Today, Dec. 1, is World AIDS Day.
To honor this sad memorial day and appreciate those who struggle against AIDS and HIV, Playbill On-Line highlights ten major plays that explore AIDS, either directly or indirectly.
Since the late 1970s, gay theatre has grown into an important part of mainstream theatre. From furtive attempts by Tennessee Williams to bring homosexual themes to florid dramas of fading matrons, to the unabashed celebration of gay sensibility in such revues as The Ten Percent Review and When Pigs Fly, gay theatre has made a tremendous journey in less than 25 years.
With AIDS blighting the international landscape in the 1980s, it was only natural for dramatists, both gay and straight, to explore the crisis in depth. In more recent years, gay playwrights and directors have tried to move away from AIDS as a dominant theme, fearing not only that they'd simply repeat what was already said, but that the disease would become the gay community's sole cultural identifier. That said, recent works, from the musical The Last Session to David Rabe's A Question Of Mercy, are still finding new ways to explore AIDS and its effect on our culture.
As Is, William M. Hoffman's drama brought AIDS to the commercial theatre. The Circle Repertory/Glines production opened at the Lyceum Theatre in 1985 and starred Jonathan Hadary, who would later appear in the landmark gay/AIDS works, The Destiny Of Me and Angels In America. The Normal Heart: Larry Kramer's 1985 assault on the establishment for disregarding the AIDS crisis. Brad Davis, who originated the lead role, died of AIDS. Author Kramer, still living, eventually contracted the virus and wrote an angry sequel in 1992, The Destiny Of Me. So influential were the plays, they inspired young gay playwright David Drake to pen and star in The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me.
The Baltimore Waltz: The play that launched How I Learned To Drive's Paula Vogel, this zany comedy concerns a woman with a rare, fatal illness, taking an international spree. Only at the end does Vogel pull a shocking switch and allow reality to come crashing in.
Falsettos: William Finn's Tony-winning 1992 musical combined three one-acts written over a ten year span into a monumental look at an extended American family. The first parts were written before the AIDS crisis; the last showed Marvin and Whizzer directly affected by the disease.
Angels In America - Millennium Approaches & Perestroika: Argue its merits all you like, Tony Kushner's two-part, 7-hour epic from 1993-94 will likely go down as the most important play of the last quarter century.
Jeffrey: This 1993 comedy about gays finding love (and lust) again in the age of AIDS established Paul Rudnick as Off Broadway's leading joke-meister. Its influence could be felt in the Chicago/New York hit, Party, and the Olivier-winning London play, My Night With Reg. Edward Hibbert, now playing Oscar Wilde in Gross Indecency, co-starred.
Love! Valour! Compassion!: Terrence McNally's 1995 Tony-winning comedy of gay men loving and fighting on a beach-house holiday capped the author's exploration of gay themes in such works as The Lisbon Traviata and A Perfect Ganesh. L!V!C! was recently made into a feature film by original director, Joe Mantello, but sans original star, Nathan Lane. (Jason Alexander played Buzz in the movie).
The Last Session, a new, semi-autobiographical musical now Off Broadway, is based on the life of composer and lyricist Steve Schalchlin. Diagnosed with AIDS, Schalchlin designed and keeps up a website (http://www.geocities.com/Broadway/1173) covering his progress taking experimental treatment for the disease. The musical follows a singer/songwriter laying down one last session in a recording studio as a memento to his friends and lover.
Rent: Jonathan Larson's rock musical that continues to take Broadway by storm featured several main characters living with AIDS. Roger got AIDS from his previous girlfriend (who slit her wrists). Eventually he and drug-addicted girlfriend, Mimi, take their "AZT breaks" together. Also, the transvestite Angel is a member of an AIDS support group and eventually dies from the disease. Mimi, miraculously, does not.
A Question Of Mercy: under serious consideration for last year's Pulitzer (no award was given), David Rabe's drama showed a doctor's consternation at helping an AIDS victim commit suicide. Ultimately, the patient made the conscious decision to keep living.
-- By David Lefkowitz