Angels in America | Study Guide

Tony Kushner

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Angels in America | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Angels in America, subtitled "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes," is a two-part play by Tony Kushner composed of Millennium Approaches and Perestroika. First performed in its entirety in 1993, it took the theater world by storm, winning a Pulitzer Prize. The two parts of the play were staged separately as standalone works—and each won a Tony for Best Play. Angels in America is set in New York City in 1985 and traces the experiences of two couples, one gay and one Mormon, as they grapple with issues of sexual, ethnic, and religious identity, spiritual belief, and the horrors of the AIDS crisis.

The play was celebrated as an imaginative and artistic response to the harsh reality of AIDS. The New Yorker called it a "fearless, ambitious work," saying "it took in, and took on, the Reagan years ... American history, the aids plague, sexuality, love, death, religion, and the meaning of community." Theatergoers agree; Angels in America is still produced frequently around the United States, and many of its themes still resonate with audiences.

1. Kushner was inspired to write Angels in America by a dream about a dying friend.

Angels in America began as a dream Kushner had in 1985. For the first time, he had experienced a friend dying of AIDS, and he dreamed about his friend, Bill:

I had this dream: Bill dying—I don't know if he was actually dying, but he was in his pajamas and sick on his bed—and the ceiling collapsed and this angel comes into the room.

Afterward Kushner wrote a long poem that he titled "Angels in America." Although Kushner claimed, "I've never looked at the poem since the day I wrote it," it's clear his play blossomed from this early inspiration.

2. Missionaries in the subway inspired Kushner to include Mormons in Angels in America.

In 1983 Kushner lived in Brooklyn, New York. At his subway stop there were often groups of Mormon missionaries. He said, "They were always there in the morning, in front of a bunch of people who could have cared less about the Book of Mormon." "Touched" by his experience, Kushner included Mormon characters in Angels in America.

3. Angels in America was intended for a cast of eight who play multiple roles, both male and female.

Kushner wrote Angels in America for a cast of eight, with each actor playing one of the eight main characters. However, there are more than a dozen other characters. Each actor is supposed to play specific minor characters, who either reinforce or contradict thematic elements that the main characters represent. In some cases this includes gender, as actors play both male and female characters—or in the case of the angels, characters of indeterminate gender.

4. Angels in America was one of the most expensive plays to be produced at the time.

The two parts of Angels in America opened on Broadway in 1993, six months apart. The production cost for the play was more than $3 million, at the time a record for a Broadway production that was not a musical. The tickets cost $60 each, another record.

5. Angels in America performances faced protests in America's Bible Belt.

In 1996 an acting company put on Angels in America in Charlotte, North Carolina. Protesters attempted to stop the production, citing scenes that included homosexuality and nudity. Just hours before the opening, a court order permitted the production. However, crowds demonstrated both against and for the play outside the theater. The producer said, "This is a progressive city. But we're not as far along as I'd hoped we would be." The play sold out its performances. Other protests occurred in Florida, Michigan, and Texas.

6. One of the villains in Angels in America is based on a real person.

From an early age, Kushner was obsessed with Roy Cohn, a closeted gay New York Jewish lawyer. He read about Cohn's participation in the actions of the House Un-American Activities Committee, through which the lawyer helped Senator Joseph McCarthy attack those he considered to be Communists. Cohn, who was anti-Semitic and homophobic, died of AIDS, though he claimed he had liver cancer. Kushner included him in Angels in America because the character allowed him "a maliciously exuberant expression for my own dark side."

7. The first draft of Angels in America would have made it more than four hours long.

When Kushner finished the first draft of his play in 1988, it was 250 pages long, which equates to more than four hours in performance time. It also seemed to him as if it ended in the middle. Over the next several years, during which the play was performed in workshops and small theaters on the West Coast of the United States, Kushner revised and added material. Eventually the play became two plays, with the first called Millennium Approaches and the second called Perestroika.

8. The second part of Angels in America, called Perestroika, was originally 700 pages long.

In 1989 Kushner had just begun working on the second part of Angels in America. The first part, Millennium Approaches, was running in San Francisco and in London and getting rave reviews. Kushner described the writing process for Perestroika: "I wrote the first draft ... in 10 days. It was, like, 700 pages long. I couldn't stop writing." Perestroika was performed in its entirety in Los Angeles, with one audience member complaining, "It's midnight! How long is this act?" The play was eventually cut by about two-thirds, and when performed together, the two parts of Angels in America run about seven hours.

9. The HBO adaptation of Angels in America was the most watched cable television film of the year.

In 2003 HBO adapted Angels in America as a two-part miniseries. The first half of the series had 4.2 million viewers, which made it the most watched made-for-cable film of the year. The television show that won the ratings war for that week, however, was Survivor: Pearl Islands, which had 22.2 million viewers.

10. An operatic version of Angels in America received rave reviews.

The opera adaptation of Angels in America premiered in 2004. When playwright Kushner was first approached about his play becoming an opera, he didn't know what to think, saying, "Angels is very long and it's got a lot of plot. I couldn't imagine how it would make an opera." But Hungarian composer Péter Eötvös was determined, and his opera, more spoken than sung, received great reviews. Kushner too was pleased with the result. He stated, "Péter's music pulls you very deeply back into the emotional turmoil of that time." He added that it has "apocalyptical power."

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