Mike Boehm has posed a fascinating and very timely question this week over at The L.A. Times about one of my all-time favorite theatrical works, pondering on whether Tony Kushner's modern classic Angels in America, which debuted to the stage twenty years ago, would even get off the ground in today's decidedly more conservative theatre climate.
Boehm's question is a good one, as he's really asking how brave we actually are in the theatre world today:
There's a fairly broad consensus that [Angels in America] is the greatest American play of the last third of the 20th century -- and that nothing has happened in the 21st to rival it. Now that a generation has passed, it seems fair to ask whether the American theater remains equally capable in 2012 of what it brought forth back then.
Would it achieve the same success today? Good question. It's especially relevant in today's divided, often highly conservative social climate for, as Boehm points out, the play's rich and complex social, political, and religious issues are explored in an epic, searingly emotional atmosphere in "themes unfolded in a mostly gay context," and by a huge cast of characters including an assortment of gay, bisexual, and heterosexual mortals (and immortals).
However, the greater impediment to the show today, as Kushner himself points out within Boehm's discussion, might very well be a simple lack of funding. In 2012, staging a show of Angels' scope is more expensive than ever. So would a $2 million show of seven hours' total performance time -- and by an unknown playwright -- fly? Not without great difficulty, Kushner believes, as the NEA funding that actually allowed his tale to reach the stage has been gutted in the ensuing two decades.
But I hope he's wrong. Angels in America, both parts (Perestroika and Millennium Approaches) won its multitude of awards for a reason, including two Best Play Tony Awards (in successive years, for Part 1 and Part 2), as well as a much-deserved Pulitzer Prize. Such accolades were richly deserved by a work that dared to take a searing look not just at the AIDS crisis of the 1990s, but at such monumental universal issues as life, death, love, religion, politics, mental illness, and the search for God -- all wrapped up in the feathery wings of the very real existentialist cultural dilemma at the heart of America in the early 1990s. (Meanwhile, if you haven't been lucky enough to have seen it in the theatre, HBO's incredibly beautiful miniseries did a gorgeous job of bringing Kushner's words to the small screen in a way that preserved its original theatrical sweep and power, and with an absolutely impeccable cast.)
Would Angels as a new work be too risky for producers (and theatregoers) today? I hope not. I hope such "great works," to quote the play's protagonist Prior Walter, are always going to be possible. I'd like to think that great art will always win out, no matter what the obstacle -- it's certainly why performing artists do what they do, every day.
IMAGE: Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck in the 2010 Off-Broadway revival of Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika. Courtesy of Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika. Photo by Joan Marcus.