AND THE ANGELS SANG
July 21, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning plays, is back among us. By among us, I mean that the two plays are currently being performed at the Lyttelton Theatre in London. Only you don’t have to board a plane to see them. Last night night, I had the chance to see Part 1, Millennium Approaches, courtesy of National Theatre Live, the film series that has allowed over the last few years to see numerous productions born out of the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain, as it is officially known. The Oliver and the Cottesloe are the other two theatres within the cement complex (both government supported and protected, thank you very much), that is situated at King’s Reach on the River Thames.
Having opened to rave reviews in the brilliantly re-imagined staging by the two-time Tony Award winning British director, Marianne Elliott, the timing is now as important as ever to take in with fresh eyes Kusher’s remarkable achievement. Not only are both parts ambitious in their length and complexity, but when first presented on Broadway individually in back-to-back seasons, the result were Tony Awards given twice in a row: one for Millennium Approaches in 1993, and one the following year for Perestroika. It was six months after Part 1 opened that Part 2 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 (the city of Angels) when Angels premiered a year prior to New York. There I got to witness and appreciate its genius first-hand.
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, let us not forget), and he was being shepherded by Eureka’s then co-Artistic Directors, Oskar Eustis (now the head of the Public Theatre) and Tony Taccone (who would go on to head 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 nearly twenty-five years ago, 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 are inclined to proffer), 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 HBO film version in 2003). Stephen Spinella would win a second Tony as 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!).
The National’s Angels in America features Andrew Garfield as Prior and Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn, in performances of such high quality that they require a column all their own. Which I will report back next week, after I’ve seen Part 2.
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Up-Cheap-Seats HistoricalBroadway/dp/0998168629/ref=sr_1_4ie=UTF8&qid=1494611605&sr=8–4&keywords=up+in+the+cheap+seats+book