The Lasting Impact of Angels in America

Anthony J. Piccione

Today marks the 59th birthday of Pulitzer-prize winning playwright Tony Kushner. For decades, Mr. Kushner has had enormous success as a writer for both the stage and screen, with his work among the most critically acclaimed of any writer from his generation. However, it is his 6-hour, two-part drama Angels in America that remains the most popular and well-received of all his works today. Yet given events in recent years – in which America has seen a great deal of progress on the issues that are the subject of Angels – I think now is an especially good time to revisit Kushner’s epic play, as its historical significance is just now starting to become fully realized.

Mr. Mantello, right, and Stephen Spinella in “Angels in America” in Los Angeles, pre-Broadway. Credit Jay Thompson

Mr. Mantello, right, and Stephen Spinella in “Angels in America” in Los Angeles, pre-Broadway. Credit Jay Thompson

When it was first produced in 1993, it was a time when there was much less acceptance in mainstream society for LGBT rights. There was a lot less understanding of the situations and the discrimination that gay Americans – whether they were openly gay and still in the closet – dealt with on a daily basis. Information based on fact – with regards to the AIDS epidemic – was still just starting to reach the general public, and the overall political climate in the post-Reagan era was still far more socially conservative than it is today.

Of course, none of these things stopped the play from being successful and receiving critical acclaim. It still won several awards and was well-received by the average theatergoer, many of whom have always been ahead of the times on this issue. Nonetheless, I think it is still fair to say that back when this play was first released in 1993 – not to mention when the play takes place in 1985 – that there was still much more open discrimination against LGBT people in America that would have made some people less likely to watch a play like this. Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find very many potential audience members that would openly admit that they wouldn’t see a show such as this on the basis of the social themes and issues that it tackles. 

Fast forward to 2015, and it seems that America has changed a great deal since Mr. Kushner wrote Angels in America. Just recently, the Supreme Court ruled once and for all that – in all 50 states – couples have a right to marry whomever they choose, regardless of the gender of that person they love. Even before then, the decade leading up to that historic ruling has been one of several individuals across the country – from artists to celebrities to political leaders to regular people – opening their eyes to the fact that this is a major issue of equal rights, while taking stronger stands against those who choose to discriminate. Of course, this isn’t to say that we’ve necessarily achieved full equality in the United States. Yet at this point, to say that there has not been any progress over the past 22 years – since the premiere of this play that is about the same age as me – would be a false statement.

Stephen Spinella, with Ellen McLaughlin as the angel, in the original 1990s Broadway production of “Angels in America.” Credit Joan Marcus

Stephen Spinella, with Ellen McLaughlin as the angel, in the original 1990s Broadway production of “Angels in America.” Credit Joan Marcus

 Knowing this, I believe it is worth considering the role that Angels in America may have had in helping to bring about this cultural shift. Indeed, much of this shift can be attributed to a larger impact that theatre, in general, has had on American culture in terms of how it has come to be far more accepting of equal rights than it had been even just a few decades ago. For many years, the arts have played a major role in shifting American culture on a variety of issues related to civil rights and social justice, and this is no exception. As more and more shows over the past two or three decades (if not longer) have premiered and reached mainstream audiences, while highlighting issues affecting the LGBT community – such as religious-themed discrimination, as well as the AIDS epidemic of the 80s – it seems that these themes have come to be seen by more and more people as the defining civil rights issue of our time. I think it is undeniable that some of the most impacting shows of the past quarter-century are the ones highlighting these themes, given how much things have changed for the better in this time period. Angels in America certainly belongs in this category – as do shows such as Rent and The Laramie Project – which have help move the needle in this direction, and all of us in the theatre community ought to be proud that our beloved art form has placed such a vital role in changing so many minds that have helped lead to these historic cultural changes.

So this summer – as people across the country celebrate the progress made in this country – I think it is worth remembering the role that Angels in America has played in helping this change come about. Since its premiere, many of us in the theatre community have long known just how great this play is, but given recent events, I think there is plenty of good reason to start looking at the long-term impact and legacy of this play in a new light. It is these recent events that I believe only enhance the significance of this great work from Tony Kushner, and it is something for us all to especially remember today, as Mr. Kushner celebrates his birthday.

On that note…happy birthday, Mr. Kushner! Hope you enjoy your day.

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