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Could ‘Angels in America’ happen today?

Ellen McLaughlin as the Angel and Stephen Spinella as AIDS-stricken Prior Walter share an ecstatic moment during "Perestroika," the second part of Tony Kushner's "Angels in America," at the Mark Taper Forum in 1992.
(Craig Schwartz, Center Theatre Group)

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’

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“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?

GRAPHIC: Memories of ‘Angels in America’

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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.”

PHOTOS: Arts and culture pictures from the Times

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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.

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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.

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Then, based on the first two hours he’d written, it found its way into the arms of the largest nonprofit theater in the West, where it was given three more years to incubate. Opening night of “Angels in America” finally arrived amid a long and deep recession that had forced Center Theatre Group to scramble for money to ensure its realization.

Davidson received the opening two-thirds of “Millennium Approaches,” the play’s first part, from Oskar Eustis, the Eureka’s artistic director, during summer 1989. He says he was floored from the first page and resolved to make the play happen. Davidson thinks someone in his shoes today would do the same, by any means necessary, should such a script arise.

In the early 1990s, the necessary means were not easy to come by. The national economy was lousy enough to have cost President George H.W. Bush reelection on the Tuesday before “Angels” opened. Things were especially bad in California, where defense contractors were reeling from the Cold War’s end. During the play’s run, the state’s unemployment rate was 9.8%, the highest in nine years.

At the end of 1991, Davidson had cut $800,000 from the company’s budget because of a fundraising shortfall. The Taper needed to shed costs because its schedule for 1992 began with one two-part epic, the $1.8-million staging (in today’s dollars) of Robert Schenkkan’s “The Kentucky Cycle” and ended with the even longer and costlier “Angels in America.”

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Luckily, Andrew Lloyd Webber was there to give Tony Kushner an assist. “The Phantom of the Opera” had been ensconced at the Taper’s larger sibling, the Ahmanson Theatre, since 1989, on the way to a 41/2-year run. “Phantom” profits had been earmarked for Center Theatre Group’s endowment, said Charles Dillingham, the company’s former longtime managing director, but he and Davidson persuaded the board to funnel some of the money to “Angels.”

Because of a technicality, the Taper’s opening afternoon-and-evening staging on Nov. 8, 1992, was not the play’s official premiere. The Eureka Theatre had a contractual right to the premiere, and it’s commonly stated that the complete “Angels in America” opened there in summer 1991. But the second part, “Perestroika,” was done in San Francisco by actors reading from scripts rather than performing from memory, and they summarized much of the dialogue rather than performing long stretches of what was then a vast, raw, 51/2-hour text that Kushner had rushed to deliver.

The pace had been far more leisurely for the first part, “Millennium Approaches,” which had its first production in May 1990 as part of the Taper, Too satellite-stage season in the 90-seat theater beneath the John Anson Ford Amphitheater in Hollywood. Representatives from Britain’s Royal National Theatre saw it there, leading to a critically acclaimed London run of “Millennium” early in 1992.

Tony Taccone, now the artistic director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, was the Eureka’s artistic director in 1985 when he and Eustis, then the company’s dramaturge, got a tip from one of Kushner’s NYU professors that his former student, whom they’d never heard of, would be a worthy collaborator for their left-leaning, politically driven work.

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Taccone left the Eureka for the bigger Berkeley Rep in 1987 but followed the progress of “Angels” closely and co-directed the Taper’s 1992 staging with Eustis — a doubling dictated by the logistics of rehearsing that much material in a limited time. Taccone says he’s deeply worried that young artists of all types, not just playwrights, are emerging into a far more hostile environment today.

“It was just much easier to be poor back then,” he said. “It feels now like you need $20,000 a year to wake up in this country, and kids are coming out of school with so much debt.”

Taccone said that in his conversations with beginning artists, “These kids are, like, ‘I have to start my own brand,’ creating tiny businesses that are not able to support you full time; you scale back your expectations to do little projects that you self-produce, to get your little niche audience, your Facebook following. The spirit of it is cool, it shows ambition and drive and creativity, but it’s just so compromised. There’s just a huge lack of resources that has an immediate impact on what they can aspire to.”

Kushner says he could not have written “Angels in America” while juggling other demands. It became, he says, “absolutely and entirely my life.” The only working interruption, he said, was a brief detour to write “The Illusion,” his adaptation of a 17th century comedy by Pierre Corneille, which became a surprise hit in 1989 and 1990 at several venues, including the Los Angeles Theatre Center. Kushner also spent months in a fog of mourning following his mother’s death from cancer in August 1990.

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Such a single-minded focus for such a long time is far less likely for today’s playwrights, said Philip Himberg, longtime head of the Sundance Institute’s theater program. For one thing, he said, HBO and other cable channels are clamoring for talented playwrights to work on their series at pay grades far exceeding what the writers can earn in the theater. And the cable gigs come with the potential for much deeper creative satisfaction than the network television work that competed for their time years ago.

Nevertheless, Himberg said, “I have to believe that the next Tony Kushners are going to find a way to do it. I can’t think that we’re not going to have another work that will shift the ground under us because they don’t have time to do it.”

But not everyone shares that faith.

“There are a lot of writers in America writing with great ambition and political acumen, but I’m not sure many of them, especially unknown ones, have the freedom to write plays of that size and duration,” said Todd London, artistic director of New Dramatists, a New York City haven where member playwrights hone their work.

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London co-wrote “Outrageous Fortune,” a 2009 book about the obstacles playwrights face. He said the issue today is often not the one that Kushner and Eustis faced — whether to extend a drama into its fifth or sixth hour — but whether telling a story that requires a fifth or sixth actor will make budget-conscious producers allergic.

“We would like to believe, those of us who curate theaters, that everyone would recognize that special play when it comes along, but there are lots of ways for plays to fall through the cracks,” London said.

He thinks that the excellence of “Angels in America” and another monumental work of the era, August Wilson’s 10-play cycle tracing the 20th century black experience in America, was partly because of the unusual, long-term partnership each playwright enjoyed with a director and a producer — Kushner, Eustis and Davidson for “Angels,” and director Lloyd Richards and producer Benjamin Mordecai for the Wilson cycle. London questions whether such teams could still be assembled and kept together over a long haul.

David Dower, who leads the Center for the Theater Commons, recently established at Boston’s Emerson College to find and promulgate ways of overcoming the obstacles new plays face, believes that ways to improve the theater ecology are beginning to catch on. They include multiple theaters cooperating to fund productions and spread the risk, and playwrights receiving firm commitments that a new play will be produced rather than put through an inconclusive regimen of workshops and readings.

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“The fear of what our audience wants or what our budgets can hold is the starting point so often that it’s hard to imagine the freedom Tony had,” Dower acknowledged. “But many of us are trying to foster conditions nationally so that plays of size and urgency are possible again.”

Eustis, who now runs the Public Theater in New York City, volunteered “a resounding yes and no” when asked whether today’s theater scene could uncork something as big and unlikely as “Angels in America.” His own voyage with Kushner — whose latest work is the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s film “Lincoln” — has been lifelong, and it overcame a crisis their close friendship faced shortly after the Taper’s production of “Angels” had closed and the play was bound for Broadway.

Partly because of the money at stake — nearly $5 million in today’s dollars to get the Broadway production to its opening night, plus high running costs because of the set changes that had to be executed after each performance — Kushner and the commercial producers picked a more established director, George C. Wolfe.

“Tony did everything a human being could do to preserve and protect a relationship, and that got us through the rough time,” said Eustis, who turned up in a nonspeaking role in the 2003 HBO television version of “Angels in America” that starred Al Pacino and Meryl Streep.

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The next “Angels,” says Eustis, will require whoever’s involved to resist cautious thinking and take a leap of faith.

“The problem is when it’s clear you’ve got a huge commitment on your plate and it’s not clear how finished or good it will be at the end of the day. Fewer theaters are willing to throw themselves into that kind of risk, and the thing we’re most in need of is our largest institutions using their size to take artistic risks instead of battening down the hatches.”

“I will always say, ‘Yes, it’s possible,’” said Ben Cameron, who heads the performing arts grant program of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. “I hate to sound like Pollyanna, but there are always enough dedicated artistic leaders that, when something like that comes along, somebody will step up. I think the likelihood isn’t as great, but I couldn’t go on in this business if I didn’t think it was possible.”

mike.boehm@latimes.com

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