Friday, May 04, 2018

Today In 1993, 'Angels In America' Opens On Broadway

Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes is a two-part play by American playwright Tony Kushner. The work won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Tony Award for Best Play, and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play. Part one of the play premiered in 1991 and its Broadway opening was today, May 4, in 1993.

The play is a complex, often metaphorical, and at times symbolic examination of AIDS and homosexuality in America in the 1980s. Certain major and minor characters are supernatural beings (angels) or deceased persons (ghosts). The play contains multiple roles for several of the actors. Initially and primarily focusing on a gay couple in Manhattan, the play also has several other storylines, some of which occasionally intersect.

The two parts of the play are separately presentable and entitled Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, respectively. The play has been adapted into a 2003 miniseries of the same title, and a 2004 opera by Peter Eötvös. A new revival is also currently running strong on Broadway having received 11 Tony nominations this week, more than any other play in history.

Set in New York City, the play opens at the end of October 1985, with Louis Ironson, a gay Jew, learning that his lover, WASP Prior Walter, has AIDS. As Prior's illness progresses, Louis becomes unable to cope and moves out, leaving Prior to deal with his abandonment. Prior begins to receive visits from a pair of ghosts who claim to be his own ancestors, and hears an angelic voice telling him to prepare for her arrival. 

Meanwhile, closeted gay Mormon and Republican Joe Pitt, a law clerk in the same judge's office where Louis holds a clerical job, is offered a position in Washington, D.C., by his mentor, the McCarthyist lawyer Roy Cohn. Joe hesitates to accept out of concern for his agoraphobic wife Harper, who refuses to move. Harper suspects that Joe does not love her in the same way she loves him, which is confirmed when Joe confesses his homosexuality. Harper retreats into a drug-fueled escapist fantasy, including a dream where she crosses paths with Prior even though the two of them have never met in the real world. Joe's conservative mother Hannah arrives in New York, where she finds that in reality Harper has been wandering the streets of the city while Joe begins an affair with Louis. Denying her son's homosexuality, Hannah instead tries to force a reconciliation between Harper and Joe.

Connecting all these characters is Roy Cohn, himself deeply closeted, who has just learned he has AIDS. Cohn uses his political connections to secure a supply of an experimental drug, AZT, at the expense of withholding the drug from participants in a drug trial. Now alone in a hospital, Cohn finds himself judged by his night nurse Belize (a former drag queen and a friend of Prior's) and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, co-defendant and executed with her husband Julius years before when Cohn was prosecutor at their espionage trial.

At the end of Part One, Prior is visited by an angel, who proclaims Prior to be a prophet and tells him that "the Great Work" has begun.

The play is written for eight actors, each of whom plays two or more roles. Kushner's doubling, as indicated in the published script, requires several of the actors to play the opposite gender.

Angels in America was commissioned by the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco, by co-artistic directors Oskar Eustis and Tony Taccone. It was first performed in Los Angeles as a workshop in May 1990 by the Center Theatre Group at the Mark Taper Forum.

Millennium Approaches premiered in May 1991 in a production performed by the Eureka Theatre Company of San Francisco, directed by David Esbjornson. In London it premiered in a National Theatre production at the Cottesloe Theatre, directed by Declan Donnellan.  Opening on January 23, 1992, the London production ran for a year. In November 1992 it visited Düsseldorf as part of the first Union des Théâtres de l'Europe festival.

The play's second part, Perestroika, was still being developed as Millennium Approaches was being performed. It was performed several times as staged readings by both the Eureka Theatre (during the world premiere of part one in 1991), and the Mark Taper Forum (in May 1992). It premiered in November 1992 in a production by the Mark Taper Forum, directed by Oskar Eustis and Tony Taccone. In November 1993 it received its London debut in a National Theatre production on the Cottesloe stage, in repertory with a revival of Millennium Approaches, again directed by Declan Donnellan.

The entire two-part play debuted on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre in 1993, directed by George C. Wolfe, with Millennium Approaches performed on May 4 and Perestroika joining it in repertory on November 23. The original cast included Ron Leibman, Stephen Spinella, Kathleen Chalfant, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeffrey Wright, Ellen McLaughlin, David Marshall Grant and Joe Mantello.

Kushner made relatively minor revisions to Millennium Approaches and additional, more substantial revisions to Perestroika during a run at the Signature Theatre in 2010, which were published in a 2013 complete edition. That production was directed by Michael Greif and featured Christian Borle, Zachary Quinto, Billy Porter, Bill Heck, Zoe Kazan, Robin Bartlett, Frank Wood, and Robin Weigert.

In April 2017, a new production began previews at the National Theatre, London in the Lyttleton Theatre. Directed by Marianne Elliott, the cast included Andrew Garfield as Prior with Russell Tovey as Joe, Denise Gough as Harper, James McArdle as Louis Ironson, and Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn. In 2018, the production was nominated for six Olivier Awards, including the Award for Best Revival. In April 2018, Gough won Best Actress in a Supporting Role and the production Best Revival.

In February 2018, the 2017 Royal National Theatre production transferred to Broadway for an 18-week engagement at the Neil Simon Theatre. The majority of the London cast returned, with Lee Pace replacing Tovey as Joe, and Beth Malone playing the Angel at certain performances. Previews began on February 23, 2018, with opening night on March 25. 

The current Broadway revival just received 11 Tony Award nominations, including Best Revival of a Play, Best Actor in a Play for Andrew Garfield, Best Featured Actor in a Play for Nathan Lane, and Best Featured Actress in a Play for Susan Brown and Denise Gough. It was also announced this week that the limited run for the show has been extended to July 15, 2018.

In 2003, HBO Films created a miniseries version of the play. Kushner adapted his original text for the screen, and Mike Nichols directed. Angels in America was the most watched made-for-cable movie in 2003 and won both the Golden Globe and Emmy for Best Miniseries.

Kushner made certain changes to his play (especially Part Two, Perestroika) for it to work on screen, but the HBO version is generally a faithful representation of Kushner's original work. Kushner has been quoted as saying that he knew Nichols was the right person to direct the movie when, at their first meeting, Nichols immediately said that he wanted actors to play multiple roles, as had been done in onstage productions.

The lead cast includes Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Jeffrey Wright (repeating his Tony-winning Broadway role), Justin Kirk, Ben Shenkman, Patrick Wilson, and Mary-Louise Parker.

Angels in America – The Opera made its world premiere at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, France, on November 23, 2004. The opera was based on both parts of the Angels in America fantasia, however the script was re-worked and condensed to fit both parts into a two and half hour show. Composer Peter Eötvös explains: "In the opera version, I put less emphasis on the political line than Kushner...I rather focus on the passionate relationships, on the highly dramatic suspense of the wonderful text, on the permanently uncertain state of the visions." A German version of the opera followed suit in mid-2005. The opera made its US debut in June 2006 at the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion in Boston, Massachusetts.

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