Tell Us 5 Things About Your Book: An Oral History of ‘Angels in America’

Posted February 4, 2018 5:30 p.m. EST

When “Angels in America” had its Broadway premiere in 1993, Frank Rich of The New York Times called it “the most thrilling American play in years.” That two-part Tony Kushner epic about American life, set against the AIDS crisis and Ronald Reagan’s presidency, quickly became, by consensus, one of the 20th century’s most essential works of theater. (The play is coming back to New York, at the Neil Simon Theater, beginning previews this month and opening in March.)

In 2016, Slate published an oral history of the show, in which Kushner and more than 50 others talked about the production’s long and often difficult road to success. Now the authors of that history — Isaac Butler, a theater director himself, and Dan Kois, an editor and writer for Slate — have published a book that expands on it: “The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of ‘Angels in America.'” The book covers the development and life of the play, as well as Mike Nichols’ adaptation of it as a miniseries for HBO in 2003.

Below, Butler and Kois discuss the influence of the political climate on their book, a film adaptation of “Angels” that never came to pass and more. This interview has been condensed and edited.

Q: When did you first get the idea to write this book?

DAN KOIS: Isaac and I were conducting interviews for the Slate story in spring 2016. We kept getting so much amazing stuff. Every single person we talked to would tell us the kind of story you tell about the defining artistic and intellectual moment of your life. No one was like: “Oh yeah, it was great. I don’t remember much about it.” One week, we each interviewed members of the original cast. I interviewed Kathleen Chalfant …

ISAAC BUTLER: … and I interviewed Ellen McLaughlin. And at some point in that interview — which was 2 1/2 hours long; not what I thought it was going to be — Ellen said, “You might not have realized this yet, but you’re actually working on a book.” I told Dan, “Ellen said this very charming thing on our phone call.” And Dan said, “Chalfant said the same thing to me.” As in many things, Ellen and Kathy were right.

KOIS: Both of us, in our late teens or early 20s, came out of “Angels in America” transformed politically and artistically. I had always assumed, and heard thirdhand, that it had an appropriately epic origin story — technical drama and legal drama and angels falling from the sky. And that seemed like a story that ought to be told.

Q: What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?

BUTLER: The most delightful surprise was that this universe came very close to being a possibly amazing but also amazingly bad two-part Robert Altman movie.

KOIS: Tony Kushner wrote a massive screenplay that Isaac found in the Robert Altman archives at the University of Michigan. Kushner very successfully made it sound like a Robert Altman movie; lots of overlapping dialogue and funny coincidences and things that weren’t in the play at all.

BUTLER: The budgeting memo was like, “We have not yet included in the budget the smoldering pit of hell.”

KOIS: It fell apart eventually, for multiple reasons. But just thinking about the application of the Altman mode to the telling of this story — I would give a lot to live in the alternative universe for a few hours and watch that.

Q: In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

BUTLER: I feel like the answer is really that Donald Trump was elected in the middle of our working on it. When we started reporting the story, Donald Trump was a joke, and then he became president halfway through. It just completely changed the vibe of our interviews — the questions we asked, the answers we got. The mood went from “Here is how this play is immortal” to “Oh, this play speaks to the moment we’re going through right now.” What’s happening now feels pretty similar to what Tony was responding to when he first started writing “Angels.”

Q: Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?

KOIS: George C. Wolfe, who directed “Angels” on Broadway in 1993. Isaac did the interview of him early on in the process. Reading that transcript, I was so struck by how fun and funny and rhythmic his language was. Joe Mantello, who was in that ’93 “Angels,” and who’s now a big-deal Broadway director himself, said, “George Wolfe talks fast, there’s a lot coming at you, but if you open yourself up to it, it’s really inspiring.” So writing the book, I really tried to open myself up to these voices and be inspired, which as a cynical Gen Xer I sometimes find hard to do.

BUTLER: And for someone completely outside of the project, Errol Morris is a shared favorite filmmaker of ours, and “The Thin Blue Line” is a shared favorite movie. I think if you’re trying to figure out how to weave together 250 people’s different memories, and arrange them, there’s no better model than Errol Morris’ filmography. We almost found ourselves asking, “What would Errol Morris do?”

KOIS: The ending of our book will seem eerily familiar to those who, like us, are fans of “The Thin Blue Line.”

BUTLER: I think Dan is saying that we were deeply inspired by “The Thin Blue Line” in a very respectful and definitely not legally actionable way.

Q: Persuade someone to read “The World Only Spins Forward” in 50 words or less.

KOIS: We found 250 of the best talkers in the world and let them tell stories about the most meaningful, most exciting, most hilarious, most terrifying experiences of their lives.

BUTLER: And you’ll never believe everything that can go wrong when you’re trying to fly an angel through the air onstage.


Publication Notes:

‘The World Only Spins Forward

The Ascent of “Angels in America"’

By Isaac Butler and Dan Kois

Illustrated. 437 pages. Bloomsbury. $30.