HYPE-HOP: A CYNICAL PRELUDE
When Millennium Approaches, the first half of Tony Kushner's seven-hour epic
Angels in America, opens April 29 at the Walter Kerr Theater, it will represent, among other things, a triumph of American theater production. The long list of producers includes the two most powerful not-for-profit theaters in the country (the New York Shakespeare Festival and Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum), a bunch of hip Hollywood moneybags, and a veritable Who's Who of Broadway's baby-boomer power brokers, led by Rocco Landesman and Jack Viertel of Jujamcyn Theaters. Collectively, they have on their hands the closest thing to a sure-fire hit this side of Andrew Lloyd-Webber. After all, Frank Rich -- surrogate for the Almighty in the Broadway firmament -- has raved about the play not once but twice (London and Los Angeles). And for Broadway, the show has acquired a new director in George C. Wolfe, who -- as director of the hit musical
Jelly's Last Jam and newly-named producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival -- is unquestionably the hottest rising star in American theater.
This is the kind of story the New York press just hates. It's too good to be true. "The play's reputation is dangerously overblown coming into New York," says Mr. Savvy, my insider pal who knows everyone in the theater and their secrets. "Although the good reviews are sewn up, it can never live up to people's expectations. Nothing could.
Hamlet couldn't. Oedipus Rex couldn't. It really is the play that everybody's been looking for -- the political play with huge social resonances, the play that speaks for the society in a big way. What's disturbing is that there's a huge vacuum it has to fill simply because it's a play that attempts so much -- and succeeds."
There's the rub. Much as we love to cheer something good, New Yorkers like to have a hand in the anointing. Inheriting someone else's success stories makes for attitude.
The New Yorker's James Wolcott wasn't just speaking for himself when he complained, on Charlie Rose, that he'd read so much about
Angels in America that he felt like the event had already come and gone. In the absence of discovery ("Such-and-Such Mania!"), the media prefers conflict
("Such-and- Such Wars!"). Sure, there's curiosity about the play, but the real story must be the behind-the-scenes drama -- the competition among producers and directors and actors, the backbiting and the betrayals, the winners and the losers, who made what deal, and who got screwed.
"Everyone will review the phenomenon of the play," Mr. Savvy adds. "Everybody's forgotten that it's about a bunch of faggots."
YEAR OF THE QUEER
"A Gay Fantasia on National Themes" is what Tony Kushner subtitles
Angels in America, and he's not kidding. It's not a cosmic coincidence that the play opens on Broadway the same week a million queers descend on Washington, on the heels of the Senate teach-in on gays in the military, as President Clinton gets his first crack at reversing the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, as the media embrace a six-and-a-half-foot tall black drag queen named RuPaul as pop's newest superstar, almost exactly ten years and 100,000 deaths after French scientists isolated the human immunodeficiency virus thought to cause AIDS. Kushner's play grew out of that ferment and speaks directly to it.
Plenty of plays and TV shows and a few movies have dealt with AIDS since As Is
and The Normal Heart appeared in 1985, but not many have advanced our thinking about the epidemic. Most portray AIDS within a personal or family context, content to replay the emotional drama of sorrow and courage through which the AIDS crisis becomes real for most of us. By contrast,
Angels in America turns the telescope around and asks: what does AIDS tell us about ourselves? What does it tell us about the warring factors of the human soul, the part whose first instinct is to comfort a sick person and the part that would run away yelling "Eee-uw"? Is there a pattern linking our neglect and abuse of people with AIDS, people without homes, our environment, our relationships, our innate longing for faith? Does the renewed subterranean interest in chanting and meditation, shamanism and angelology signify a genuine New Age of enlightenment, or does it mean we've taken too many drugs? In its outward-exploding, everything's-connected vision,
Angels in America refuses to see AIDS as anything less than the central experience of our apocalyptic time.
Angels did not begin life as a seven-hour Broadway extravaganza. In fact, Oskar Eustis, who commissioned the play at San Francisco's Eureka Theater in 1987 after giving 30-year-old Tony Kushner his first professional production with
A Bright Room Called Day, distinctly recalls the contractual description of the play Kushner agreed to write: a 90-minute, intermissionless, one-set comedy written for the Eureka company. "We knew
Bright Room was brilliant writing but would never be a popular play. We decided to do something easy to produce that lots of regional theaters would want to do." He chuckles. "We got it half right."
As dramaturg and director, Eustis had a front-row seat to watch the play, and Kushner, grow. "Tony was searching, in his writing and in his life, for a concrete basis of hope, which is the precursor to any forward dramatic action. The creation of ACT UP and his embrace of active, radical gay politics gave him a sense of hope, a sense of meaningfulness of human action and the possibility of struggle. It unleashed his optimism and his sense of humor," Eustis recalls. "He called me halfway through the two-month writing period and said, 'I'm having a terrible time making these people change fast enough.' What started as a technical difficulty became part of the content of the play -- how difficult it is for people to change. What I find so moving about the play is that I think it tells the truth about that. It's incredibly hard. People don't change easily. It feels like you're dying. But you don't."
Eustis left the Eureka for the Mark Taper Forum, where he continued to develop
Angels in America with the enthusiastic support of Taper chief Gordon Davidson, who sunk over a million dollars into the play even before signing any contract giving the Taper rights to producing it. David Esbjornson, Eustis' assistant director for the first Taper workshop of
Millennium Approaches and an old NYU classmate of Kushner's, ended up staging the Eureka's 1991 world premiere of
Millennium as well as a partly-staged, partly script-in-hand, completely chaotic and completely riverting rendition of
Perestroika, part two of Angels in America (which won't arrive in New York until September). That's when the play's reputation really began to pick up momentum. The Royal National Theatre production of
Millennium opened to raves in January of 1992, and last fall the Taper gave the official premiere of the complete
Angels in America, directed by Eustis with Tony Taccone. The Taper production was originally supposed to transfer intact to the Public Theater.
All that changed when Kushner decided to take the play directly to Broadway, robbing Eustis, the play's longest and fiercest supporter, of his crack at New York attention and JoAnne Akalaitis, beleaguered chief of the New York Shakespeare Festival, the coup of the season. There are bruised feelings all round, but everybody's being very adult about it. Akalaitis says, "I very much wanted the play to have a life at the Public and then move to Broadway. But I really understand a writer wanting to be in a big theater in the center of Broadway and everything that means in our cultural history. What's important about his play is that finally homosexual consciousness, which has been the underground force behind leading art movements in America since World War II, is firmly and visibly out in the center. That's the genius of the project. Tourists from Iowa are going to see it, and it will change culture in America.
"You can't forget that these are plays about relationships," Akalaitis adds. "It's not
Les Atrides. These are wonderful plays about complicated, twisty, fabulous, real relationships. What's great about the writing is that it takes the central form of American drama -- relationships and family trauma -- and puts a historical/political umbrella over it that heightens the stakes of the relationships. In some ways, it's in the tradition of O'Neill and the great American writers, but to bring in the Mormons and Roy Cohn and the plague, and have these romantic and family dramas played out against that panorama, is what makes these plays really visionary. What I've always liked about Tony is that he's profoundly and deeply politically engaged, not just in his work but in his life. And he's an intellectual, too. Which I love. Frank Rich referred to me as 'severely intellectual,' as if it's a sin to be smart. Well, what's wrong with having a brain?"
BRAINS FOR BREAKFAST/MEET THE MENSCH
I first encountered Tony Kushner as a playwright when I was on a panel compiling an anthology of children's plays. Some theater in Minneapolis submitted Kushner's script
Yes Yes No No, twelve pages of free verse which struck me as the maddest piece of kid-lit I'd read since Ionesco's story for toddlers in which all the characters are named Jacqueline. Next I reviewed the premiere of
The Illusion, his very free adaptation of a 17th century play by Corneille. Then someone slipped me a bootleg manuscript of this massive play about AIDS and drag queens and Mormons and Roy Cohn, which even in readings and workshops in 1989 was acquiring the reputation of the Great American Play of Our Time. I finally met Kushner himself on the way to a barbecue dinner at a theater conference in Massachusetts. I remember him as shy, smiling, skinny, the only person in the crowd wearing a "SILENCE = DEATH" button. Eclectic, erudite, political, theatrical -- fascinating combo.
Nothing prepared me for the experience of sitting through Angels in America
at the Eureka, though. Yeah, it was sprawling, repetitive, dense, demanding, unfinished, but you left the theater grateful to this playwright for confirming that the things you think matter do matter -- love, justice, AIDS, spiritual life -- and for refusing to compact this urgent material into a tidy two-hour format complete with resolutions. This is not the time for tidy packages but a time for questioning and cracking open. I loved that the main characters were five completely different gay men (a Jewish intellectual, a black drag queen, a 30-year-old caterer with AIDS, a Mormon closet case, and Roy Cohn), none of them drawn with a halo. Even AIDS-ridden Prior, to whom an angel appears declaring him a prophet, fights his destiny all the way, although every time the angel visits, she leaves him with a hard-on.
My favorite thing about the play was that it hewed to no party line. The characters argue and discuss endlessly, and there's no idea so brilliant that it can't be forcefully contradicted or challenged. And the characters are never sexier than when they're discussing the relationship of man's law to divine justice at bedtime or stirring up white privilege and black anti-Semitism over cappucino. Like no other playwright I can think of, Tony Kushner locates the most vital human interactions at the crossroads of eros and ethics.
When we rendezvous for a breakfast interview at Lox Around the Clock, my respect for Kushner has doubled since our first meeting. So has Kushner, it seems. He's taller than I remember, and stress munchies have added to his girth (30 pounds in five months, he told the
New Yorker). His dark-eyed, bespectacled face rests on a full opera-diva throat, and his huge feet are shoved into Doc Martens. He wears a tiny silver ring in his left ear and a black silk-screened T-shirt with a Tarot-like drawing of a pierced heart. He arrives slightly late and immediately launches into a conversation that's exactly as erudite and paradoxical as his writing would lead you to expect.
He's game to share theater dish, at least until you mention George Wolfe's pulling out of another commitment to direct
Angels in America, which makes him snap, "Don't pick the scabs, please." His hobby is Russian history and his religion is dialectical materialism, so he loves to talk politics and welcomes disagreement. Once you get him going, the references start flowing to Gramsci and Luxembourg and Hannah Arendt and the Frankfurt School and Raymond Williams and Louis Althusser's essay on "Ideological Apparatuses and the State." Just when you're about to murmur, "Girl, you do go on," he'll energetically assert "Of course, RuPaul is
God" or swoon to the table -- eyes to heaven, fanning himself with his hand -- at the memory of spotting John Kennedy Jr. in the audience. He frequently throws his hands in the air like Al Jolson singing "Mammy," and in the evolution of post-Ludlam gay theater, he proudly places himself and David Greenspan at the forefront of what he calls "Theater of the Fabulous."
On the two main questions posed by Angels in America: "Do you cry for Roy Cohn? Part of the impulse to write
Angels in America came from the way this man who I hated got an obituary in
The Nation by Robert Sherrill that was completely homophobic. The question of forgiveness may be the hardest political question people face. If there's isn't something called forgiveness, if there isn't a statute of limitations on crime, if political movements proceed primarily driven by revenge, there will never be peace and progress. But forgiveness, if it means anything, has to be incredibly hard to come by. These plays are about, among other things, love, justice, and ambivalence. Ambivalence is a very big issue. Forgiveness can never be unambivalent. But how else do we set ourselves free from the nightmare of history?
"The other question is community and collectivity. How do you define community? I don't think community can simply be defined as like-minded individuals banded together for common cause. That's a political movement, a cadre. Those things exist within a context of collectives of people who are wildly disparate. One of the mistakes of Stalinism and possibly Leninism is assuming that the collective has to be tortured into some spirit of homogeneity. For gay people, of course, heterogeneity is necessary.
"I'm frightened, though, by the new tribalism, the new nationalism. I don't like the name Queer Nation. I guess I like the word community because it's a civic term. It privileges the notion of collectivity over something more neutral like society, which doesn't tell you anything. To say something's a community is to imply there's something that is called the communal good and there's a way the individuals within this group behave in service to the communal good. I do think it's important to make a distinction between political groups like ACT UP, which are consciously created for a purpose, and what I'm talking about. Community is an entity that it much slower moving, more diffuse, and by its nature harder to define. Within that community, organizations like ACT UP and the Log Cabin Club exist. That is, in a sense, what the American project is.
"Again, life has a rude way of reminding us of the difficulties that poses. I was at the GLAAD awards in LA, and there were all these people in the military. I absolutely believe for my own political purposes that we should force them to let us in to serve. On the other hand, it's the military. If we told them to march into Baghdad, they'd do that. I mean, who are these guys like Tracy Thorne and Joe Steffan? Sure, they're cute. Adorable! But Tracy Thorne goes on
Nightline saying, 'We're not here saying, 'We're here, we're queer, get used to it.' We just want to serve our country.' Gag me with a spoon! I feel more comfortable with Chuck D. than I do with this little twit."
On spirituality: "Since I was a very little kid, I've always had an affinity for the supernatural. That's the side of me that's attracted to the theater. I've always had some sense of God. I find deep spiritual faith enormously attractive. People I've been involved with always turn out to be religious in one way or another. After my mother died, I really began to feel connected to something not bounded by the temporal world. I don't know if that's an ardent desire for her that can't accept her real loss.
"On some very deep level, I find repugnant the idea that there is such a thing as the eternal and the unchanging. The biggest intellectual breakthrough of my life was my last year at Columbia when I read Brecht and Marx and took a class in Shakespeare with a professor who was really into dialectical analysis. Suddenly, the world made sense to me. Almost all deep religious thought is dialectical that way. It's never monolithic. It contains subtlety and sophistication, which only fundamentalist morons read out of it. But I'm also enough of a Marxist and a humanist to believe that the material world is of tremendous consequence and there is nothing that overrides it or is free of it. If there is a spiritual dimension, it's in constant interaction with the material.
"Which is why I feel very comfortable expressing a certain kind of spirituality in the theater. Because of course that angel has all those wires attached to her, and you can see them, and you see Pat Collins' amazing lighting behind her. You see that it's unreal and hokey and rigged up at that same time that it feels like a vision. The cloud of unknowing has to be part of the deal of spirituality. You have to be willing to live in the unknowing. Part of faith is leaping over the chasm of doubt. If you're not afraid, you're not brave."
On going to Broadway: "I never thought the play was going to go to Broadway. Rocco and Jack approached us before Frank Rich's review of the London production, and at the time I figured maybe eventually the play will get to the Minetta Lane Theater and they'd put up the money for that. Up to the last minute, there was always the possibility of going to the Public. I love the Public Theater. It's an honor to have something there. It's the most important theater in the United States. It would have sold out for close to a year. But the stage is really small; we had trouble getting it to work at the Taper. The other big consideration was George, who wanted to take it to Broadway.
"I was nervous about the $60 top price. It was important for me to know you can see the play for less than that. When I said in the
Times that I wanted the downtown community to see the play, Rocco and Jack kept saying, 'Who are you talking about?' It's the audience that goes to the Wooster Group and the Public. People my age, without a lot of money, academics, people in school. An audience that's interested in serious theater and doesn't want to waste its time with stuff that isn't going to be challenging. I'm a firm believer in preaching to the converted. The purpose of left-political theater isn't to speak to Reagan and his friends.
"So I am guaranteed, in my contract, that after the Tony Awards, 800 seats a week will be available at between $19.50 and $30 apiece -- the same price as the Public. In the orchestra and front balcony, too, not in the nosebleed section. The problem we're having now is how to distribute them. I would like to do a Quicktix line, like at the Public. It does separate the rich people, who'd rather call Ticketron than stand in line, from the not-rich people. Anyway, it will happen, if I have to stand in a booth and sell the tickets myself. And they're giving a dollar from every ticket sold to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
"Was it easy to get that provision? Yes. They were very anxious to get the play. They've been completely honorable about it. I also get a billboard in the Village."
On George C. Wolfe: "In mid-November, when we knew we were going to look for a new director, my agent said, 'You know who should direct this? George Wolfe.' It didn't seem plausible to me. I assumed George was busy for the next 6000 years. I hadn't seen much of his work. We hadn't spent more than 20 minutes talking ever. When Rocco called and said George would make himself available, I met with him feeling somewhat skeptical. In the space of an hour's conversation, I was blown away. He'd seen the play in Los Angeles, never read it, had incredibly complicated, subtle, challenging things to
say about it and detailed and incredibly exciting thoughts about all the characters. And he had this energy that was completely exhilarating.
"As I began to work with Rocco and Jack and the Shuberts, I realized I had to have a director who knew that arena and how to handle it. I could tell their attitude toward George was a healthy mixture of love, respect, and fear. You don't fuck around with George. He describes himself as a warrior, and he is.
"The fact that George is gay is a plus for me. He brings a certain fabulousness to his work. After the run-through last week, I went up to Robin Wagner's studio with him because he said, 'I'm going to go look at fabric.' They were up there discussing different kinds of chintz for the pillows on Roy's sofa. George picked this incredible combination. He has this phenomenal eye. Every single thing about the production is tremendously important to him. I love that kind of director.
"We both have reputations for being difficult in different ways. People who knew us both were scared there would be some kind of nuclear explosion. So far it's been a complete love affair."
On his own place in the gay community: "When I was 21 or 22 in the late '70s, I remember walking past the Saint and seeing this line of clones waiting to get in, and I thought, 'These people don't look so bad. I'd like to sleep with most of them. Why am I hiding like this?' I've spent most of my life dealing with being overweight. I got very angry when I saw David Drake's piece, when he talks about going to the gym to turn himself into a warrior. There's a way in which I've always felt radically disaffected with the gay community, feeling on a very personal level not attractive and devalued as a result of that. I have a great deal of anger about it. I love Paul Monette's work, but I was reading a novel where this guy with AIDS falls in love with this man who's 50. I thought, 'Thank God, a novel that isn't about Joe Twinkie and John Twinkie who meet at the gym doing their 50th rep of whatever.' The guy takes his clothes off, and the guy with AIDS looks at him and says, 'There's not an ounce of fat on him.' And it's like, 'At 50? Please!' I thought at least when I was 50....! Why don't I just kill myself now?
"I've been arrested with ACT UP three times, and the most recent was the first time in that situation when I didn't feel like a wallflower. People knew who I was. I guess they saw the Gap ad or something. It was like the cool people in high school being nice to me. That's what ACT UP has felt like to me."
On gay spirituality: "I don't know that I believe in archetypes. I have a big problem with anything that smacks of the essentialist or the eternal. I don't believe that gay people have the role of shamans or priests or artists. There have been times when gay people were honored, when difference and otherness was sacred rather than satanic. That's an important thing. But are we really less
well- represented in the banking community than in the arts community?
"I don't believe we have a mystical function. I do believe the oppressed hold the truth in the society. The slave knows what the master can't know. You can approach that from the mystical-spiritual or the materialist position and believe the same thing. It's what Walter Benjamin calls the earthworm action of the oppressed. The people who are really making history are those tilling the soil of time and who understand how it works from a molecular, chemical point of view. That's the people at the bottom. That's what was deeply evil about Reaganism -- there's no such thing as trickle-down."
On inclusiveness: "Prior used to have a section in his final speech where he said these very confrontational things: 'We won't die for you anymore, and fuck you if you can't accept it.' I changed it because all the straight people in the cast came to me and said, 'We feel hurt by this. You ask us to go on this journey with you, and we go, and at the end you turn it into us-and-them.'
"I felt very angry at first. 'Come on, grow up.' Like, 'I haven't seen you getting arrested on any ACT UP demos. You don't get beaten up because you walk down the street with your boyfriend or girlfriend. I love you and you're not homophobes, but you're not exactly on the barricades, either.' It felt like that whiny American thing of, 'We're one big family.
We are the world/we are the children. Don't discourage that.'
"On the other hand, these were political, deeply decent people who were feeling something I did not want people to be feeling at the end of the play. That kind of political note would only work if it could be understood in the context of an embracing gesture the play is making that I want the play to make."
On millenial art: "I was a medieval studies major most of the time I was at Columbia. The year 1000 was a fascinating time. In Europe there was a huge wave of religious fervor. Everyone was convinced that the year 1000 would be the end of history. The building of churches everywhere. Big social turmoil. Lots of shifting property around, in part because the nobility became obsessed with the idea that God doesn't like rich people. They were breaking up estates, giving their money away, fleeing to the Syrian desert to live on top of pillars, trying to recapture the mystical ecstasy of the desert fathers from the 2nd and 3rd century. Which contributed to an increasing exchange of knowledge and resources between Europe and the East.
"From what I learned about medieval notions of the millennium -- and 18th and 19th century ideas and today's as well -- the one thing that meant the most to me was that the end of the world and the end of history is figured as both the arrival of the kingdom of God on earth and the day of wrath. You're not allowed to know which. It's going to be both. It's a profoundly ambiguous event. If you read the minor prophets of the Holy Scriptures, they're constantly going back and forth between this ecstatic vision of the world returned to a state of paradise and the world being completely scorched and destroyed by God's terrible judgment on his wicked creations.
"What I love about the end of Millennium Approaches is that people in the audience think Prior is dead, but they also feel this great joy. There are great Romanesque and even Celtic representations in medieval art of people in a state of awe. And you understand how awe is etymologically connected to awful. Their eyes are like dinner plates. They look like they've died of terror. Yet they're also completely ecstatic."
Village Voice, 1993