In their new book, The World Only Spins Forward, Isaac Butler and Dan Kois assemble a cast of thousands to tell the story of the gestation, birth, childhood, and long life of Tony Kushner’s “gay fantasia on national themes,” Angels in America. Among the sidebars to the narrative, which spans 1978 (the assassination of activist and San Francisco city official Harvey Milk) to the present day, is a compendium of quotes from younger playwrights for whom Angels was a powerful formative experience. Their accounts of the play’s impact on them—most credit it with helping to inspire them to write for the stage at all—run the gamut of awed praise, dramaturgical insight, personal revelation, anxiety of influence, and questioning of a field where the vaulting ambition of Angels is hardly the norm. Below is an exclusive excerpt.
Steven Levenson (Dear Evan Hansen and If I Forget): My Angels origin story was my freshman year of college.
Tracey Scott Wilson (The Good Negro and Buzzer): I had just started writing plays, I was living with my mother, I didn’t have any money.
Young Jean Lee (Lear and Straight White Men): It was right after I’d decided to drop out of grad school to become a playwright.
Samuel Hunter (A Bright New Boise and The Whale): When I was about 17, I came out of the closet and left the fundamentalist Christ-ian high school I was attending.
Stephen Karam (Sons of the Prophet and The Humans): I was 18 or 19, a freshman in college at Brown. I was having a rough time coming out of the closet.
Mac Rogers (The Message and The Honeycomb Trilogy): I was visiting New York from North Carolina with my mother and sister.
Itamar Moses (The Band’s Visit and The Fortress of Solitude): Towards the end of my junior year of high school, I was visiting colleges. I stayed with a friend at Wesleyan and he was reading the script for class.
Christopher Shinn (Dying City and Against): I remember driving with my mom to see it. I was 18 and we were, you know, listening to Nirvana.
Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton and In the Heights): Angels was the first play I saw on Broadway. I’m, you know, a musicals guy. Dan Futterman was on Louis. And the late great David Margulies was on Roy Cohn. It was 1994, so I’m 14 years old.
Jordan Harrison (Marjorie Prime and Maple and Vine): I was 16 and my grandparents bought us tickets to the national tour in Boston.
Taylor Mac (A 24-Decade History of Popular Music): When I moved to New York both parts were playing on Broadway and, after paying for the full version, I would second-act both parts multiple times a week. That way I could see them for free.
Anne Washburn (Mr. Burns, a post-electric play and 10 Out of 12): I first saw a touring production in Portland, Ore. I think I left at intermission of Millennium only because it was a hopelessly remote experience, but I got the books and really first came to the play that way.
Hunter: The University of Idaho was mounting a production of Millennium Approaches, and I saw it at least four or five times.
Zakiyyah Alexander (10 Things to Do Before I Die and Sick?): I went to LaGuardia High School of the Performing Arts. My best friend performed the scene in acting class where Prior puts on makeup and joins Harper’s hallucination.
Kara Lee Corthron (Welcome to Fear City and AliceGraceAnon): I was assigned to read Millennium Approaches for a script analysis class.
Karam: They were holding auditions for a production on campus. I remember buying Part 1 at College Hill Bookstore, and then rolling off my twin bed and speed-walking down Thayer Street to buy Perestroika.
Zoe Kazan (We Live Here and After the Blast): I read Angels in three different classes. In playwriting, in a Brecht class, and an intro-to-theatre class.
Mashuq Mushtaq Deen (Draw the Circle): It was years before I ever saw a production of it, but I knew exactly what the Angel breaking through the ceiling looked like, knew exactly how the snow fell around Harper.
Mac: I kept returning to the plays because they were a balm, shedding all the years I was told to be less than when expressing my queerness. Seeing the Angel fly—metaphorically, literally, theatrically, and literarily—felt like activism. It was taking a country empty of angels and inserting a queer mythology in its place. I freaking loved it.
Corthron: What struck me most powerfully was the fact that I laughed! It was my first encounter with a dramatic work that was universally considered important, life-changing, trailblazing, that made me laugh.
Washburn: There are delightfully cheap jokes in Angels, which are really important, as well as the sublimity.
Sheila Callaghan (Bed and Women Laughing Alone with Salad): It was so exciting to hear people talk about theatre like that, to describe it with such rapture—and these were kids who did theatre in high school and left it behind for more sensible pursuits. They weren’t freaking out about a monologue from Hamlet, they were talking about a contemporary play.
Miranda: It just blew my mind. I mean, it was the first time I’d ever seen a play with, on a pure surface level, the production design and scope of a musical. And the way it moved! I sort of thought a play—this was my own prejudice, of course—a play happens in single-set locations, it’s small. I’d never seen anything that moved the way George’s production of Angels moved. The seamless transitions, and a tempo and a rhythm—it felt like a musical to me. From a very naturalistic scene, to a scene in Antarctica, to the scene where Louis is spinning out pages and pages of liberal guilt and Belize just sits there. It had room for all of the tempos! It had room for all of the things at once.
Callaghan: It wasn’t realistic, but it somehow communicated heightened emotions in a way that made sense to me. It felt akin to all the high school musicals I’d grown up with, like when people launch into arias when emotions become too great.
Wilson: In terms of pure theatricality, the scene where Harper is in the Mormon center, and she’s looking at the mannequin and it becomes Joe—the theatricality of those scenes, the way it brought everything together…I just read it over and over, amazed at how he got away with it.
Harrison: Maybe miracles is the right word, rather than magic. The human mingled with the divine. These were rules that I didn’t know you could break until I saw Angels.
Alexander: Just from the page it was clear that this play broke all the rules I had learned—so, were there no rules at all?
Levenson: And the audacity of it, the scope of writing a play that was about History with a capital H, and about Politics with a capital P. And the Universe. It was such an unapologetically big play. Bigger than anything else I had read.
Miranda: When’s the last play you saw that you can quote lines from like you quote tunes from your favorite musical? “History is about to crack wide open.” “More life.” “I wish I was an octopus, a fucking octopus.” That’s just a greatest hits reel of shit off the top of my head, and they’re all these unforgettable, character-defining moments.
Moses: After I went to see Part 1, I literally started writing my first play the next day.
Hunter: After seeing the production of Angels at the University of Idaho, I wrote my very first play. It was nearly three hours long, and it was called Sixth Armageddon. It was, in many ways, an Angels knockoff.
Levenson: The first real play I wrote had Bill Clinton as a character.
Kazan: When I was in college I did Angels in America, Part 1. I played the Angel. It was very scrappy: We had a budget of like $200 or something. We had the confidence of 19-year-olds.
Miranda: I was not a big speech-and-debate kid. But in high school Veronica Ades and I did a Joe-and-Harper scene. I remember doing that in some weird carpeted room in front of judges and not making it very far. We didn’t get all the complexities, I guess.
Veronica Ades (Lin-Manuel Miranda’s classmate): It’s high school! What was fun about it was that Lin was so into it, and so was I, and it was so great to completely nerd out on this amazing theatre. Of course you’re gonna pick a scene from Angels in America.
Miranda: That’s how big that play is! It was one of the only plays I knew, and I could probably have recited all of Man of La Mancha for you at that age. I guess that underscores what a benchmark play Angels was for our generation. The way Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Tennessee Williams was for previous generations. That was it.
Lee: I had to kind of avoid thinking about it when I took my first steps into playwriting. I found it incredibly intimidating.
Miranda: Kushner’s ambition in writing Angels was something that both armed and scared every playwright since. It leaves a big wake.
Rogers: The problem with Angels in America is keeping it out of my work, not letting it in. It so dominated the theatre conversation right at the time I was beginning to treat playwriting as a lifelong discipline that it basically bonded with my playwriting molecules just as they were forming. I wrote a play in 2010 with a larger-than-life political operative in it, and making him not be Roy Cohn was a line-by-line struggle, one I probably lost on a third of the lines.
Wilson: The first play I had produced at the Public, The Story, the entire structure of the play was based on the quartet—the overlapping scenes with Prior and Louis and Harper and Joe. I was rereading it and just thought, Wouldn’t it be cool to base a whole play on this?
Lee: I’m actually revisiting it now as research for a play I’m writing, looking for tricks to steal.
Wilson: I remember before I met Christopher Shinn, I read Four and thought, Oh, this rhythm is the rhythm of Angels.
Shinn: I think every play I’ve written has my version of the Democracy in America scene in it.
Catherine Trieschmann (How the World Began and One House Over): Before I wrote my thesis play in college, I wanted to remind myself how to write a good play, so I reread Angels over and over. I memorized speeches. I outlined scenes. And this is what I learned: Despite the perspicacious mind at work, the vast ambition at play, and vivid theatrical spectacle on display, the action of any given scene is really quite simple. One character wants love from somebody else who is reluctant to give it. I remind myself of this axiom every time I start a new play.
Harrison: Whenever I write cast doubling into my plays, which is often, there are two works I’m always talking to: The Wizard of Oz and Angels in America. The way Kushner uses that ensemble to make an entire universe—these indelible characters who slide into other skins but are still always partly themselves. When Louis fucks the anonymous man in the park, he’s played by the Prior actor, and the effect is that Louis can’t block out the man he’s running from.
Mac: The size of Angels, the unabashed queerness of it, and the intellectual pursuit mixed with its delicious camp humor are all things I’ve been spinning off of through the entirety of my adult artistry.
Miranda: I know that in writing Hamilton, the approach to storytelling is similarly all-hands-on-deck. We don’t make a choice of, Oh, there’s one narrator—whoever’s closest to the events of the story, he tells the story. If Burr’s the closest, he tells it. If it’s Eliza or Angelica, she does. Angels is freeing in that respect. It doesn’t just have to be a naturalistic play, it can go from here to here to here as you need to.
Rogers: I feel a need to make my characters’ conflicts and traumas reverberate throughout the globe and cosmos, and that likely wouldn’t have even occurred to me without Angels in America.
Moses: If you want to know how to structure a play that actually wants to be a mess, you can’t do much better than to look at Perestroika, which consciously rejects the orderliness of Part 1 in order to excavate an aesthetic space that would be otherwise unreachable.
Karam: Angels inspires simply by being incredibly fucking entertaining! Kushner is fiercely political but he’s also a showman. It’s empowering to know the two things can coexist. They have to, really, for a play to succeed.
Lee: It’s still ahead of the curve. It’s the most interesting kind of political play—one that comes from a place not of knowing but of unknowing. Of finding the available truths intolerably inadequate, and trying, through all the means available to theatre, to figure out what an adequate truth could be.
Washburn: Angels made it clear that it was possible to talk about politics in a way which was entertaining, and personal, and intemperate—the latter being the part which might be most important. I feel—to be hideously general—that a lot of political theatre before Angels was about carefully drawing up an argument or dramatizing a particular point or issue and also sometimes about making it appear to be evenhanded even while it was clearly not. The characters in Angels are passionate political beasts who come to their politics not from reasoned understanding but as part of the whole of who they are. The play itself is full of convictions, and those ring through, but those convictions are animated by imperfect, searching people.
Hunter: The play is not afraid of talking openly about the nature of justice and democracy and God and history, and it feels to me 26 years later that this is the resonating effect the play has had on American playwrights. It gave us all permission to say something bold.
Moses: If you were between the ages of 15 and 26 when that play was on Broadway, it’s the reason you started writing plays.
Harrison: There’s a generation of playwrights, maybe 35 to 45 years old now, who I think were pulled into the profession because they were inspired by what was grand and unwieldy and ambitious about Angels. And I’m not sure we found that theatre always welcomes this kind of work.
Shinn: I really thought when I saw that play, You can be really deep and be on Broadway! I thought that would happen all the time. (Laughs.) If I had known it was really that rare, I maybe would have chosen another field.
Deen: If anything, and this is the cynical part of me now, I would say as groundbreaking as Angels was, it hasn’t changed the American theatre enough. I don’t place the responsibility for that with Kushner but with us. There is no shortage of injustice in the world. So I place the responsibility with writers when we don’t push ourselves to engage the world in which we live. With producers who don’t take the risk of leading their audiences, instead of being led by them. With audiences for not demanding better from their artistic institutions.
Alexander: Over the years I’ve read many unproduced or workshopped plays that break form, are epic, bold, theatrically challenging, plus politically relevant, that have not yet made it to the stage. I’m not sure how Angels changed the produced plays we see.
Rogers: Look, all of us have people telling us, “Write three characters in a room for 81 minutes” all the time.
Harrison: We’re living in a time that seems to be screaming for a vast canvas and bold strokes and newly minted language. I think in addition to the brilliance of Tony and his collaborators, the play was made great by the cultural and historical moment that it rose to meet. So here, again, is our opportunity to rise to the occasion.
Deen: The point is to be inspired by Angels and to take those same risks with new plays that engage the injustice and the complexity of the world we live in now.
Rogers: I’m pretty sure no one my age or younger writes a play without Angels in America lurking quietly in the corner. It’s a feeling of: That’s what it looks like when you go ALL THE WAY. Someday I’m gonna go ALL THE WAY too.
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