broadway production — coming to terms with that fact. Prior shows Lewis a splotch on his arm, and Lewis responds, "That is just a burst blood vessel."

"Not according to the best medical authorities," demurs Prior as Lewis dissolves in sobs. "K.S. baby. Lesion number 1, the wine dark kiss of the angel of death, I'm a lesionaire, the foreign lesion. The American lesion. Lesionaire's disease. My troubles are lesion ... Don't you think I'm handling this well? I'm going to die."

Mantello, now celebrated as the director of the smash musical Wicked, is devastated (and devastating) in that scene, which more or less introduced him to audiences. He was, he tells the authors, so unskilled at auditioning that he was "virtually unhireable" before Angels opened on Broadway in 1993.

"It wasn't like a natural progression," he says, "of somebody who had been working a lot off-Broadway. It was really: very few acting jobs ... Angels in America."

Today, the play attracts much bigger names. Celebrated Broadway headliner Nathan Lane will play closeted lawyer/moral monster Roy Cohn in the 25th anniversary Broadway revival, and movie star Andrew Garfield, who not long ago was Hollywood's amazing Spider-Man, will wear "the wine-dark kiss of the angel of death." The book's authors asked Garfield to comment on how his own sexuality affects playing a now-iconic gay character

"I, as far as I know, am a heterosexual male in a heterosexual male's body. And I'm not confused about that. And of course, the responsibility of taking on this role in a seminal play — a seminal gay play — filled me with joy. Because I knew deep down it was going to be fine. But just above that deep down was a layer of terror, of: 'I'm the wrong person for this.'"

The terror is understandable. Though he got good reviews recently in the part in London, he does have big shoes to fill, as have the dozens of other actors who've played the part through the years. Even after a quarter-century, memories of Spinella standing up to AIDS — and an unreliable partner, and the arrival of that problematic angel — remain strong.

An angel whose entrance — she comes crashing through the ceiling, demolishing plaster, cracking a refrigerator, and generally wreaking havoc — is both a staging highlight, and a fraught moment for the tech crew. One actress remembers her wig getting caught in the rigging as she was flying in. And the director came home to a phone message that night from a patron who raved about the moment "when the angel turned upside down screaming, and her wings fell into the audience, and the stage manager came out. It looked so real," he said, "but I knew you'd rehearsed it."

Theater magic. You've got to love it. And Dan Kois and Isaac Butler have captured a lot of it in The World Only Spins Forward.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A Broadway revival opens this month - the landmark two-part theater event "Angels In America." The plays, which deal with AIDS and homosexuality, have been produced and published and taught all over the world in the last quarter century. Now there's a new tool for understanding them - an oral history called "The World Only Spins Forward." Critic Bob Mondello calls the book a fascinating backstage tour.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: By the time "Angels In America" got to Broadway in 1993 after workshops, a pair of West Coast stagings and an ecstatically received London production, it played like the smash audiences had heard it was.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "ANGELS IN AMERICA")

JOE MANTELLO: (As Louis) Well, oh, boy, a gay Republican.

DAVID MARSHALL GRANT: (As Joe) Excuse me.

MANTELLO: (As Louis) Nothing.

(LAUGHTER)

GRANT: (As Joe) I am not - forget it.

MANTELLO: (As Louis) Republican - you're not Republican.

MONDELLO: Playwright Tony Kushner had created what he called a gay "Fantasia" on national themes, a play that explored the AIDS era with characters real and fictional in situations that were seriously out there.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "ANGELS IN AMERICA")

MARCIA GAY HARDEN: (As Harper) What are you doing in my hallucination?

STEPHEN SPINELLA: (As Prior) I am not in your hallucination. You're in my dream.

HARDEN: (As Harper) You're wearing makeup.

SPINELLA: (As Prior) So are you.

HARDEN: (As Harper) But you're a man.

SPINELLA: (As Prior, screaming).

(LAUGHTER)

MONDELLO: A winged angel flew in at the end of the first half, and that was after the action had leapt from Manhattan to Salt Lake City to Antarctica. Imagine the performers' reactions at that first read-through. Actually, you don't have to imagine because in their book "The World Only Spins Forward," Isaac Butler and Dan Kois got them to talk about it.

One actress from an early "Angels" workshop remembers the script being more than 200 pages, and that was just the first half. Others talked of the play's crazy mix of laughter, fury, poetry, drag queens, closeted lawyers, Mormons and especially politics. Would an audience get it? No one knew for sure, including, the author's learned, playwright Tony Kushner.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TONY KUSHNER: Opening night, which is critics night, they all sit there. It's like performing at a stenographers convention. Nobody laughs. And it's horrible, and they all go home and write their reviews. And the reviews come out.

MONDELLO: Here he's talking about the first London production before there was any talk about bringing "Angels" to New York. Kushner and director Declan Donnellan had disagreed strenuously about the staging. Emotions were high.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KUSHNER: The whole cast and Declan and I were going to meet at a bar, and Declan said to the cast, I don't want anyone to read the reviews.

MONDELLO: But actors being actors, one went to a newsstand on the way to the bar.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KUSHNER: And then he comes in with this armload of newspapers. And I said, Jeffrey, what is - what's - he said, it's all the reviews, darling.

MONDELLO: And once they'd been plunked on a table, Donnellan forgot all about his instructions and started reading them aloud sight unseen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DECLAN DONNELLAN: And Tony was sort of shriveling on the other side of the table. And I read all these reviews, and they're all total raves. And then I realized in a way what an awful and risky thing I had done. It just never occurred to me that anybody could say a word against it.

MONDELLO: The book weaves together this sort of in-the-moment remembrance with the reactions of everyone from critics to gay Congressman Barney Frank, more than 200 interviews in all not just to show how this play found its voice but also to place it in context. "Angels" was in and was dramatizing a moment when the purple splotch of Kaposi's sarcoma, evidence of a compromised immune system, amounted to a death sentence.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "ANGELS IN AMERICA")

MANTELLO: (As Louis) That is just a burst blood vessel.

SPINELLA: (As Prior) Not according to the best medical authorities.

MANTELLO: (As Louis) What?

SPINELLA: (As Prior) KS, baby - lesion number one, the wine-dark kiss of the angel of death.

MANTELLO: (As Louis) Oh, please.

SPINELLA: (As Prior) I'm a lesionnaire in the foreign lesion, the American lesion, lesionnaires' disease.

MANTELLO: (As Louis) Stop.

SPINELLA: (As Prior) My troubles are lesion.

MANTELLO: (As Louis) Will you stop?

SPINELLA: (As Prior, laughter) Don't you think I'm handling this well? I'm going to die.

MONDELLO: The actor sobbing through that passage is Joe Mantello, now celebrated as the director of the smash hit musical "Wicked" but completely unknown before "Angels" opened on Broadway in 1993.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MANTELLO: I was virtually unhirable.

MONDELLO: He tells the authors he was unskilled at auditioning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MANTELLO: It wasn't like a natural progression of somebody who'd been working a lot off Broadway. It was really, like, very few acting jobs, "Angels In America."

MONDELLO: Today the play attracts much bigger names. Movie star Andrew Garfield, who not long ago was Hollywood's Spider-Man, will wear the wine-dark kiss of the angel of death in this month's Broadway revival. The book's authors spoke with him, too, about how his own sexuality affects playing a now-iconic gay character.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDREW GARFIELD: I, as far as I know, am a heterosexual male in a heterosexual male's body, and I'm not confused about that. And of course the responsibility of taking on this role in a seminal play - a seminal gay play - filled me with joy because I knew deep down that it was going to be fine. But just above that deep down was a layer of terror...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Laughter).

GARFIELD: ...Of I'm the wrong person for this.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Right.

MONDELLO: He does have big shoes to fill, as have the dozens of other actors who have played this part. Even after a quarter century, memories of Stephen Spinella standing up to AIDS and an unreliable partner and the arrival of that problematic angel remains strong.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "ANGELS IN AMERICA")

ELLEN MCLAUGHLIN: (As The Angel) And lo, the prophet was led by his nightly dreams to the hiding place of the sacred implement.

SPINELLA: (As Prior) You cracked the refrigerator. You probably release a whole cloud of fluorocarbons.

(LAUGHTER)

SPINELLA: (As Prior) That's bad for the environment.

MCLAUGHLIN: (As The Angel) My wrath is as fearsome as my countenance is splendid.

MONDELLO: Performers told the book's authors about one time the angel's countenance was less splendid. Her wig caught in the rigging as she was flying in, and the director came home to a phone message from a patron who raved about the moment, quote, "when the angel turned upside down screaming and her wings fell into the audience and the stage manager came out. It looked so real," he said, "but I knew you'd rehearsed it." Theater magic - you got to love it. And Dan Kois and Isaac Butler have captured a lot of it in their "Angels In America" oral history, "The World Only Spins Forward." I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.