Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes is widely considered one of the most ambitious and profoundly moving plays of the late 20th century, earning the 1993 Pulitzer Prize and a place in Harold Bloom’s Western canon (interestingly, his name is the last added to the list—and as a coda, no less).
The playbill describes the play thusly: “In late 1985 and early 1986, as the first wave of the AIDS epidemic in America is escalating and Ronald Reagan has been elected to a second term in the White House, the play’s two parts bring together a myriad of disparate characters whose lives intersect, intertwine, collide and are blown apart during a time of heartbreak, reaction and transformation. Ranging from earth to heaven, from the political to the intimate to the visionary and supernatural, Angels in America is an epic exploration of love, justice, identity and theology, of the difficulty, terror and necessity of change.”
Kushner told an interviewer that “I didn’t [set out to write an AIDS play]. I set out to write about what it was like to be me, a gay man in New York, in the mid-1980s, and it was not possible to do that without placing it in the middle of the epidemic. It also seemed like there was a huge shift in the political climate with President Reagan. The world I was born into was receding and something new and rather terrifying was taking its place.” Due to its explicit content and themes, the play was—and still is—considered controversial by radical religious groups; as a result, in some places where the play was supposed to be performed, protests were held in order to stop it.
Kushner wrote the first part, Millennium Approaches, in 1988, and the second part, Perestroika, in 1990. He had started a single play in 1987, the sixth year of the AIDS epidemic and the seventh of the Reagan administration. Part One was performed in 1991 by Los Angeles’s Center Theatre Group at the Mark Taper Forum, and then premiered in San Francisco and London. Part Two was also staged in Los Angeles and San Francisco, then London. Both parts debuted on Broadway in 1993. Its runtime was over seven hours, but the play was nonetheless a smash hit. The New Yorker called it “a watershed drama,” The New York Times called it “the most influential play of the last two decades,” and The Chicago Tribune called it “the greatest American play of the waning years of the twentieth century.” The play won the 1993 and 1994 Tony Awards for Best Play.
In 2003, Kushner wrote a script based on the play for HBO. The network adaptation was directed by Mike Nichols and starred Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, and Emma Thompson; it garnered acclaim and numerous awards. The following year, a French opera based on the play opened. There have been numerous productions in locations such as Singapore, Scotland, and the Philippines.
There is currently a new, 25th-anniversary staging on Broadway starring Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane. It has earned rave reviews from critics who deem it just as relevant today as it was when it first came out. It also received 11 Tony Award nominations, which is more than any other play in history.