In celebration of New York Magazine’s 50th anniversary, this weekly series, which will continue through October 2018, tells the stories behind key moments that shaped the city’s culture.
Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, the two-part, eight-hour play that opened on Broadway in 1993, is the definitive work about the age of AIDS. Originally performed in San Francisco as the epidemic reached its crest, then produced in Los Angeles and then New York, Angels swept the Tonys, won the Pulitzer Prize, and helped change the way gay men and people with AIDS were represented onstage and in the media. Angels in America is sprawling and eccentric in structure, looping through the stories of two couples in failing relationships, one gay (Prior Walter, who has AIDS, and Louis, who does not) and one married and Mormon (Harper and her closeted husband Joe). Joe’s mentor in the play is Roy Cohn, the real-life lawyer and rabid McCarthyite who led a secret gay existence and, in 1986, died from complications of AIDS. Onstage as in life, Cohn is repulsive yet magnetic, vicious yet charming, and nearly impossible not to watch. There will likely never be another play about the epidemic, or about gay life in America in this era, that does not at least gesture to Angels; out of the devastation AIDS had wrought on America and on theater in particular, Angels summoned a vivid portrait of the fault lines in our nation, and the possibilities for change. It returns to Broadway next month in a production, transferred from London, that stars Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter and Nathan Lane as Cohn. (The two halves of the play, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, will run concurrently.)
This oral history is lightly adapted from The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America, to be published on February 13. Before you read it, watch Al Pacino’s tour de force opening scene as Cohn in the 2003 HBO adaptation of the play, directed by Mike Nichols.
Tony Kushner: When I was at Tisch, I was just coming out. Michael Mayer took me to my first gay bar — not the Saint, Uncle Charlie’s on Greenwich — so you’d walk around the corner and there’d be these lines of men. I probably passed Roy Cohn on several occasions.
Oskar Eustis (co-director in Los Angeles, 1992; artistic director, Public Theater): While we were working on the play, the AIDS Quilt had its first public display at the Moscone Center. We came across a panel:
Eustis: Tony looked at it and said, “If I can write something half as dialectical as that, it’ll be a great character.”
Cleve Jones (founder, NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt): I remember when that panel was made. One of the volunteers told me, there’s someone behaving oddly here, come check it out.
I went up to him and he was super-secretive and flipped the panel over and I said, “You know, if it’s going to be in the quilt, I’m going to have to see it, so why don’t you show it to me?” and he did. My hair just stood on end. It was the first of the … eventually there would be many very harsh panels, you know, but this was kind of in a league of its own. The first thing I asked him was “Did you actually know Roy Cohn?” and he said, “I knew him very well,” and so I said, “Fine.”
Wesley Morris (critic-at-large, New York Times): It would’ve been so easy to make a play about Roy Cohn, maybe even him having AIDS. But for a gay Jewish man to completely reappropriate Roy Cohn’s story, to tell this larger story about the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, is really incredible. To have a gay man who is also a Jew wrestling with the legacies of shame and hypocrisy among his own people, on his own terms, is really powerful.
(Hitting the hold button) Hold. (To Joe) I wish I was an octopus, a fucking octopus. Eight loving arms and all those suckers. Know what I mean?
–Millennium Approaches, Act 1, Scene 2
Jeff Christian (Joe Pitt in the Journeymen, Chicago, 1998): As tough as the playwright may be on Joe, he gives him a gift right off the bat: the best seat in the house to watch Roy’s “fucking octopus” aria.
Ron Leibman (Roy in Los Angeles and New York, 1992–1994): I never saw it as an aria or anything like that. I saw it as a very specific performance for the young man, to make him laugh, so he would be ingratiated by the wonderful Roy Cohn. [In Roy Cohn voice:] “Cats! It’s about cats!”
Henry Goodman (Roy in London, 1992): Just technically, there’s no point in being coy about it, it’s thrilling. It’s like someone saying, “Go up on that trapeze to open the circus event, and do 27 flick flacks and three double things and off you go, bye!” and can you fucking do it, or can’t you?
Mitchell Hébert (Roy at Round House/Olney, Bethesda, Maryland, 2016): It’s a seduction scene at its heart. Roy performs the dance of power for Joe.
John Judd (Roy in the Journeymen, 1998): The “octopus” line is the first of several times Roy compares himself to subhuman creatures — one of the building blocks for the character. His finesse in communication — threatening, seducing, charming, and deceiving — are also keys to Roy. Receiving Joe while in the midst of his telephone aria reminded me of the reports that Lyndon Johnson would hold staff meetings while seated on the toilet — a crude yet cunning display of power, but also a weirdly intimate gesture.
Nathan Lane (Roy in London, 2017, and New York, 2018): The phone stuff is just technical, working the buttons, all the people, who do you have on hold, and then Baby Doll, the receptionist. I’ve done a lot of parts where I have to be on the phone over the years, so I’m usually good at that.
Michael Hayden (Roy in Juilliard Millennium workshop, 1992): Away from rehearsal I had to drill it and drill it and drill it, so in rehearsal I could let it fly. It was a joy. Goddamn, what a feast.
Mark Wing-Davey (director at American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco, 1994–1995): As the action begins to become more fluent, then the thrill of the technical achievement begins to bleed into the characterization itself. Both Roy and the actor playing Roy are enjoying his performance. The public face of Roy Cohn is itself a performance, as is his sexuality, et cetera.
Hans Kesting (Roy at Toneelgroep Amsterdam, 2007–2015): It is true, part of Roy borrows parts of your personality. You never get to fully lose yourself in the character; it’s always you who’s giving a portrayal.
Joe Mantello (Louis in Los Angeles and New York, 1992–1994): Roy was always going to be a star part.
Ben Shenkman (Roy in NYU Perestroika workshop, 1993; Louis in the HBO miniseries, 2003): That’s why you go to someone like Nathan Lane or Al Pacino. You’re looking to borrow the size of their own persona, in a way, as a way of separating that character out.
F. Murray Abraham (Roy in New York replacement cast, 1994): I was studying the play early on, and I was having trouble liking him. I don’t have trouble playing characters out of literature like Mephistopheles, Richard III, Macbeth. I can understand them, I can make them as evil or as charming as I want. Charm is essential to playing evil characters. But I couldn’t do that with Roy because I detested him, the real person, personally, so much.
I was doing a movie in Europe and I was studying the script on a plane to Paris. This guy sitting next to me saw the script and said, “That’s a great play. You’re doing Roy, aren’t you?” And I said yes. And this guy said, “Oh, I knew Roy Cohn.” He had a case against Roy once. And he said, “He was a son of a bitch, but I couldn’t take my eyes off him.” And that’s when I said to myself, I GOT IT! I GOT IT!
That’s a good story.
Lane: It’s easy to find people to talk about how much they hated him. He was hated by legions of people. But I talked to people who were close to him, who were loyal to him and loved him, because that’s what I wanted to know about.
Leibman: I spoke to a lot of people who knew Cohn. I even had a meeting with [McCarthy hearings figure] G. David Schine. If he knew what the play was about, he never would’ve seen me. He picked the worst restaurant in Beverly Hills. He wanted to talk about his pal. I don’t know if they were lovers or not; that’s what the rumors were.
He just gave me boilerplate Republican stuff. I thought, What am I gonna ask this guy that’s gonna get a real answer? So I said, “If you could name something that your friend Roy missed in his life, what would that be?”
His eyes rolled in his head. I don’t think anyone had asked him that. He said, “When he would come to my house, he would always play with my kids. I think he missed being a father.”
Which is an interesting thing for a stupid man to say. Suddenly it hit me: That’s the relationship with Joe. That’s what it’s really about.
Ellen McLaughlin (the Angel in workshops, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, 1990–1994): While we were doing one of the workshops, Ron Vawter was doing his Roy Cohn one-man show. It was extraordinary. Because he was already sick too. Stephen Spinella and I went to see it. It was remarkable. This man, who was sick, was doing this extraordinary impression of Cohn, who was so important to Tony’s thinking about the play.
Kesting: I’d seen the Ron Vawter monologue. He brought that monologue here. Vawter really looked like Roy Cohn! He had these big childish blue eyes. When you know he is the devil. Is there anyone who has ever tried to do it really as Roy Cohn, to imitate? That would be interesting.
Shenkman: I went to the Museum of Broadcasting and watched Roy Cohn and even snuck a tape recorder in there and did some recordings of his voice. I approached it as if I were playing Roy Cohn in a movie. I was kind of trying to get a documentary likeness of Roy Cohn on the stage.
Lane: I really wanted to chart the progression of the disease in Perestroika in a way that I hadn’t seen it done before. For example, he had these tremors that came and went. He had a tremor in his right hand, then it would move to the left hand and sometimes the shoulders, and I thought that was interesting, because someone mentioned that when he had a tremor he would hold his hand and stop it from moving, because he had to control everything, even his body.
Kushner: I think Nathan’s exploration of Roy’s body falling apart in Perestroika is — I mean when he starts to speak in this different voice all of a sudden in the hospital. The first time I heard it, I was like, “Whoa, what is that?” Sounds a little bit like Dustin Hoffman. “You can’t do that!” But he does, it’s terrifying.
Frank Wood (Roy at Signature Theatre, New York, 2010): I went to the Museum of Radio and Television and I watched Point of Order! And Roy Cohn had his action with his tongue, poking out of his mouth. It became pronounced in the hospital room scenes. [Director] Michael Greif said he liked that, because it made him think of thrush, a symptom of dry mouth.
Terry Teachout (theater critic, Wall Street Journal): I was really struck by Frank Wood in the Signature production because he looked exactly like Robert Mapplethorpe’s photo of Cohn.
Lane: I think Tony’s Roy Cohn is more fun, probably, than the real guy. If you look at that 60 Minutes interview, the last interview he did, he makes some feeble attempts at humor and he’s sort of pathetic.
Barney Frank (congressman from Massachusetts, 1981–2013): One of the most despicable people in American history who did not actually kill anybody.
Teachout: I’m 60. Roy Cohn is not just the guy who was in Angels in America. I know people who knew Roy Cohn well. I think of him not just as the demon of Angels, not just the pal of McCarthy, but the litigator, the Studio 54 guy. He was very much someone one knew about.
Leibman: Growing up in New York, you’d see Cohn in restaurants, and you’d see him at 54. You felt like you knew him but you didn’t. But Donald Trump did! Birds of a feather flocked together! Sons of bitches.
Frank: He was just irredeemably vicious, and by the way — interesting — Donald Trump claims him as one of his mentors.
Judd: Exposing all the things Roy Cohn strove to hide, deny, and undermine in his life was splendid justice. Hell yeah.
Leibman: To work against gay rights, a man in his position at this time, it’s one of the most scandalous moments in American history. What a fuckhead.
In a certain sense, Roy Cohn dying of this disease made him a part of the gay and lesbian community even if we don’t really want him to be part of our community.
—Tony Kushner, on Charlie Rose, May 10, 1993
David France (director and author, How to Survive a Plague): One of the principal doctors, one of the first people on the ground treating people with the disease well before it had a name, was paid a visit by Roy Cohn. He went to see Alvin Friedman-Kien. And he had bodyguards with him, and he said to Friedman-Kien, “If you fucking say anything about this, we are going to kill you.” And then of course he went to the NHS and got onto the early AZT trials. And how he did that I don’t know, and I can only imagine that it happened somehow like it did in Angels.
David Marshall Grant (Joe in New York, 1993–1994): That speech, one of the most astonishing speeches in that play, to the doctor:
Now to someone who doesn’t understand this, homosexual is what I am because I have sex with men. But really this is wrong. Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who in 15 years of trying cannot pass a pissant discrimination bill through City Council. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Does this sound like me, Henry?
No. I have clout.
—Millennium Approaches, Act 1, Scene 9
Grant: I was very taken with what seemed an honest appreciation of Cohn’s point of view. I found Tony’s brutally honest assessment of these people’s psychologies really amazing.
Wood: My father had served in the Johnson administration and I remember thinking, That is a line my dad would appreciate.
Judd: I remember a day in the rehearsal room working on the hospital scenes with Belize. The first time I spewed the racial epithets at my scene partner, Robert Teverbaugh, and saw those words land on him and affect him — I broke down. I realized it wasn’t so much fun to play the true darkness and poison in Roy. And so that day the job got more interesting.
Wood: Letting your evil hair down can be exciting and rewarding.
Judd: I loved that there was not a beat skipped when Ethel Rosenberg appeared to Roy. They just started talking. “Aw, hell, Ethel…” No Scrooge and Marley theatrics.
Leibman: I had a chance to meet one of the Rosenberg children. Can you imagine? I forget which one it was, I get their names mixed up. He came to my dressing room with a mutual friend, and he was smiling, and I said, “Why are you smiling?” and he said, “You nailed the cocksucker!” And then we had a wonderful conversation. We had to leave, it was after midnight, they had to close the theater. He said, “I’ll come back for Part 2. Because you die!”
There were people in the audience in L.A. who cried when Roy Cohn died. And the audience was kind of shifting in their seats and thinking “Well, should we be crying?” Which is, I guess, the point.
—Tony Kushner, in conversation with Craig Lucas, Bomb magazine, Spring 1993
Morris: In a shitty version of this play, a cheaper, less intellectually sophisticated work of art, Roy gets AIDS but getting AIDS is the punishment. But Tony Kushner doesn’t use Roy having AIDS to mock and laugh at him. It’s Rosenberg and Belize — a Blatino and a dead Jewish lady — who do all the judgment and reckoning for him.
Teachout: One reservation I’ve had about Kushner’s work is his tendency to demonize characters he thinks of as enemies. He comes about as close as he can come in overcoming it in portraying Cohn. Kushner really, to an extent not usual with him when portraying villains, puts across Cohn’s complexity as a human being.
Abraham: A good trick, if you don’t like a guy, is to play him in a way that appeals to you, on whatever level. When you project this positive element, his charisma, it deepens him; he almost mesmerizes you with his extraordinary talent and charm. Some people are really evil, but they’re also really magnetic. You can’t help but jump into bed with them. You hate yourself in the morning, but it’s great the night before.
Eustis: At one point, [Tony and I] read Whittaker Chambers’s book Witness, about his conversion from communism to Christianity. What began to emerge was that there were two strands in the American Right. They both believe the same thing: that people are selfish and evil. One wing says, because of that, we need to accept that we are fallen miserable sinners and throw ourselves on the mercy of Christ. That’s Joe. There’s another faction that thinks that people are selfish and evil, and so let’s indulge our selfishness and have as much fun as we can. That’s the Cohn wing.
Leibman: I had discovered that Roy Cohn had a house in Provincetown and his next-door neighbor was Norman Mailer. I knew Norman from the Actors Studio. I called him. Spoke to his wife. She said, “Oh, we were very close friends!”
I said, “Darlin’, it’s hard for me to conceive of Norman being friends with Roy Cohn.”
And she said, “You have to remember: Roy Cohn was one of the funniest human beings who ever lived.”
Hayden: I don’t want to make him sympathetic, but I don’t want him to just be evil. Only lazy actors do that.
Judd: Years later I got to play Iago, who I thought initially would be Roy-like. I found instead that Iago, a true sociopath, really had very little concern for other humans, whereas I found Roy, ultimately, to be very needy of love, human kindness, a place to call home.
Shenkman: You can go in and do Roy Cohn as a stand-alone star turn because he isn’t connected to anybody; his main relationship is with the audience. An older, unadventurous, even politically conservative audience member could go in and not be challenged at all by the character of Roy Cohn. At all. The parts of the play that make that kind of person uncomfortable are all in the other characters, they’re not in Roy Cohn. Roy Cohn is an old-fashioned kind of theatrical villain.
Roy’s masculinity is never challenged. He is a masculine force. It’s just as he says: “I’m not really a gay person, I’m a heterosexual man who fucks guys,” and that’s true, so for that reason I think he’s completely unchallenging to homophobic straight audiences. Michael Corleone can play Roy Cohn, and everyone’s fine. It’s not like “Oh my God, we’ve never seen Pacino like this”; he’s on a continuum with Scarface and Corleone and all those wonderful, powerful men.
Vivienne Benesch (Hannah in NYU Perestroika workshop, 1993): There’s a part of me that hopes Ben Shenkman and I get to do Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg again when we’re at the right age.
Shenkman: [Laughs.] You know what, I would not follow Nathan Lane and Al Pacino. The list is too long of geniuses who have done the part now, so I wouldn’t be in a hurry to try it again. [Pauses.]
Although I will say one thing, if anyone ever said, “You have to play Roy Cohn,” what I’d focus on —
Stephen Spinella (Prior in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, 1988–94): What a play! I hope I get to do Roy Cohn someday.
Angels in America Tony winner Stephen Spinella will return to Tony Kushner’s two-part drama, this time taking on the role of Roy Cohn at California’s Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Performances will run April 17 through July 22.
—Playbill.com, January 4, 2018
David Cromer (director at the Journeymen, Chicago, 1998): I tell ya, I think the play is more terrifying now because it feels like the world is falling apart again.
Kushner: We’re in the middle of a very strange moment. I don’t know if it’s really a reversal in the sense that the Reagan counter-revolution was, but it certainly has brought us all up short. The cruelty and the misery at this particular moment.
Caldwell Tidicue (Bob the Drag Queen, RuPaul’s Drag Race; Belize at Berkeley Rep, 2018): During turbulent times, art gets stronger. We’re feeling desperate, anxious, emotional, and that’s where art comes from, you know?
Vinson Cunningham (culture critic, The New Yorker): Angels makes its politics and its stance toward history unavoidable. You can’t understand it simply as a lament about AIDS. You have to deal with Cohn.
Jennifer Engstrom (the Angel at Kansas City Repertory Theatre, 2015): I feel like we are in a bizarro Part 3 of Angels in America, and the ghost of Roy Cohn is sweetly caressing the nuts of an American president who rides naked on horseback with Vladimir Putin.
Eustis: Now, 25 years later, it’s Tony’s vision of the Right that looks so prescient. When Tony wrote Roy Cohn, he was a larger-than-life, demonic figure. Now his pupil is the president of the United States. Trump’s America is Roy Cohn’s America: sharply divided between winners and losers, hatred of the powerless used as a cynical tool to enrich the privileged. Thus proving, as Mark Harris says, that Tony’s drag name should be Eera Lee Prescient.
Lane: Tony was rather upset because these articles were starting about Trump and Roy, and he seemed almost insulted on Roy’s behalf that these comparisons were being made, because Roy was rather brilliant and this is just a crude version. I was laughing because I said, “I think you’re talking more about your character than the real guy.”
Chris Geidner (legal editor, BuzzFeed): You see Cohn’s influence in Trump’s view of the importance of brute force in advancing legal interest. Watch a Trump speech in response to an adverse court ruling: It could be written by Roy Cohn. In a very Angels sense, everything remains up in the air, and everything can turn on a dime.
Eustis: Angels feels so fresh, 25 years after its initial production, because America is still in the life-and-death struggle of figuring out who we are. Will we live in a country that Roy Cohn created, or will we live in the paradise that Belize imagines at Roy’s deathbed? Will we choose selfishness and fear and greed, or solidarity and inclusion and love? It is either the end of the world or the beginning.
Excerpted from The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America by Isaac Butler and Dan Kois. Published by Bloomsbury USA. Portions of the book first appeared in Slate.