The great work can’t begin without great workers.
Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning magnum opus set at the dawn of the AIDS crisis, is finally back on Broadway 25 years after its New York premiere. An epic in two parts, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, the play responds to the Reagan administration’s willful ignorance of thousands of gay men dying.
Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane headline celebrated director Marianne Elliott’s timely new revival, fresh from a sold-out run at London’s National Theatre. Tony-nominated for her performance as lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel in Fun Home, out actor Beth Malone joins the Broadway company as the Angel who literally drops in on Prior (Garfield), a gay New Yorker with AIDS who might be a prophet.
We spoke to Malone—an alternate Angel until she starts flying full-time in mid-May—about the wind beneath her wings and why the play’s subtitle, A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, may be misleading.
Let’s get the important questions out of the way. After chopping off your hair for Fun Home, you had to go platinum blonde for Angels in America?
Yeah, Amanda Lawrence and I are sharing the role right now, so she and I are in this weird cult-twin situation where we have to have the same hair. We went to the salon together and split a bottle of wine while they put all these chemicals on our brains.
Do blondes really have more fun?
I’d never in a million years do this to my hair by choice, but it has been fun. Some reactions have been pretty funny. I didn’t understand until Fun Home that hair was such a big deal. I got so much shit from people putting their own ideas about how a woman’s hair should look onto me.
As a member of the LGBT community, what does it mean to you to be a part of Angels in America?
For anyone who lived through the ’80s, experiencing this play starts with mourning, processing personal sadness attached to the plague. But it’s about so much more than AIDS or being gay, so calling it an “AIDS play” or a “gay play” is reductive. I almost wish Gay Fantasia wasn’t in the subtitle, because while that pleases us, it does keep some people away.
Are today’s audiences no longer responding to AIDS and sexuality?
It’s a bit different now. Even though Angels in America was written at a time when being gay was less acceptable, it’s a neo-homo, post-shame play that isn’t about being gay. Because the writing is so good, the play becomes about something larger. It deals with AIDS, yes, but I don’t think people leave the theater thinking about AIDS or gayness. They’re thinking about themselves, the world, and where we’re going.
How were you personally affected by the AIDS crisis?
My high school boyfriend became HIV positive, but he’s living—I only dated gay guys, of course. I did theater in my teens and into my 20s at the Country Dinner Playhouse in Denver, and we’d get these amazing actors and dancers from New York. Performing with them was life-altering and helped get me out of my rural situation. When these people I’d worked with, fallen madly in love with, started dying, I felt terrified and terrorized. I was also obsessed with Freddie Mercury, so his death devastated me. I had a lot of angst about losing people so young, vibrant, and fierce—artists rocking the world and being taken out of it in their prime. It changed me.
Regarding his revival of Torch Song, Harvey Fierstein said, “Even the most faithful stage recreations are tinted by the moment in which they are experienced.” How is Angels tinted by this moment?
This play is served by the perspective of distance from the AIDS crisis. We can enjoy the larger messages and themes now that it’s not just gutting you, forcing you to think about friends still dying around you. In the absence of that fresh pain, you get to think about America as a nation of immigrants and about what we owe to our families versus what we owe to ourselves and to love.
It’s worth noting that this revival began rehearsals in London just days after Trump was elected.
We watch these characters make painful progress, growing, moving toward a terrible unknown, and that’s the hopeful message of Angels in America: The world only spins forward. Yeah, we’re in a terrible time right now, but we have to somehow survive this to get to what’s next and what’s better. And we will. We always do. Evil wins when good people lose hope.
You play a number of roles, most notably the Angel. What’s your take on the character?
It’s really Marianne’s vision and a collaboration with Andrew. The Angel is a hallucinated manifestation of Prior’s illness. It comes to him to deliver this epistle that he must die, must stop moving, and that prophecy I’m putting in his blood is the illness. It’s a metaphor for that provincial right-wing fear of progress, wanting to go back to a time that never really existed.
Visually, your Angel isn’t the pristine white beauty we saw in the original Broadway production or the 2003 HBO miniseries. Why is she so rough around the feathers?
She’s sick, and Heaven is falling apart. She’s done her best to make herself presentable, trying to impress the prophet, but she’s struggling. The Angel deteriorates as the play goes on, mirroring Prior’s illness.
She’s also more animalistic than I’ve seen in previous stagings.
Yeah, it’s not what people expect. Marianne saw her as a cockroach, a monkey, a lemur—some kind of creature. She kept telling me in rehearsals, “She’s not human!” I was like, “Okay, but what is she?” That’s what I had to discover.
You’ve said before that playing hyperfeminine characters makes you feel like a drag queen. Does your Angel feel like drag, or are you bringing a more masculine energy to the role?
She’s a reflection of Prior, who’s effeminate, so there’s a strong feminine energy there. But she can change on a dime. She has eight vaginas and a bouquet of phalli, so she’s all sex. I can bring any weird sexual energy to this Angel and it’s acceptable.
The Angel and her wings are moved around stage by puppeteers referred to as Shadows in the Playbill. What does that bring to the character?
They’re lifting me, flying me, breathing with me, screaming with me, so it feels like we’re this one giant being. It’s two women and three men, and those actors run the gamut of sexual orientations, so it really is a bunch of sexualities rolled into one.
The Angel shares a kiss with Susan Brown as Hannah, so you actually get more lesbian action in Angels than you did in Fun Home.
I know, right? When I’m signing autographs, people sometimes ask, “What’s it like to make out with Andrew Garfield?” They should be asking what it’s like to make out with Susan Brown. Man, that girl doesn’t hold back. The first time we kissed in rehearsals, she said, “No, no, properly snog me!”
How do you interpret the Angel’s seduction of Prior?
She has sex with him to make him understand, to make him compliant. In the Angel’s logic, the orgasms of angels create matter and light. It’s like Einstein’s theory of relativity: E=mc² is just angel cum, it turns out.
As a lesbian, are you immune to Andrew’s allure?
No, he’s dreamy. Andrew Garfield is beautiful, almost like a woman, so I’m in love with his femininity. He’s also the best, most generous scene partner anyone could hope for. He’s been so patient, because I’m new and he’s had to come to a lot of rehearsals just for my benefit. His work ethic is astonishing.
As was the case with Fun Home, this Angels revival has both straight and gay actors in the gay roles. What’s your response to the argument that LGBT actors should play LGBT parts?
Well, I’m just grateful for Andrew’s stardom and that so many of his fans are coming to see the show. That serves a greater purpose than worrying about who’s straight and who’s gay. Because Angels in America is an epistle for the American people right now, and they need to hear these words. If it takes a big movie star to put butts in the seats for these seven hours of theater, so be it.
You’re on a part-time performance schedule until you take over full-time next month. How are you spending your days off?
Oh, it’s been amazing. I’ve actually been able to see theater. I just saw Three Tall Women, and I’m going to see My Fair Lady. I had dinner out the other night with friends, and it was like, “Look at me! There’s a play going on and I’m not there!” But it’s weird not doing the show. I’m ready for more.
Life will change when you’re doing more seven-hour marathons.
I know. The cast is so tired, because it’s such a physically demanding show. When I go to the theater, I feel so guilty. They all look haggard, and there I am, fresh as a daisy.
Angels in America runs through July 1 at the Neil Simon Theater in New York.