Ellen McLaughlin as the Angel and Stephen Spinella as AIDS-stricken Prior… (Craig Schwartz, Center…)
Twenty years ago this week, the stage lights went up on "Angels in America" at the Mark Taper Forum, and audiences immediately heard an aged rabbi in the Bronx proclaim that "great voyages in this world do not anymore exist."
The theatrical journey ended seven hours later with playwright Tony Kushner's AIDS-stricken protagonist, Prior Walter, assuring the audience that it wasn't so: "You are fabulous creatures, each and everyone. And I bless you. More Life. The Great Work Begins."
The Taper production was the first complete staging of the landmark play, subtitled "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes." In it, Kushner wove a tale in which sweeping emotional, political, philosophical and theological themes unfolded in a mostly gay context: the moral obligations between people who love each other, the obligation to forgive even those we hate, and how the traditions that sustain us must evolve in a changing world.
FOR THE RECORD:
"Angels in America": In the Nov. 11 Arts & Books section, an article about the legacy of the play "Angels in America" 20 years later misspelled the last name of former Times editor Richard Rouillard as Rouille. —
PHOTOS: 'Angels in America'
"Angels in America" won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1993 and best-play Tony Awards in 1993 and '94 (one for each of its two parts, which opened on Broadway in separate theater seasons). It has gone on to sell more than 500,000 copies in book form. There's a fairly broad consensus that it is the greatest American play of the last third of the 20th century — and that nothing has happened in the 21st to rival it. Now that a generation has passed, it seems fair to ask whether the American theater remains equally capable in 2012 of what it brought forth back then.
Can such great voyages still exist?
Could five years, more than $2 million in today's currency and so much of an audience's time be set aside to write, develop and perform an unprecedented kind of work by an unproven playwright?
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There's no simple answer, based on recent interviews with Kushner, with several key figures who accompanied him along the play's path and with longtime leaders in the field of new-play development.
The obstacles to the creation of such a play have grown, most of them say, but they're unwilling to bet against the art form's continuing fecundity and determination.
"Certain things have changed in the American theater for the worse, that had they been true when I started working on 'Angels in America' would have had a negative effect," Kushner said. "On the other hand, I would hope the answer is yes."
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He says it's not the playwriting talent pool that concerns him but the funding. One big difference, he said, has been the crippling of the National Endowment for the Arts, whose 1987 grant made it possible for the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco to commission him to begin what became "Angels."
Adjusted for inflation, the NEA budget that year was considerably more than double the current $146.3 million. The Eureka's grant was in a special projects category that no longer exists, for works "that would not be accomplished without Endowment assistance." Kushner said his share mattered in ways that went beyond paying his bills while he wrote.
"Apart from the money, it was very moving to me. It had the NEA seal on the check, and it was in the name of 'The People of the United States of America.'" He says the people's imprimatur helped guide his imagination to a national scale.
In all, Kushner, the Eureka and the Mark Taper Forum received an inflation-adjusted $522,000 in grants and playwriting awards en route to the first complete production of "Angels in America" — an amount that experts say is now almost inconceivable for a little-known playwright's work. So, they say, is the five years, with few distractions, that Kushner had to brainstorm, write and refine something that wound up exceeding all normal expectations.
The largest outside funder of "Angels," providing more than half its grant money, was the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays. Then bankrolled by American Express, the fund issued $630,000 in inflation-adjusted grants for six plays in 1992; it has since dwindled to $50,000 to $75,000 annually, funding a single play each year.
One school of thought says that the theater will always rise to the big occasion, because that's what the theater always has done.
"[Kushner] was making the work, it was worth making, and it was up to me to make sure it was made," said Gordon Davidson, who produced the 1992 Taper staging as artistic director of L.A.'s Center Theatre Group.
It began in 1987 with an impecunious, midsized, politically attuned stage company in San Francisco commissioning a virtually unknown playwright.