And yet, for all the production’s distinctiveness — for the electric field of feeling that seems to follow the performers; for the eerie, neon buzz of the design; for the sheer legibility of the script across the decades — it’s hardly the last word on Angels in America. No production is. That, at least, is the unspoken message of The World Only Spins Forward, a new oral history of Angels, written by Isaac Butler and Dan Kois, who conducted, edited, and arranged the 250 interviews that constitute the guts of this propulsive, moving account.
So many books about the theater derive their power from the sentimental idea that the best productions and performances remain in the past, beyond the reach of the present-day reader. The World Only Spins Forward refuses to partake in such theatrical rubbernecking. Profiling a multitude of Angels productions — not just the original Broadway staging, but others that came both before and after — The World Only Spins Forward makes the case that Angels, like all truly great pieces of theater, transcends any individual production that might lay definitive claim to the play. In this way, though the book’s focus is on the past, it ultimately points to the future: even if you don’t get to see a production as wonderful as the current Broadway revival, you still haven’t missed out. With a work as great as Angels, there are no lost opportunities.
Kushner’s play first appeared before the public in April 1989, in a staged reading produced by the Eureka Theatre Company in San Francisco. This was only one of countless developmental steps on Angels in America’s long road to Broadway. “There were eleven thousand workshops,” one of the play’s early stars tells Butler and Kois. “It was well developed.”
More than any piece of theater that preceded it, Angels both reflected and transcended contemporary concerns like AIDS, Reaganism, and gay rights. Audiences were ravenous for the play, and on the power of this enthusiasm, Angels quickly moved up the theatrical food chain. A host of theaters presented early versions of the play while Kushner was still writing and revising it; to read about these separate interpretations, some of which featured different creative teams and casts, is to marvel at the sturdiness of Angels. No matter the artistic context, the play thrived.
At the tiny Eureka Theatre, where Part One made its world premiere in 1991, director David Esbjornson staged the expansive play using the humblest of materials: a shower curtain, bungee cords, sawdust. “It was in some ways the most beautiful version of the play,” says actress Kathleen Chalfant, “and the most Poor Theater version of the play.” There was something deeply moving and oddly funny about the production’s handmade ethos. Critics loved it. Reviewing the show in the Bay Area Reporter, Deborah Peifer wrote, “To call this a brilliantly realized, profoundly funny, wickedly thoughtful piece of theater is to discover the severe limitations of language. I found myself wanting to say, simply, it’s more than I ever imagined.”
A swift, spare staging of Part One subsequently opened in 1992 at London’s Royal National Theatre. Directed by Declan Donnellan, this production unfolded on a mostly empty stage dominated by a huge American flag on the back wall. To increase the play’s tension, Donnellan overlapped the beginning and ends of scenes. Here, too, the response was rapturous. Frank Rich of The New York Times wrote, “Mr. Kushner has created an original theatrical world of his own, poetic and churning, that, once entered by an open-minded viewer of any political or sexual persuasion, simply cannot be escaped.”
Other pre-Broadway productions also demonstrated the play’s multiplicity, its capacity to thrive under vastly different budgets and directorial visions. At the Juilliard School, Michael Stuhlbarg (Call Me by Your Name), Elizabeth Marvel (Homeland), and other students showed that the play could work in the hands of young actors. In Los Angeles, at the Mark Taper Forum, a difficult rehearsal process nonetheless produced a bigger staging that “sealed your sense that this was the play of its age,” according to San Francisco theater critic Robert Hurwitt. “This was a masterpiece.”
The complete, two-part play finally opened on Broadway in May and November 1993, respectively. Directed by George C. Wolfe, the New York production was far more elaborate than any that had preceded it; stagehands called it “the Money Store” because of all the overtime they earned. And yet, though many of the actors who appeared in the Broadway premiere — among them Stephen Spinella, Joe Mantello, and Marcia Gay Harden — gave performances that are now legendary, The World Only Spins Forward situates these actors among a vast ensemble of other performers who also worked on the play as it grew. Again, the book here emphasizes the play’s pluralism, and demonstrates how Angels was propelled forward by the labor of all the actors who worked on it, not just the ones who opened the show on Broadway.
Naturally, many of the actors who didn’t follow the show to New York had strong, complicated feelings about the whole matter, and The World Only Spins Forward makes quite a bit of hay from this unavoidable fact. Indeed, one of the book’s most interesting chapters bears the subtitle “Getting Fired From Angels in America.” Kathleen Chalfant, one of the performers who did make it to New York, says, “There was, in one way or another, quite a lot of blood on the sand, as there always is in a long development process.” Many actors who worked on the show were terrified of being replaced. Jeff King, who played one of the lead roles early on, says, “It felt like my neck was stretched over a stump and I was waiting for someone to chop my head off.” The axe fell, and King was cut.
Most painfully, Kushner opted not to bring Oskar Eustis, a close friend who had commissioned the play and co-directed the Los Angeles iteration, to Broadway. “There were a lot of hard phone calls,” says Kushner, “but nothing compared to talking to Oskar about the fact that he wasn’t going to go with it. There’s very few things I’ve ever had to do that were harder.” Kushner gave the job to George C. Wolfe, who’d had a recent success with Jelly’s Last Jam on Broadway, because he felt Wolfe could bring the right kind of razzle-dazzle sensibility to the project.
And yet, for some of the fired artists, their experience working on those early versions of Angels counted as extraordinary and life-changing. “Very few people have that chance, being involved in something that is truly grand and important,” says Michael Ornstein.
I never had the same joy as an actor after that. I lost my taste for doing these plays that I didn’t feel were important, that I didn’t feel as much for. I thought about how the gods took the life of the runner of Marathon, because they knew he would never feel that way again, after he ran to announce the victory of the battle.
This sentiment is also shared by those actors who did ride Angels to Broadway. “I stopped acting after Angels in America,” says David Marshall Grant. “I didn’t think there was anywhere else to go. I felt like it touched me — I’m getting emotional, I’m sorry. (Cries.) It touched me very deeply.” Carolyn Swift, from the national tour, recalls,
It kind of ruined me in a sense. When it was over and I went back to auditioning, I knew that it would never be the same for me. And I kind of began plotting my departure from the theater after that. It was like having a brilliant lover, and after that lover goes, you just know.
Angels was such a monumental experience that it made other projects feel insubstantial in comparison. Having worked on such a singular piece of theater, it became harder for the play’s alums to go back to more earthbound productions, whose shortcomings were rendered all the more apparent in the wake of Angels in America’s achievements.
Still, Angels launched far more careers than it ended. Eustis would go on to become artistic director of the Public Theater, producing shows like Hamilton and Fun Home. Joe Mantello, who starred in Angels on Broadway, is now one of the best and most prolific directors in New York. (His many hits include Wicked and The Humans.) Stars like F. Murray Abraham, Cherry Jones, and Debra Messing all appeared in the play, whether in development or on Broadway. Indeed, to read The World Only Spins Forward is to marvel at how many theater artists currently working in the United States began their careers, in some way or another, on those early productions.
This is true of the later productions as well. Roughly half of The World Only Spins Forward is devoted to versions of Angels that followed in the wake of its Broadway debut. We learn not just about the national tour, but about an opera treatment, a controversial student production, auteur-driven productions from Ivo van Hove and David Cromer, and London’s 2017 National Theatre production (the production now playing on Broadway).
The book also traces the play’s winding journey to the small screen. Conversations about a film adaptation began as early as 1991, before Angels had even made it to Broadway. Robert Altman was Kushner’s first choice to direct, but budgetary problems and creative differences ultimately brought the project to HBO and Mike Nichols, whose theater background made him an ideal candidate for the gig. Legitimate quibbles can be made about the film — in literalizing the play, some of its imaginative magic is lost — but Kushner’s vision still comes through with force and clarity. Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Mary-Louise Parker, and the film’s other stars are excellent. As Frank Rich says in The World Only Spins Forward, “It’s one of the very, very few successful film adaptations of a major American play. Maybe one of three: Kazan’s Streetcar, and Nichols’s Virginia Woolf.”
The effect of reading about this interpretation, and the others brought to life in this book, is to make Angels appear all the more impressive and timeless an artistic achievement. It’s a play that can work whether it stars an Oscar winner or a high school student; whether it has a Broadway-sized budget or no money at all; whether it enjoys a Hollywood special effects team or little more than a shower curtain, a bungee cord, and a pile of sawdust. In illustrating this fact, The World Only Spins Forward makes Angels seem like an endlessly productive volcano, one that spits out productions of all shapes and sizes, each scorching with the desire for “more life,” a blessing the play’s hero gives the audience in the Epilogue for Part Two. Readers who know Angels will appreciate the effect of this overflow more than those who don’t, but even the uninitiated are sure to be moved by the play’s impact on the world.
“Here’s what I think might be the thing about Angels in America,” says director David Cromer. “It’s never been defined by a single production, and I don’t think it can be […] It’s like The Cherry Orchard. It’s not conquerable. It’s a mountain you can never totally climb.” It is this idea, as manifest in Butler and Kois’s kaleidoscopic and fabulously entertaining book, that firmly turns the book’s attention to the future. One leaves the narrative hungry not for productions past, but for productions yet to come. More life, the book seems to exclaim. More Angels.
Harrison Hill’s writing has appeared in The Threepenny Review and American Theatre Magazine. He is an MFA candidate at Columbia University’s nonfiction writing program.