This week, Slate, ran a piece entitled, "Angels in America: The Complete Oral History." In the article authors, Isaac Butler and Dan Kois, piece together stories they collected during 50 interviews with those involved in the writing, producing, directing, acting, and reviewing parts of this show. The article spans the history of the production starting in 1981 when Tony Kushner got the idea to do a show shining a light on the AIDS epidemic that was crippling the Nation. It is wonderful to see a long-form article be so thorough and engaging.
Butler and Kois provide a detailed and engaging account of where all of the key players started, how they met, and how they became involved in the project. They then lead us through Kushner's process and the hurdles the team had to overcome to get to the first production. The turning point in the whole process turns out to be when they were first reviewed by Frank Rich in the New York Times. They were very nervous about the review because the show was quite raw in the beginning and at this point, Kushner had not even started the second half of the production. A testament to what a solid review can to do a show, the wonderful review from Frank Rich threw a lot of excitement and power behind the show. This compelled them to launch productions in San Francisco, LA, NYC, and London.
Frank Rich reveals how moved he was by the show even so early in it's inception. At the time Broadway had become a rather seedy part of NYC and there were not very many long running shows. Many were bored with the scene because it did not seem relevant to their everyday lives. The producers of Angels in America were very brave to back a show about a controversial topic like the AIDS epidemic, but it paid off because it resonated so strongly with the audience. During the interviews, several people draw comparisons between Angels in America and Hamilton. While Angels in America was set in present day and dealt with surviving a disease many in the audience had been personally effected by, Hamilton takes us back to the founding of our country. The similarity between the two pieces is the relevance to their audience. Hamilton uses casts that look like Americans today and they tell their stories through modern mediums. If you meet the audience where they are and produce quality work, you have the makings for a hit. 25 years ago, Angels in America shook up the Broadway scene in a way similar to the way Hamilton is currently running.
While it is hard to imagine that there are many individuals as talented as Tony Kushner or Lin-Manuel Miranda, it is important to remember how taking these kinds of risks can pay off in artistic works. Pushing the envelope, shaking up a story to put it in a new context, or bucking the supposed trends of the day can have major pay-offs. They can be groundbreaking and dare I say, revolutionary.