Angels in America: A New Book Looks Back

Written by | Books, HIV

The World Only Spins Forward cover

The World Only Spins Forward cover image courtesy Bloomsbury

As Angels in America had its moment at the Tony Awards, a fascinating book looks back at the evolution of the play that became a phenomenon.

A quarter of a century ago, Tony Kushner’s ground-breaking Angels in America, a moving and magical epic about struggle and loss during the height of the AIDS epidemic, opened on Broadway.

Fueled by playwright Tony Kushner’s anger toward the Reagan administration’s avoidance of the plague, the powerful two-part opus emerged as one of the most resoundingly influential theatrical endeavors of a generation. As it spreads its wings on Broadway this year after a sold-out run in London, Angels has garnered raves for its stirring performances, masterful execution and timely resonance in the maelstrom of our nation’s political climate.

Dovetailing with this new chapter in Angels’ life is a fresh chronicle of its evolution, The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America (Bloomsbury) by director and writer Isaac Butler and journalist Dan Kois. In its gestation, the pair curated accounts from hundreds of people connected with the Tony and Pulitzer-winner — from its origins through its workshops, and ultimately onto the world stage. The authors generously frame the accounts of cast members, directors, critics, friends and fans of Angels chronologically, astutely presenting conflicting recollections that portray the progress and pitfalls of writing, casting and directing both its first and second parts (Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, respectively). Appropriately, at its heart is the passionate, prescient perfectionist — Kushner.

Recalls actor Stephen Spinella, “Tony said ‘I have this great idea for a play about Mormons, and it’ll have Roy Cohn, and it’ll all be gay men, and it’ll be about AIDS.” The result was nearly eight hours of overlapping stories, a rollercoaster of emotions and the core journeys of two couples, Harper and Joe (Mormons who settle in Brooklyn) and Louis and Prior, who is stricken with AIDS.

Structured with interludes about each of Angel’s eight main characters, the vivid narrative provides insight into the motivations of the actors who stepped into each role, including Meryl Streep, Mary-Louise Parker, Nathan Lane and Jeffrey Wright. As this history unfolds, the narrative richly displays how Angels was never set in stone, but rather transformed over time. The book doesn’t pull punches when recounting certain critical eviscerations and descriptions of Kushner’s own manically scribbled criticisms of performances.

Readers — much like audiences who have witnessed Angels on stage and screen — will likely depart this work with an awareness that they have experienced something revelatory and visionary. Says actor Scott Parkinson, “It taps into something so fundamental about our struggle with how to change, about how to progress forward as a citizenry and as a species, and I suspect it will remain relevant to us for as long as those things are relevant.”   

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Last modified: June 15, 2018

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