Critical triumph and commercial success have collided in a new Broadway musical called The Book of Mormon. The dudes of South Park and the composer of Tony-winner Avenue Q teamed up to produce a broadly comic, exceedingly impolite, ultimately affectionate portrait of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, which was founded by self-proclaimed prophet Joseph Smith in 1830. The musical’s plot concerns two young missionaries dispatched to a godless village in Uganda, which, like much of Africa, has been devastated by AIDS.
Prophets, Mormons, and AIDS…why does that sound so familiar? Oh, that’s right: wild as it may seem, another Broadway show explored similar territory almost two decades ago. Granted, it wasn’t a musical, and it was set not in Africa, but in New York City. But if The Book of Mormon is even half as moving, groundbreaking, and enduring as playwright Tony Kushner’s masterwork, Angels in America, its makers can be more than satisfied with themselves. Set in the 1980s and first produced in 1990, Angels is a theatrical epic on a scale rarely seen on stage anymore. It is presented in two parts, each over three hours long; despite this, it achieved a kind of popular success that eludes most non-musical plays, even those that make it to the Great White Way. The first half, Millennium Approaches, won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Drama; both parts (the second is called Perestroika) won the Tony Award for Best Play. In 2003, an HBO film adaptation starring Al Pacino and Meryl Streep won 11 Emmys.
Most amazing of all, the play became canonical—literally—almost immediately: in his 1994 book The Western Canon, literary critic Harold Bloom included it as the very last item on his list of great works. Not bad, Tony. Now, twenty years after its premiere, Angels is back in the city where its story unfolds, enjoying a well-received Off-Broadway revival whose run has been extended several times. (When it started back in October, the cast included Zachary Quinto from Heroes and the Star Trek movie. Yes, really. He’s now gone, but the current cast features Michael Urie from Ugly Betty, who is remarkable. Yes, really.) I saw both parts of the original Broadway production; sitting in the audience at the current staging, I surveyed the crowd and realized there were people around me who were likely in kindergarten back when I was having my mind blown in the balcony of the Walter Kerr.
Ironically, many of our most profound works of drama, despite their thematic complexities, can be described quite simply. For example, Hamlet is, at its core, about a grieving son seeking to avenge his father’s murder, and Death of a Salesman depicts the final days of a working-class man who realizes he’s wasted his life. But Angels in America is a whole ‘nother ball of wax. Here’s the short version: a Mormon lawyer living in Brooklyn finds he is no longer able to repress his homosexuality, leaves his Valium-addicted wife, and begins an affair with an underachieving Jewish intellectual who has himself recently walked out on his lover, who has AIDS. The abandoned lover, alone and suffering, begins to receive visitations from an angel with eight vaginas. Several more characters swirl around these two central couples, including the infamous McCarthyite Roy Cohn, Communist martyr Ethel Rosenberg, a 100-year-old Bolshevik, a leather daddy who lives with his parents, and an imaginary travel agent called “Mr. Lies.” Go ahead, laugh; it’s allowed. Theater isn’t supposed to be schoolwork or medicine. It’s the humor that makes the play not merely insightful and important, but also, you know, entertaining.
Still, if I said that Angels deals with death, anger, love, fear, shame, power, and God, I wouldn’t blame you if you said you had a headache coming on. Sure, it’s about all that stuff, for starters, but it’s also about gay culture (yes, The Wizard of Oz is referenced several times), fucked-up families, the politics of the Reagan administration and New York in the ‘80s. It grafts its high-minded questions onto the most relatable of situations: children reject their parents, relationships fail, and the old and the sick must face the end. It effortlessly moves back and forth between scenes of dramatic realism and those of unfettered fantasy: Eskimos and polar bears roam Antarctica, dummies in a historical diorama come to life, and angels listen to the news from Earth on the radio. The events of the plot were, when it was first performed, in the recent past, though the millennium of the title was still in the future. Now the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s are all behind us, but Kushner has managed to pull off what all playwrights dream of: creating a work that is both urgent in its own time and relevant when that time has passed. HIV treatment has progressed by leaps and bounds since 1986 (when the real Roy Cohn died of AIDS), but with battles over marriage, adoption, and military service still raging, Angels’ thesis—that the future of America is inextricably linked to the lives of queer people—still resonates. The angel and her colleagues (heavenly beings, it turns out, are a lot like bureaucrats) lament the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster; recent events in Japan make Kushner’s vision seem not merely ambitious, but damn near psychic.
As a crazy young theater teacher, I had my students—mostly teenage girls—perform scenes from Angels, willfully ignoring any reservations about the subject matter that they, their parents, and my fellow staff may have had. (Amazingly, I did not get fired, and one of those young actresses was really damn good.) Now, older and possibly wiser, I was both thrilled and frightened by the idea of seeing Angels performed again. I admire many aspects of the miniseries version, but to its credit, Kushner’s play is most effective on stage, where an angel crashing through the ceiling and a dying man climbing a ladder to Heaven are not just special effects, but magic—”play” in the fullest sense. The current production differs from the Broadway version for myriad reasons: the intimacy of the theater, the technology used in the design, and, of course, the passage of time. How do I feel now? Well, my mind is reeling, my heart is broken, and my spirit is revived. Jon Stewart recently said that The Book of Mormon was so good it made him angry. I’m angry because plays like Angels just don’t come around enough, because it stirs up righteous fury at the world’s unfairness, and because I didn’t write it.