AIDS and Musicals

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Updated: May 13, 2019
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No one really talked about AIDS or HIV when the epidemic began, at least that’s the perspective I see as someone who wasn’t alive at the time. The media was ignoring it and the president wouldn’t even say the word. It seemed that the first big broach on the subject was through theater, a full 4 years since the epidemic started and 4 years until Reagan would say the word. Given that the epidemic was most common in homosexual men, large city’s art industries were suffering greatly from the disease. Plays about AIDS were created for many different reasons but they all revolved around change. Playwrights wanted to change how people saw AIDS or the gay community or even the way that the media and politicians were handling the whole affair. One goal was to humanize the LGBTQ+ community. It seemed that in the 80s, people didn’t see gay people as humans. An article from the New York Times written in 1987 tells the tale of a straight man who went to see As Is and came out in tears, shaken by the humanity of the characters on stage. It seemed as though AIDS had a different connotation than other diseases. People saw it different, when presented on stage with characters that live full lives, the disease becomes less of an association and more of a disease and it could be seen as such. The theater community as a whole was affected.

Tim Viola, founder of Equity Fights AIDS is quoted as saying “You would go into a rehearsal period, and before you could get to previews, people would have disappeared. People would’ve gotten sick and landed in the hospital ?” possibly to come out, possibly not.”. From Micheal Bennet to Brad Davis, one of the original actors in The Normal heart, an entire generation of artists seemed to have been wiped off the map due to the disease. What came out of it though was BroadwayCares and Equity Fights AIDS, because more than any other profession, it was the theater industry that was suffering through the most loss. and it seemed that the only way to get the media and government to pay attention was to make a lot of noise and some of the noise came in the way of plays and musicals. Strikingly, perhaps one of the first plays to tackle the issue was The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer, which was a somewhat autobiographical tale of Kramer’s attempts to get the public to take action. Before Equity Fights AIDs, Kramer founded an organization called the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. But he grew frustrated with the system due to the fact the members were focussing on raising money and he wanted political action. This led him to find other ways to raise awareness, which is when he wrote The Normal Heart.

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The writing and performance of this play were not just courageous but also risky considering that the topic hadn’t much been talked about, and no one knew if there was an audience for it, but it happened that the risks were worth it as the play touched all who went to see it and got the AIDS epidemic some of the attention it desperately needed.. The Normal Heart took aim at both The New York Times and Mayor Koch for their lack of action in regards to the AIDS crisis. To say that the play worked in getting a reaction would be an understatement, The New York Times fired back about their coverage of the epidemic at the same time as praising the play in and of itself. Ed Koch even responded to the sharp remarks made about him in the play, although his remark of “I haven’t seen the play, but I hope it’s as good as As Is which is superb” seemed flippant to me.

The play doesn’t sugar coat anything. As a semi-autobiography, I think Kramer wanted his anger about the reluctance that people had to take a stand against AIDS to be known. It came through as the review New York Times stated “playwright starts off angry, soon gets furious and then skyrockets into sheer rage” Although Angels In America came later after the mass marketing of AZT but its legacy started in 1995 as Tony Kushner lost his first friend to the virus. Parts of the play, play on the fact that drugs and treatments for AIDS and HIV were not affordable for most people. This plays out in a scene where Roy Cohn throws a bottle of pills that his nurse gave him and he brags to the nurse that he has more than enough AZT and is not willing to share it. Roy Cohn’s character in the show shined a light on the hypocrisy within politics at the time that the play was written (Not that there isn’t any now).

In real life and in the play, Roy Cohn worked for Joseph Mccarthy who was famous for the red scare and more relevant to this, the lavender scare. Essentially McCarthy and Cohn set about trying strip gay men and women of their rights as they were seen as a threat to the American way of life. Angels in America also timelessly captures the feeling of fear within the queer community during the AIDS crisis, this is perhaps most prominent in a scene where Prior, one of the characters who has AIDS says “There’s a plague. Friends younger than me are dead, and I’m only thirty [] and it takes me long minutes to remember that this is real. It isn’t some impossible terrible dream”. It is moments like that where someone like me who was not alive until the late 90s can understand just how terrifying this really must have been. Like many playwrights and artists of the 90s, Johnathan Larson.

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AIDS and Musicals. (2019, May 13). Retrieved from