I recently saw the revival of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America on Broadway and was deeply touched by it, both personally and professionally and it is no wonder it won Best Revival of a Play at this year's Tony awards. Andrew Garfield's performance as the prophet Prior Walter earned him the Tony for Best Actor and edged out veteran stage actor Mark Rylance who received his fourth Tony nomination for Farenelli and the King, which I saw in London last year. Garfield's co-star Nathan Lane picked up his third Tony win for his role as infamous real-life lawyer Roy Cohn.
Professionally, as a choreographer, I was utterly astounded by Steven Hoggart’s visionary creativity in using the six performers (Rowan Ian Seamus Magee, Matty Oaks, Jane Pfitch, Ron Todorowski, Sylvia Vrskova and Lucy York) credited as “Angel Shadows,” all moving silently and impeccably as a unit, to bring the mammoth wings to life.
I’m not generally a fan of puppetry in the traditional sense, but this was no basic hand-operated muppet! Rather, Hoggart’s complex choreography (more akin to Lion King or War Horse) uses multiple human bodies moving fluidly in perfect unity to create a striking visual and breathe life into the wings of an angel that is integral to the epic scale and grandness of this “gay Fantasia,” as the author calls it.
I recently attended the Chita Rivera Awards, where Steven Hoggart was given a special honor, Douglas and Ethel Watt Critic’s Choice Award for his remarkable use of storytelling through non-traditional dance and movement for Angels in America as well as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, both of which were also nominated at this year's Tony awards. It’s interesting to note that the only double-nominated Best Choreographer this year represented work for two plays, not musicals. It made me think about how I'd like to see dance and movement better represented in all forms of theater, and more often.
Angels in America, and the professionals and performances honored at the Chita Awards and at the Tonys, proves that dance and choreography extends far beyond typical expectations in terms of boundaries and execution, and is therefore significantly rewarding for audiences. It’s exciting to see expressions of dance on Broadway, and beyond, break free from any and all constraints.
The show also affected me in a very personal way, by reminding me of my first great love.
Growing up gay in Los Angeles was not easy, and I was fiercely bullied, which has been the unfortunate experience of so many who are “different” from the perceived norms. Theater saved my life. It gave me a place and purpose, and has sheltered and provided for me ever since I discovered the stage.
Having attended The University of The Arts in Pennsylvania I needed a break from the unforgiving cold, so during my winter break I traveled down to Key West to visit with family and unwind after a long and physically exhausting semester. It was on this break that I met and fell madly in love with a man named Jeff. He opened my mind, soul, body and heart in ways I didn’t think possible. He was older and we lived in different parts of the world, but nothing could get in the way of our affection.
Then, in a hotel room one night in 1991 he came to me shaking with fear and regret, and then confessed: he had the dreaded HIV infection, the killer virus which had been relentlessly massacring so many since its arrival, a large population of them gay men. At this time there was no cocktail like there is today, so those acronyms usually spelled death. I had two choices: run away from this horror and all that comes with it, or stay with the man I loved and see it though, no matter what. I chose the latter.
It didn’t get easier, but for a long time, our love beat all of the many odds being constantly stacked against us. His illness was only one part of it. He survived dropping down to 80 pounds and an unimaginably low T-Cell count, which meant full blown AIDS. Jeff was my angel and my miracle. But at the time, there was no gay marriage and no real gay rights. Our love was an international, transcontinental relationship, and as anyone who’s had a long distance relationship understands — they require enormous effort from both parties. That was no issue. We’d move mountains and cross oceans for each other. In the end it was others who put obstacles in our way.
Watching Angels in America on HBO in 2003, and now again, on stage (even more affectingly portrayed), reminded me of my own indestructible angel, Jeff. It also reminded me how far we’ve come in the world and as a nation in gay rights, and in hope for those with HIV/AIDS. It has showed me the sheer perseverance and creativity of the human spirit. There is still progress to be made, but I do feel grateful to observe what has already unfolded, like glorious, protective angel wings, in my own lifetime.