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Great Performances in the Wings: Angels in America on Broadway

Narrator: Tom Sinkovitz

Narrator: Tom Sinkovitz

Backstage documentary from filmmaker Tom Bywaters is a fascinating chronicle of the Broadway production of “Angels in America.”

Docu footage includes production meetings, rehearsals and performances, as well as interviews with New York cast members prior to last month’s Broadway opening of “Millennium Approaches,” the first half of the play.

Most captivating are interviews with playwright Tony Kushner and director George C. Wolfe, who discuss the genesis of the play, its spiritual and political tone, and the challenges that the script presents for both actors and audiences.

For Kushner, the play was born out of the pain of his childhood, knowing that he was homosexual, but unable to share this secret with family and friends.

Kushner’s pain blossomed into anger as the gay rights movement was subjected not only to ridicule and repression by the politics of the Reagan era, but also to AIDS.

As Kushner points out, the play is ultimately about America, not just as it was in the 1980s, but as it exists in our dreams.

By any standard of history, some of our bravest Americans are those fighting both the physical and political symptoms of AIDS.

For Kushner and many other Americans, they are our contemporary fallen heroes.

George C. Wolfe, who replaced the play’s original directors for the Broadway production, focuses on the special demands that this play makes on both performers and spectators.

Rather than asking for a “performance” from the actors, Wolfe believes that the play demands each actor to make a personal, emotional connection with the text.

The director then tries to build an overall emotional tone from these personal connections.

Interviews with cast members elaborate on Wolfe’s approach, as the actors discuss the meaning that the play holds for each of them.

Filmmaker Bywaters, who has produced other theater documentaries — a previous special on the making of “Jelly’s Last Jam” and an upcoming look at the music of George Gershwin, based on “Crazy For You”– brings a strong political and theatrical sensibility to this piece, which fits well with the tone of “Angels.”

Kudos to PBS and “Great Performances” not only for presenting important productions in the performing arts, but also for this kind of sophisticated and revealing insight into the creation of important works of art like “Angels.”

Great Performances in the Wings: Angels in America on Broadway

(Fri. (11), 10-11 p.m.; PBS)

  • Production: Taped in New York by Thirteen/WNET. Producer-director-writer, Tom Bywaters.
  • Crew: Editor, Ken Swartz; principal photography, Greg Barna; supervising producer, Adam Sternberg.
  • Cast: With: Tony Kushner, George C. Wolfe, Kathleen Chalfant, Joe Mantello, David Marshall Grant, Ellen McLaughlin, Jeffrey Wright, Marcia Gay Harden, Stephen Spinella, Ron Leibman.
  • Music By: