Last year, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America arrived in New York City with a stunning revival production from London’s National Theatre, directed by Marianne Elliott. It was nearly 25 years after the original hit Broadway, and by this time, the playwright’s epic masterpiece had taken on a mythic quality.
Starring Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter, a gay man diagnosed with AIDS under President Ronald Reagan’s administration, and Nathan Lane as the vile attorney Roy Cohn, who was (among other things) Donald Trump’s mentor, the seismic eight-hour production took on new resonance for a new generation. It also went on to win Best Revival of a Play at that year’s Tony Awards and won Garfield a Best Actor trophy.
Kushner himself — whom many consider one of the greatest living American playwrights and an intellectual giant able to pontificate on a plethora of topics — has worn the heavy mantle of Angels over the decades and shepherded other adaptations of the Pulitzer Prize-winning work into new mediums, including an HBO miniseries directed by Mike Nichols and an opera.
Now the “Gay Fantasia on National Themes” is available as an audiobook, with Garfield and Lane reprising their roles, along with most of the revival’s talented cast. It also features Bobby Cannavale as the narrator reading the stage direction of the first play, Millennium Approaches, with Edie Falco taking on that role for the second play, Perestroika (listen to an exclusive clip from the audiobook below).
“I’m waiting for the graphic novel! A Saturday-morning cartoon!” Kushner says, jokingly. “I don’t think of this adaptation as being a ‘permanent live theater,’ because that’s kind of an oxymoron. Part of the power of live theater is its impermanence, its ineffability. It’s in the process of vanishing in front of you. So if you didn’t see this wonderful cast on stage, what you get when you listen to the audiobook is really a remarkable record of it. But it’s not the performance; it’s something else. That’s what I find really exciting about this, the ‘something else’ that it is.”
Kushner spoke to Rolling Stone about how this adaptation came to be, as well as the progress LGBTQ people have made since the Stonewall uprising 50 years ago and why he’s rewriting his first play, A Bright Room Called Day, that warns how Reagan’s counter-revolution would lead to the type of fascism we’re seeing in American politics today.
How much involvement did you have with this adaptation?
I was involved with trying to figure out if this is doable. It necessitated getting the cast to do it while they were on Broadway, since right afterward they scattered to all points of the compass. And involved in some of the conversation about how to handle the stage directions. I’ve always said I feel like Angels works in part as a book, because the stage directions gives it a feeling of reading a novel. So I wanted to be careful about how we treated that, and the rhythm of the scenes with interruptions from the narrator, stage directions. The people who were working on it had done a lot of audiobooks; they had the same concerns.
And the choice to have Bobby Cannavale and Edie Falco read the stage directions?
We made lists of people that we would like to have. Should it be the same person reading stage directions in both parts? I think it was [the producers at Random House audio] who had the idea to have a different person for Millennium and Perestroika.
When we started driving up regularly to Provincetown after we got a house here, Mark [Harris, my husband] and I started listening to books on tape. That was the first time I had really begun thinking about audiobooks, and what we started listening to was Lush Life. I like Richard Price, and Bobby — who I’ve known for a while — did that, and it really makes a difference, when it’s a novel, who’s reading it.
You can take a great novel and, if it’s a bad actor, they can make it sound just ghastly. But Bobby did an absolutely astonishing job. When people ask me what audiobooks are like, I often refer them to Lush Life. You have to listen to this because you’ll get what’s exciting about the form. Like everybody else on the planet, I’m a huge Edie Falco fan. I’ve done a reading with her and I’ve known her for a while, and I think she’s one of the great actors of our day, so I was thrilled when she said yes to it. I think they’ve done a gorgeous job.
Are you attracted to the medium as something you’d potentially explore and write original work for?
Oh, absolutely. There are a couple of radio drama-like things out there. And John Cameron Mitchell’s podcast, which is incredibly exciting. I’m a big opera fan and for many years now I often enjoy listening to opera more than seeing it on stage. That’s because the acting and production is somewhat … difficult [laughs]. But there’s a kind of relief from the visual as well that gives you a chance to really focus. It’s sort of fascinating. Something spooky about it too — disembodied voices. The spookiness of sitting in a room and hearing voices is a powerful thing. I won’t pretend that I got something in the works right now, but I think it’s intriguing. And there are things that I’ve written, like the monologue for Homebody/Kabul, which is long and by its end is sort of about a disembodied voice. I’d be curious to know if that would work.
In 2018, when Angels was revived on Broadway, several other plays that focused on different eras of the gay experience also got revivals: Boys in the Band, Torch Song. Why do you think mainstream theater was taking that risk?
I don’t know exactly what it means. Of course it’s the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, so there’s a way in which it makes sense because it’s a time for looking back a little bit. Part of it is coincidence. That always plays a role. I think it’s a moment for looking back at where we’ve been and the plays are the chronicles of our time. Plays and movies serve that function. I think it certainly gave you a lot of opportunity for comparison in terms of different eras of gay, male history.
But less has been made that it’s the 50th anniversary of Stonewall than one might have expected. I think it’s because the world is so fucked up right now. “That’s nice, but in the meanwhile, Donald Trump…” so nobody is in the mood to celebrate anything right now. But that may be the reason why.
I mean those two plays are quite different: Torch Song set before AIDS; Boys set before Stonewall.
Yeah, Angels takes place during the epidemic, it was written in the late Eighties and Nineties. It wasn’t that AIDS was no longer among us, but it was not a play that I could have written in the heat of the moment. I couldn’t have written the play in 1985.
One of the things I admire about Larry Kramer and The Normal Heart is that he wrote this magnificent play in the white-hot heart of this terrible moment: ‘86/’87. Larry sat down and wrote a play, and it doesn’t explain everything about the epidemic, but it certainly captures a moment of horror with a degree of insight and compassion and empathic imagination that is quite astonishing. I couldn’t have written Angels at the moment at which it’s set. I needed time to sit back and think and that was three or four years after I started writing the play. I don’t know that the kind of work I do is best done as an immediate response.
Next year will be the five-year anniversary of legal same-sex marriage for the entire country. A few years ago, it felt like we were moving forward, making progress so much so that people thought, “We don’t need all these organizations fighting for equal rights.” But now it feels like things could be taken away. Do you have any thoughts on that? Especially since you’re often cited as a forerunner of same-sex marriage, with your wedding being the first same-sex “Vows” published in the New York Times.
Well, I won’t take credit for that. I mean I did get married. That happened. [laughs] You know, I think it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone — and I don’t know that it is — that there’s not such thing as a permanent win in the political arena. Or undoable progress. It’s always kind of amazing given how hard the struggle has been, not just for LGBTQ rights, but for civil rights and women’s rights and the struggle to stop climate change. Everything that progressive people are struggling for. The struggle is very difficult. But one thing that is kind of remarkable — and we have to make sure we don’t get complacent about this — but you look at the Affordable Care Act and, once Trump won and had both houses of Congress, the expectation was that the ACA would go away almost immediately. And it hasn’t.
It has been really interesting to watch, and I think the same thing happened with same-sex marriage, which you saw with Massachusetts, where the Supreme Court of Mass. said it’s a violation of the Constitution to deny marriage rights to same-sex couples. And the court was very clear, and the state legislature tried to dodge it. And it happened and, I don’t remember the exact statistic, but basically in a year, the number of people in Massachusetts who went from being against same-sex marriage to supporting it switched. When people see that the world isn’t going to end when something changes for the better, they quickly accept it.
You’ve mentioned before that you’re working on something that is in some ways a reaction to Trump and that is grappling with the framework that underpins his rise to power. Is that right?
I’m working on something that started out to be a direct reaction to Trump but is now something very, very different. And it’s going to take me a couple of years to do and isn’t going to be about Donald Trump. We’re genuinely in a world historical moment of crisis. And what I’m working on is a reaction but it won’t ultimately be about this moment. This interview we’re having is a reaction to the current moment.
I am also rewriting my first play, A Bright Room Called Day, and we’re doing it at the Public Theater in the fall. That is a play that I did write in 1984 and said that the Reagan counter-revolution is going to lead to fascism. Unfortunately, I think I was on to something. So I’m now rewriting it as a way to look back and look forward. That’s not exactly a new play, but I’d say about 40 percent of it is going to be new.
I appreciate that you’re reminding us about what happened during Reagan’s time as president. I grew up understanding that he was vile and horrible, and then something happened later in this century where he became a patron saint to people. Seeing Angels reminds you otherwise, and this revival of your play will remind people. Did something change that I don’t remember?
In some ways it’s incredibly simple. The whole mantra of the Reagan counter-revolution was that government is evil, and in a democracy to say that government is evil is to say that democracy is evil. Democracy is not the absence of government. Government is what the people are in its political form, in its social, communal form. That’s government, that’s what democracy is. So these people have been saying for fortysomething years now: Government is evil. As Reagan said, “Government is not the solution, it’s the problem.” As a result of repeating this for 40 years, you wind up with an electorate — not the majority of people in the United States, but 30 to 40 percent; one of our two political parties — willing to say that a desperate and lamentable creature like Donald Trump is worthy to be the president of the United States. Because they are expressing their hatred and contempt for the United States of America. It’s a direct expression.
They are not mistaken; they do not believe this guy is good. They believe this guy is an ugly, worthless, untrustworthy, pornographic version of a human being. That’s what Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham actively want to say about the United States. That the office occupied by George Washington and Abraham Lincoln should be occupied by Donald Trump is their way of, pardon the expression, taking a big, giant shit on the dignity and power and majesty of the people of the United States, the people’s government. They have created a generation of people who do not believe in law, who do not understand the idea of law. They privilege “freedom,” this sort of mad version of individualistic freedom, over all else and don’t understand the complexity of the deals that we make to have any kinds of freedoms at all. And you know, it’s always seemed to me that these people were going to lead to a kind of ego-anarchism that was the breeding ground of fascism. The thing that will save us is the durability of democracy, the strength of democratic institutions, the fact that he really is stupid and the people around him really are stupid. But stupid doesn’t mean that you’re safe. Stupid can do a vast amount of damage.