The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America

The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America

by Isaac Butler, Dan Kois
The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America

The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America

by Isaac Butler, Dan Kois


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The oral history of Angels in America, as told by the artists who created it and the audiences forever changed by it—a moving account of the AIDS era, essential queer history, and pure "theater magic" (NPR).


When Tony Kushner's Angels in America hit Broadway in 1993, it won the Pulitzer Prize, swept the Tonys, launched a score of major careers, and changed the way gay lives were represented in popular culture. Mike Nichols's 2003 HBO adaptation starring Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, and Mary-Louise Parker was itself a tour de force, winning Golden Globes and eleven Emmys, and introducing the play to an even wider public. This generation-defining classic continues to shock, move, and inspire viewers worldwide.

Now, on the 25th anniversary of that Broadway premiere, Isaac Butler and Dan Kois offer the definitive account of Angels in America in the most fitting way possible: through oral history, the vibrant conversation and debate of actors (including Streep, Parker, Nathan Lane, and Jeffrey Wright), directors, producers, crew, and Kushner himself. Their intimate storytelling reveals the on- and offstage turmoil of the play's birth—a hard-won miracle beset by artistic roadblocks, technical disasters, and disputes both legal and creative. And historians and critics help to situate the play in the arc of American culture, from the staunch activism of the AIDS crisis through civil rights triumphs to our current era, whose politics are a dark echo of the Reagan '80s.

Expanded from a popular Slate cover story and built from nearly 250 interviews, The World Only Spins Forward is both a rollicking theater saga and an uplifting testament to one of the great works of American art of the past century, from its gritty San Francisco premiere to its starry, much-anticipated Broadway revival in 2018.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781635572988
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 01/07/2020
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 637,467
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Isaac Butler's writing has appeared in New York Magazine, Slate, the Guardian, and other publications. His theater directing work has been presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Public Theater, New York's Town Hall, and elsewhere.

Dan Kois is an editor and writer for Slate, where he launched the Slate Book Review, and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He is a frequent guest on Slate's Culture Gabfest.

Read an Excerpt




BARNEY FRANK (congressman from Massachusetts, 1981–2013): It was a bad time.

DAVID FRANCE (director and writer, How to Survive a Plague): Ronald Reagan was brought to power by the religious right. And it was the first time the religious right got power. The Moral Majority kind of swept the slate into Washington.

FRANK: I remember having very mixed emotions the night I won in 1980 — I was obviously very happy that I got elected to Congress, but it was a slaughter. Not only did Reagan win by a big margin, but they controlled the Senate.

RICK PERLSTEIN (historian; author of The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan): The religious right wasn't as mature as a political formation until the latter part of the 1970s, when so many of these social issues were thrust into the center of politics.

FRANK: Things began to change in the mid-'70s when the rest of the world began to regain its economic footing, when America's dominant role eroded, and that began the process of people who were not highly skilled and not highly educated losing out in relative terms economically.

PERLSTEIN: Through 1977 to 1978, there were the gay rights fights in Miami, the Briggs Initiative in California, the Equal Rights Amendment, and abortion — the movement is beginning to take shape, and it's taking shape in parallel to Reagan's very aggressive, full-time efforts to begin working for the Republican nomination.

There'd been the successful campaign to overturn the gay rights ordinance in Miami in 1977.

Unfortunately, the battle that we won today is only that, a battle. The war goes on to save our children, because the seed of sexual sickness that germinated in Dade County has already been transplanted by misguided liberals in the U.S. Congress.

–Anita Bryant, President, Save Our Children, April 1977

PERLSTEIN: Right around the corner on the general election ballot in California, you have the Briggs Initiative, the first statewide attack on gay rights. Not only that, but in the biggest state. It was an incredibly, incredibly scary prospect. This was a law that would have made it illegal for gays to teach in the schools and also illegal for supporters of gays to teach in schools. It was a very, very creepy law.

DAVID WEISSMAN (director, We Were Here): From the beginning the numbers looked very bad.

CLEVE JONES (founder, NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt): Yeah, I don't think anybody thought we could win it when we started organizing, but we saw it as a great opportunity to organize. You know, this was before we had any really strong statewide or national organizations. That kind of infrastructure hadn't been built. So Harvey Milk and I and our counterparts in L.A. saw this as an opportunity to organize and not be passive.

PERLSTEIN: One of the organizers of the antiBriggs campaign was David Mixner, who is this absolutely legendary organizer. He organized an anti-war demonstration in 1969 that got two million people. Federal agents set him up with a honey trap and showed him pictures of him with a man when he was still in the closet, and said, "Unless you basically give us intelligence on the anti-war movement, we're going to release these pictures." This was in 1969. He refused.

So he's back, he's out of the closet, he's leading this movement. They're thinking about this Hail Mary pass: What if we reach out to Ronald Reagan?

JONES: I was surprised when they said they were going to do it.

PERLSTEIN: It turned out that Mixner knew a leading Reagan advisor who was part of the gay underground. This guy, [Don] Livingston, was intrigued by the argument. An even more senior Reagan advisor, unnamed, who was married and gay, might be sympathetic, but couldn't even be seen with these people. So they met at a Denny's in East L.A., where nobody would spot them. What Mixner said was "We don't want you to lobby Reagan, we just want a meeting with him to make our case."

Mixner bought a new suit. They made the argument that the Briggs Initiative would allow students to blackmail teachers, that it would destroy school discipline, and that it would waste taxpayer money in pointless litigation — which would have been a striking argument for Reagan, because he was very much a budget hawk in his mind.

Whatever it is, homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles. Prevailing scientific opinion is that an individual's homosexuality is determined at a very early age and that a child's teachers do not really influence it.

–Ronald Reagan, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, November 1, 1978

JONES: The main lesson that I learned from that was the power of retail politics. The power of ordinary gay people knocking on doors, precinct after precinct after precinct, saying, "Hey. I'm Cleve, I live down the street, there's this scary bill that will hurt me and my family."

Harvey's constant exhortation to people to come out, I really think, became the main driving force behind everything we've achieved in the decades that followed. If you come out, if you live your life honestly at work, at church, everywhere, those people are less likely to fear and hate us and vote against us. One of the words we used a lot was demystify. You know, we needed to demystify homosexuality with the boring reality of our ordinariness.

BRIAN HERRERA (assistant professor of theater, Princeton University): In that moment, that period of Briggs until Reagan's second election, this period before AIDS goes wide, is the period where gay culture goes big. There was an incredible cultural dynamism where you could live a gay life in certain subcultures in some cities. Those subcultures, whether it be music, or erotica, or fashion, or literature, they could travel out into other enclaves in Dallas or Atlanta or Chicago.

STEPHEN SPINELLA (actor): Being gay, because it is something hideable, because it is something that can be masked and hidden, there are issues of a dual nature to your presence. You're living a double life. There is something fabulous about that. There is something outside the norm of living in that mysterious mind-set.

MADISON MOORE (author of Fabulous: The Rise of the Beautiful Eccentric): Fabulousness becomes, if I may, a giant fuck you to the norms. People emerge out of that. You emerge because you're tired of hiding. It's so much easier to be normal, to fit in, repress yourself, not, sort of, you know, be over-the-top. A lot of folks, people who may embrace fabulousness, are attacked on the street and feel the need to wear men's clothing, "safe" clothing, as a way to get from A to B, and then when they get there, they bust out.

HERRERA: You could see the cues, the winks, ways to tell that someone was gay, and you could read that as speaking to you as a gay male person without ever having to name it. In that register, the realm of the fabulous became one of the ways that you could signal that you were in on the joke, you got the joke, you were in some ways making the joke. People like Sylvester. The Village People. Camp was a building of a vocabulary of critical connoisseurship that was celebratory, that was ours. Isn't it fascinating that no one in America seems to realize how much Dynasty knows that it is speaking to us?

PERLSTEIN: You begin to see Christian conservatives bursting on the political scene starting in 1979. That's when you begin to see Ronald Reagan courting them quite explicitly.

FRANK: There's a great irony in that because Reagan was a man whose personal life showed no confluence with the religious right.

HENRY OLSEN (author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism): Reagan saw their quest as being very similar to other people. They were trying to resist, in his view, the efforts by the elite to force them to live lives of the elite's choosing.

PERLSTEIN: It wasn't a difficult fit. He believed what they believed. He talks about the rising tide of secularism: That was straight-up religious right language, and it was one of the coalitions that he kind of maneuvered into place behind him.

OLSEN: He didn't necessarily ratify the Christocentric worldview that many seem to hold today. You'll almost never see Reagan talking about Christ or the importance of the Bible, the sort of things you'll see Republicans do when they want to court the religious right. It's very rare, if you go through his speeches, where he'll say something broadly denominational, let alone narrowly denominational.

FRANK: Yeah, he was very clever about it.

PERLSTEIN: Jerry Falwell by 1980 was a very close Reagan ally, and Falwell was absolutely savage as an opponent of gay rights. He gave a televised sermon in which he said, "Like a spiritual cancer, homosexuality spreads, and like the city of Sodom was destroyed, can we believe that God will spare the United States if homosexuality continues to spread?"

ALICE KRASINSKI (production manager): This is my iconic memory of that time period. I was living in a converted warehouse in the South Market area of San Francisco with a group of about a dozen of us. We got this raw space and divided it up into multiple live/work spaces. It was entirely illegal. The night that Reagan was elected for his first term, we were painting the walls of this studio and watching Citizen Kane play on one of the four channels that existed then. We were flipping between watching Citizen Kane and the election results. At the time, the fact that we were electing a B-movie actor to be president of our country was horrifying.

EMILY MANN (playwright): Reagan felt like the beginning of the end for the left. We watched people really financially start to fall off the cliff and to be marginalized again. It was a grim time.

FRANK: There was a real fear that Reagan was gonna dismantle much of what we had been able to put on the books to improve the quality of life, and in fact he did make some serious inroads.

JONATHAN LETHEM (novelist): Reagan was abhorrent and a joke to me. The world had gone beyond the pale, much the way we feel now about Trump. It was both ideological nightmare and cartoon, an American reactionary regressivist horror, like, "Oh wait, we're gonna go back to nonsense cowboy bullshit?"

TOM KAMM (set designer): There's so much about Reagan that was heinous. The busting of the air traffic control union. The buildup of arms, the arms race, the Star Wars initiative, the scariness of the nuclear threat. Reagan militarized our society. It was scary, it was not popular. Much of that is completely reinterpreted. History has been rewritten by the Republicans.

KIMBERLY FLYNN (activist and scholar): In the '80s, in cities like New York, the wreckage and the sense of mounting catastrophe was impossible to miss. As the Reagan years began, apocalypse was in the air. In New York City, the economic recession of the early '80s would combine with Reagan's draconian cuts to federal housing dollars to throw thousands of families onto the streets. Tax cuts, resurgence of military spending, cuts to social programs, deregulation. Also, people believed that Reagan would blow up the world. In 1981, the minute hand of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists' Doomsday Clock was pushed forward to just four minutes short of midnight.

PERLSTEIN: Reagan's history-making contribution to this stew was an excess of optimism: that there's nothing America can't do. That's absolute catnip to the American population, especially by 1980, especially when America has been humiliated by Iran holding all these hostages at the American embassy.

In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.

–Ronald Reagan, First Inaugural Address, January 20, 1981

OLSEN: The thing is, without Ronald Reagan the anti-government right has no standing in American political life. He's the only person who has made any sort of political impact by being rhetorically relevant to that cause. Without Reagan, they have no legitimacy in participating in political discourse. It's absolutely crucial for the anti-government right to glom onto him.

Reagan was always very careful about saying what he wanted to shrink. He wasn't Grover Norquist trying to drown government in the bathtub. Reagan wanted to set an amount of taxes, and he wanted to see spending pared down to that level. He didn't want to go to a world where people in genuine need would not see public support. Now, clearly, Barney Frank and Ronald Reagan might differ on what "need" meant.

FRANK: David Stockman, Reagan's budget director, wrote a book in which he said that he was surprised that a lot of the liberal programs turned out to be popular. He thought that all these things, housing programs, Medicare, that this was some liberal conspiracy, and he found out when politicians expanded these government programs that provided benefits to people, they were responding to public demand. They were popular.

So how do you cut off things that are popular? You cut taxes and increase military spending. Then there's that much less to pay for all these government programs, so you were able to defeat them not because they are, on the merits, wrong or unpopular, but because you then say "We can't have such a big deficit, we have to cut them." Reagan was very skillful at that.

They called it "starving the beast."

* * *

Doctors in New York and California have diagnosed among homosexual men 41 cases of a rare and often rapidly fatal form of cancer. Eight of the victims died less than 24 months after the diagnosis was made.

The cause of the outbreak is unknown, and there is as yet no evidence of contagion.

–Lawrence K. Altman, "Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals," New York Times, July 3, 1981

WEISSMAN: AIDS hit eleven years after Stonewall. I mean, it's just mind-boggling to think that the vast bulk of gay history since Stonewall has been about AIDS. It happened so quickly after this first blossoming of liberation.

JONES: As we left our homes and came to San Francisco, or Manhattan, or West Hollywood, to be gay, we came with a real deep yearning to belong. We got to be sexual, we got to be ourselves. We got to fall in love and have these things we thought we'd never have because of these things that made us different.

ROBIN HAUETER (member and spokesman, ACT UP, 1989–92): I left Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1974 at the age of seventeen and moved to New York City. Yeah. (Laughs.) I was, you know, really young and breathed a great sigh of relief to come to New York. I was incredibly naïve, I hardly knew anything about the world, that's for sure. I came to New York in that frame of mind and lived my life as a young gay boy in the '70s, trying everything.

One of the hardest things for people who didn't live through that time to understand about gay culture was what it was like to be underground. In a big city like New York, you could hang around gay people and live in a pretty gay world and feel like you were "out," but the reality was you were in a bubble. The real world, no one was "out" in the larger world. Even someone like Charles Nelson Reilly, people who were so plainly gay, they were pretending not to be. Or rather, it's that everyone was pretending they were not gay. Society, culture, was pretending these people weren't gay, even when they displayed it fully.

So that's the world. And then, of course, anything goes. Having sex with anyone you wanted was considered normal. Having sex with several people on the same day was considered normal. It was just what we did. There was no manual, there wasn't much help you could get. During the '70s, we were all going to the clinic all the time to have STDs treated. Gonorrhea was everywhere. Syphilis. And then it started expanding. Everyone's getting amoebas. Everyone's getting — these STDs were everywhere, and it was a burden. Every thinking person — I mean, even myself as a naïve person — thought: This isn't really OK. It's not right. When Larry Kramer published Faggots, he got attacked politically at the time, but he wasn't exactly wrong. There were people who were questioning, who were concerned about disease.

Faggots is basically about a person looking for love at that time in our history and not finding it. He comes to the conclusion at the end of a weekend of high living that having so much sex makes finding love impossible.


Excerpted from "The World Only Spins Forward"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Isaac Butler and Dan Kois.
Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Act 1 1978-1990

1 Bad News: The Reagan Revolution and the End of the World 4

2 The Great Work Begins: New York and San Francisco, 1980-1987 19

3 I Like Your Cosmology, Baby: AIDS, Roy Cohn, and Mormons 36

4 Not-Yet-Conscious, Forward Dawning: Developing the Play in San Francisco and Los Angeles, 1987-1990 44

Act 2 1991-1992

1 Heaven Is a City Much Like San Francisco: Eureka Theatre Company, 1991 64

Interlude: Hannah Pitt 81

2 Threshold of Revelation: Royal National Theatre, London, 1992 92

Interlude Roy Cohn 111

3 Prepare the Way: The Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles, 1992 122

Interlude Joe Pitt 142

4 When I Open My Eyes, You'll Be Gone: Getting Fired from Angels in America 157

Act 3 1993-1994

1 Heaven …: Millennium Approaches on Broadway, 1993 170

2 … I'm in Heaven: Perestroika on Broadway and at the Royal National Theatre, London, 1993-1994 194

Interlude Louis Ironson 219

Act 4 1994-2003

1 I'll Show You America: The National Tour, 1994-1995 240

Interlude The Angel 259

2 It's a Promised Land, But What a Disappointing Promise: Angels and the Culture Wars 274

Interlude Belize 293

3 Very Steven Spielberg: The Angels Film, 1991-2003 304

Act 5 1998-2018

1 It's What Living Things Do: Angels Transformed 328

Interlude Harper Pitt 346

2 More Life: Backstage at the Royal National Theatre, London, and on Broadway, 2017-2018 358

Interlude Prior Walter 393

3 The World Only Spins Forward: The Legacy of Angels 412

Acknowledgments 427

Cast of Characters 430

Index 440

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