In late June of 2016, theatre director and journalist Isaac Butler and culture writer and editor Dan Kois compiled a 17,000-word piece for Slate called “Angels in America: The Complete Oral History: How Tony Kushner’s play became the defining work of American art of the past 25 years.” But despite piecing together interviews from some 50 actors, directors, designers, technicians, friends, and critics—and Kushner himself—that tracked the play from the first public staged reading at San Francisco’s Eureka Theater in 1989 to its towering status everywhere, Butler and Kois apparently determined that their riveting magazine piece was not so complete after all.
Since then they conducted 200 interviews to expand the article into a book, The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of ‘Angels in America’, published by Bloomsbury in February—just in time for the Broadway opening of Marianne Elliott’s production from England’s National Theatre. The result, not surprisingly, given the play’s protracted birth and enduring relevance, is more than 400 pages long.
Such heft seems fitting for the story of the two-part masterpiece that runs a combined seven-and-a-half hours, as it centers the catastrophe of the early AIDS crisis within a sprawling, sparring exploration of national values in Reaganite (and, as it turns out, alas, Trumpian) America. Indeed, one of several motifs that flows through Butler and Kois’s illuminating assemblage of anecdotes, commentary, and nitty-gritty rehearsal notes involves the mammoth—and ever-changing—script. We learn, for instance, that part two, Perestroika, went into rehearsals at the Eureka in 1991 before it was actually written, and that Kushner holed up in a Eureka board member’s countryside cabin and cranked out 700 pages in 10 days. (Kushner would go on to tinker with Perestroika forever, seeming to work right up to the house lights-down cue on production after production, which becomes almost a running joke in Spins. He still can’t quite bring himself to call it finished.)
The story of making this play resembles all such stories, but at a greater pitch in every way, from the hellishness of tech to various companies’ genuine astonishment when audiences leap to their feet at the end of first performances, from the disgruntlement of cast members dropped on the way from development to production, to the exhaustion—and pride—of those who stay with it. Emotions, costs, and stakes always run high in the theatre. Here, like characters in the play itself, they reach the heavens.
The book proceeds chronologically, plumping up sections from the original Slate story that covered the early development process at the Eureka and at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, the first London production at the National (1992-93), the Broadway premiere (1993-94), and the 2003 HBO adaptation. It adds accounts of workshop productions at Juilliard (1992) and NYU (1993), the national tour (a grueling 379 performances in 351 days), controversies over performances at the Charlotte Rep in North Carolina (where conservative legislators failed to stop the show but zeroed out the city’s cultural budget the next year) and Catholic University in Washington, D.C. (which had to move off-campus to appease splenetic clerics). It carries the story forward to include Ivo van Hove’s shattering production with Amsterdam’s Toneelgroep (presented at BAM in 2014), Signature Theater’s Off-Broadway revival in 2010, and Peter Eötvös’s distilled-down opera, as well as smaller productions, like David Cromer’s version for the small Journeyman company in Chicago in 1998, where in an 80-seat space he staged the Angel crashing through the ceiling at the end of Millennium Approaches by turning the audience perspective 90 degrees, so it seemed to have a bird’s-eye view of Prior’s bed as it stood vertically onstage and the Angel rushed at it.
Carrying readers up to the minute, the book offers inside takes on Elliott’s National Theatre production and musings from Tony Taccone (co-director with Oskar Eustis of the first full production at the Taper) as he prepares an upcoming revival at Berkeley Rep.
Interlude sections feature close-ups on particular characters, with enlightening notes shared by the many actors who played them. (Sean Chapman on portraying Prior: One must not perform his illness; like a king’s royalty in Shakespeare, those around him play it.) Sidebars pull out reflections from teachers who have put Angels on their syllabi, gay men who were emboldened by the play to come out, and a new generation of playwrights influenced by Kushner’s achievement. (Taylor Mac says he second-acted both parts of the Broadway run several times a week in the ’90s.)
And through all those hundreds of pages Spins hurtles along, like Angels itself, with tremendous verve and sparkling insights. The sense of forward drive is all the more remarkable given the book’s unusual scheme: Butler and Kois never intervene with a narrative or analytical voice, but, like intricate pointillists, present what their informants told them in script-like form: one quotation after another after another after another. Did they invent some fancy algorithm that sorted through what must have been thousands of pages of interview transcripts to indicate emerging themes, place anecdotes on the timeline, find juxtapositions that shed light? My favorites reveal Rashomon-like contradictions. First read-throughs of Angels often fall flat because actors don’t find the humor, Kushner opines at one point; then K. Todd Freeman (Belize at the Taper) recalls: “All I remember about the table read is making sure I got my laughs.”
As in any mosaic, particular elements gleam brightest. Some of the gems here, for me, come from designers and directors describing their visions of the world of the play: director Declan Donnellan dovetailing the end of one scene with the beginning of the next to keep the tension taut; van Hove and designer Jan Versweyveld settling on a mostly bare stage, with the theatre itself as the proper “space for transition” for a play all about the difficulty of change; scenic designer Ian MacNeil, at the National, imagining America as “a Jacobean tragedy but all done in steel” with a set that would, as the play wore on, “fail the characters,” leaving Perestroika in “a large black void.”
Among the most moving passages are those evoking the immediacy of the AIDS crisis: David Esbjornson, directing the Eureka productions in 1991, reaches out to see why old friends from the time he’d lived in San Francisco in the late 1970s didn’t turn up at the show, only to learn that they’ve all died; John Deary, the man who constructed the Angel’s wings for Broadway, had AIDS and lived just long enough to see them open magnificently on opening night (Ellen McLaughlin, the Angel at the Taper and on Broadway, says she “felt like I carried him on my back”); Michael Krass, the costume designer for the national tour, dressed Prior in the last scene in a coat that had belonged to his brother, who had died of AIDS; and several cast members recount people coming to them backstage or recognizing them on the street and telling them about the syndrome ravaging their bodies.
There’s a cost to Butler and Kois’s format as well, beyond the simple fact that it takes some time to get used to. By disavowing the authorial voice (notwithstanding the shape and emphasis they provide by selecting and structuring material), they lose the expediency of summary and paraphrase, and, more important, sufficient space for full interpretive and cultural analysis—a deficit they make up somewhat for with quotes from cultural critics and scholars like Dale Peck and Brian Eugenio Herrera. As a backstage, making-of book, Spins stakes out a new endpoint, opposite, say, Ted Chapin’s Everything Was Possible, the classic inside story about Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, in which, as a young gofer on the show, Chapin observed the changes made to the book, the assignment of songs, and to other aspects of the show as it was built; he not only reported on these changes, but also on their meaning. Butler and Kois weren’t in the room with Angels, and their book spans far more time and territory, so the comparison has its limits. Still, there’s plenty of terrain between those two antipodes, and I sometimes found myself wishing that Butler and Kois had stepped into it once in a while.
For all the wonderful detail about delayed openings and last-minute rewrites (15 revised pages handed to performer McLaughlin the night before opening in L.A., for example), there’s no sustained discussion of how the show actually works dramaturgically. We get a truism like, “hearing an audience hear a new play you learn so much”—but don’t find out what, in fact, was learned. We hear (and it does come to feel like we are hearing the interviewees) Donnellan drolly recount how he and his designer and partner, Nick Omerod, thought their flat had been burgled when they arrived home one evening to find papers strewn all over the place, only to realize that they were dozens of pages of Kushner’s production notes flying off the fax machine—but we don’t learn the substance of Kushner’s complaints nor how they accommodated him. In the wider scope, we learn little about interpretive debates over the play.
Butler and Kois include a quote from the scholar David Savran, for example, but make no mention of his influential critique of Angels (unconvincing, in my view) as ultimately promoting a kind of sentimental liberalism. The book would be even richer if it included arguments like Savran’s—and refutations, like one provided in an essay by Jean Howard, who teaches a course on Kushner at Columbia. (She does not appear in Spins.) It may seem like quibbling to ask why, amid 250 interviews, which do include some critics, the authors neglect Morgan Jenness (dramaturg for the Broadway production), David Román (whose Acts of Intervention remains the most authoritative account of the first phase of plays about AIDS), Charles McNulty (theatre critic of the Los Angeles Times, whose doctoral dissertation was about queer theatre of the 1990s), Don Shewey, longtime writer on queer theatre (among other subjects), who published one of the first big profiles of Kushner in The Village Voice, and other experts in the field. But because Spins will stand as the definitive account of the birth, life, and legacy of Angels, I don’t want it to lack anything. It’s particularly disappointing, given that Kushner’s greatness lies in part in the intellectual ferment of his writing, that the one less fleshed-out area of Spins involves tough sociopolitical/economic/aesthetic discourse.
Even before it opened on Broadway a quarter-century ago, Angels was already considered, in the words of Mary-Louise Parker (Harper on HBO), “sacred,” and Spins certainly contributes to the ever-accruing hagiography. At the same time, though, this enthralling chronicle productively challenges the myth that masterpieces spring fully formed from the heads of singular geniuses, showing how even as brilliant a writer as Kushner requires the brilliance of theatrical collaborators at every level. Like The Cherry Orchard, Cromer asserts, Angels is “not conquerable,” and we can expect to see newly revelatory productions for years to come. The World Only Spins Forward will remain a rewarding resource for artists making those productions. And for audiences lucky enough to see them.
Alisa Solomon is a teacher and dramaturg in New York City, and is the author of Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’.