The great world of “Angels in America” began spinning on Broadway thirty years ago today. Tony Kushner’s two-part cycle, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes was a passionate, sometimes angry, and artful rebuke against the AIDS epidemic and continuing treatment of homosexuality during the 1980s.
Angels, as it is typically referred to by those in the know, has two parts, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, which may be presented separately but are often now presented in some kind of repertory form. Millennium, the first part, is what debuted three decades ago; about six months later, Perestroika followed. Both won consecutive Best Play Tony Awards, and the former also won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
The entire two-part play debuted on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre in 1993, directed by George C. Wolfe, with an original cast that included Ron Leibman, Stephen Spinella, Kathleen Chalfant, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeffrey Wright, Ellen McLaughlin, David Marshall Grant and Joe Mantello. Among the replacements during the run were F. Murray Abraham (for Ron Leibman), Cherry Jones (for Ellen McLaughlin), Dan Futterman (for Joe Mantello), Cynthia Nixon (for Marcia Gay Harden), and Jay Goede (for David Marshall Grant).
While political, Kushner also used major dramatic devices in addition to scintillating dialogue. Certain major and minor characters are supernatural beings (angels) or deceased persons (ghosts). The play contains multiple roles for several actors. Initially and primarily focusing on one gay and one straight couple in Manhattan, the plot has several additional storylines, some of which intersect occasionally.
In 1994, playwright and professor of theater studies John M. Clum called the play “a turning point in the history of gay drama, the history of American drama, and of American literary culture.”
While performed regionally, Angels has also enjoyed a major Broadway revival and a starry HBO miniseries adaptation directed by Mike Nichols and with a cast that included Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, and Emma Thiompson.
If you’ve never entered Kushner’s world, it’s worth reading or seeing now.