Why the Second Part of Angels in America Made Its NYC Premiere in a Black-Box Downtown Theatre

Special Features   Why the Second Part of Angels in America Made Its NYC Premiere in a Black-Box Downtown Theatre
In this exclusive excerpt from The World Only Spins Forward, director Michael Mayer, Debra Messing, and more describe what it was like to stage the earliest version of Perestroika at NYU.
Stephen Spinella and Ellen McLaughlin in Angels in America.
Stephen Spinella and Ellen McLaughlin in Angels in America. Joan Marcus

Back in 2016, Dan Kois and Isaac Butler began work on a retrospective of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America for Slate magazine. Kois had read the play in college and saw the Broadway production starring Stephen Spinella and knew then it was a “defining artistic event”; Butler went to New York with his parents for the express purpose of seeing Angels and has “basically been obsessed with the play Kushner’s writing ever since.” But as the two began writing and interviews, they realized a 15,000-word article wasn’t going to cut it.

<i>The World Only Spins Forward</i>
The World Only Spins Forward

“Pretty early on, Dan interviewed Kathy Chalfant and I interviewed Ellen McLaughlin,” says Butler, “and during those interviews we were both told something like ‘I don’t think you know this yet but you’re actually working on a book.'‘’ Now that book, The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America, hits bookshelves February 13—fortuitously timed with the return of Angels in America to Broadway, starring Nathan Lane and Andrew Garfield, in a transfer of the National Theatre's production that begins previews at the Neil Simon Theatre February 23.

Kois and Butler interviewed over 250 people between the spring of 2016 and this past October. The oral history of Kushner’s two-part epic features interviews with actors who have performed the work onstage and screen—including Meryl Streep, Lane, Debra Messing, and Spinella—as well as directors, producers, crew, and the playwright himself. The chronicle shares the turmoil of the show, onstage and behind the scenes, as well as the play’s place in American history and culture as a landmark work.

The combination of Butler’s perspective as a theatre director—his productions have been seen at BAM, The Public, and more—and Kois’ point of view as an editor and writer covers all bases of storytelling. But “both skill sets were particularly helpful in the interludes, which are these sections, one dedicated to each character in the play, where we interview as many actors as we could find to get their struggles, stories, triumphs, and interpretations of their role,” Butler explains.

Below, Playbill shares an exclusive passage from The World Only Spins Forward, which follows the mounting of Perestroika (part two of Angels) in an early workshop at NYU and the Angels fever that ensued in the New York theatre community.


Perestroika at NYU, 1993

Tony Kushner: The day Millennium won the Pulitzer, I had to go and watch a run-through of Perestroika at NYU.

Angels in America Joan Marcus

Michael Mayer (director of NYU Perestroika workshop, 1993): They had decided that while Millennium was going to be opening on Broadway, Tony wanted to do a workshop of Perestroika at NYU. The producers of the Broadway Angels weren’t quite sure how to go forward with Perestroika, because it had been problematic in L.A. and some of the reviews didn’t appreciate it as much as Millennium.

Ben Shenkman (Roy in NYU Perestroika workshop, 1993): Supposedly Tony was still working on it, and he would be coming in and trying rewrites out with us.

“I’m going to workshop it with some NYU graduate students. And I think that’s probably all I’ll do with it. I’m beginning to run out of steam, because I’ve been working on the play pretty much since 1988 . . . I don’t want this to be the only thing that I ever write.”
—Tony Kushner, in conversation with Craig Lucas, Bomb magazine, Spring 1993

Mayer: What ended up happening was Tony couldn’t come to any rehearsals. He was completely wrapped up in Millennium Approaches on Broadway. He didn’t do any new writing at all.

Shenkman: We just basically did the Mark Taper version of Perestroika, but we did it in a black box theater, Atlas Room, over on Second Avenue. I played Roy Cohn. Michael Mayer was just starting out, and out of this black box and with, like, a ladder on wheels, he created the whole epic.

Mayer: The ceiling was, like, ten feet high. I had to have an angel flying around for a lot of it. She didn’t just crash through the ceiling, she had to fly around and deliver the Epistle. I had this idea which maybe could have been stupid but it turned out really great. I just got one of those rolling stepladders and put the Angel on top of it, and I took Ben Shenkman and put a baseball hat on him and made him push the ladder around. And crew members took Fresnels down right and down left in the audience shining on her.

Debra Messing (Harper in NYU Perestroika workshop, 1993): During that last speech where Harper’s flying to San Francisco, they had me on the top of the ladder on wheels, and people just pushed me around stage on wheels to simulate that I was flying.

Vivienne Benesch (Hannah in NYU Perestroika workshop, 1993): I had these earrings from my mom, these giant orange baubles. One of Michael’s favorite ways to direct at that time was just to scream out, “Heeeeiinous! That’s heinous!” He would wear my mom’s giant orange earrings as he did it. I will never ever forget hearing him tell me choices were “heeeeiinous!”

Mayer: Mostly I was on my own with this huge thing. OK, but it’s NYU, we’re safe, it’s cool, we’re great. They’re doing their thing up there on Broadway and we’re doing our little thing downtown.

Shenkman: People heard that they might not have to wait all the way until September, when Perestroika was supposed to open on Broadway, and they started coming down to see this little student production.

Robin Weigert and Christian Borle in Angels in America.
Robin Weigert and Christian Borle in Angels in America. Joan Marcus

Mayer: We ended up having our first preview the same night Millennium Approaches had their first preview. They had to cancel a couple because of the set and stuff. I was walking from Astor Place and as I was walking down Seventh Street I saw this line of people, and I was like, What the hell is this line for? I saw a friend and said, “What are you lining up for?” and he said, “Uh, your show.”

Messing: It felt like all of New York City had exploded in celebration of Tony Kushner.

Mayer: Angels fever had taken over. You couldn’t look at a magazine or a newspaper without seeing it. I was completely panicked that this quiet workshop had become completely public.

Shenkman: What I now know with hindsight, which I didn’t know at the time, is how different Perestroika is as a theatrical animal than Millennium. It’s not just Part 2. My memory of that just hermetic, fantastic, economic production of Millennium at Juilliard sort of haunted me, like: What is this? This just feels like a mess by comparison. I remember girding myself for those performances, kind of thinking, OK, this is going to be sort of a disaster, you know, and so I’d better prepare myself to learn what you learn from failing. And, you know, just from the first lines, the sense of the audience coming up to meet the piece and lifting it was incredible.

Benesch: At our first performance, we’re backstage waiting to go on after the second intermission, and the audience gave us a standing ovation before we started the last act. And we’re literally crying backstage. I was with Dan Zelman [playing Prior], standing backstage, and we’re hearing this applause and thinking, This is unbelievable.

Mayer: They must have crammed 150 people in that place with a max capacity of 75. It remains one of the most extraordinary evenings of my life as a director. This quote-unquote imperfect play of his ended up working brilliantly.

Kushner: Michael did a phenomenal job with it. It was terrific. It was back before the Internet, so you could trust that these things would happen and wouldn’t be written about.

Messing: Up until then a curtain call felt like a boost to your ego. Like everyone is applauding your work and your interpretation and what you’ve done. But for the first time I had the experience of coming out and people clapping and being on their feet, and it was very clear that everybody was applauding Tony Kushner. Everyone was applauding the play, and we were just the lucky ones who were bringing it to these people.

Benesch: It was so intimidating, because some of the Broadway cast did come to watch us. Not all, but some. There was a night when a number of them came. Kathy Chalfant asked if she could steal a moment from me. It was an Ethel moment, looking up to the star, the little star of her hatred. I was like, Oh my God!

Mayer: Over the next several weeks, all of the producers came down to see it, and they had renewed faith in the play itself, a play I loved. Oh, this play is good.

Benesch: Andre Gregory came to speak to us while I was a grad student at NYU and said—I will always remember—“As an artist, if you’re lucky, once every ten years in your career you will do something that actually shakes the ground of the artistic world.” If you’re lucky! “And the rest of the time we’re blessed because we get to do what we love.” And then the next year we did Angels and it was like, Do I have to wait another ten years?

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