The Central Park fountain that is prominently featured in Kushner's play and its film adaptation is officially titled "The Angel of the Waters" and familiarly known as "The Bethesda Fountain." It was installed in 1873 and sculpted by artist Emma Stebbins (1815-1882), who was the first woman to be commissioned to create a sculpture for the City of New York. Stebbins was also the sister of the president of the Central Park Board of Commissioners, and the longtime romantic partner of world-famous actress Charlotte Saunders Cushman. In 2011, Lapham's Quarterly Magazine reported that while sculpting the statue, Stebbins used Cushman as the model for the angel's body.
When Louis speaks to the Rabbi played by Meryl Streep after his grandmother's funeral, two of the rabbis also sitting on the cemetery bench are played by Tony Kushner (who wrote the play and screenplay) and children's book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, who collaborated on the book Brundibar with Kushner.
The original London production of the play "Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (Part 1: Millennium Approaches)" opened at the Royal National Theatre in January 1992 and was directed by Declan Donnellan. The London cast included: David Schofield (Roy Cohn); Jason Isaacs (Louis Ironson); Clare Holman (Harper Pitt); Susan Engel (Hannah Pitt/Ethel Rosenberg); Daniel Craig (Joe Pitt); Stephen Dillane (Prior Walter/Man in the Park); Joseph Mydell (Belize/Mr. Lies) and Nancy Crane (The Angel of America/others).
During his first scene with Joe, Roy takes a call from the elderly wife of a Republican ("Nixon appointee") client who is coming to New York as a tourist and wants tickets to a Broadway musical. Roy tells her that she will not like "La Cage aux Folles", even though he parenthetically tells Joe that "La Cage" is the "best thing on Broadway, maybe ever." Roy suspects that his conservative client will likely not enjoy "La Cage" because its plot presents a positive portrayal of gay men in a devoted long-term relationship.
Two of the three lead actresses in this movie are named "Mary Louise": Mary-Louise Parker and Meryl Streep ("Meryl" is actually a nickname contraction of Streep's given first and middle names, Mary Louise).
When Prior Walter and Harper Pitt share a dream, the set is based on a dream in Jean Cocteau's film Beauty and the Beast (1946). When Prior Walter ascends to heaven, portions of heaven are based on Cocteau's view of the afterlife in Orpheus (1950).
Kevin 'Flotilla DeBarge' Joseph, the drag queen who performs at the funeral that Belize and Prior attend, lip-syncs in that scene to Zella Jackson Price singing the song "I'm His Child" from the gospel music documentary Say Amen, Somebody (1982).
During the funeral speech at the start of the movie, the rabbi is reading the names of the children and grandchildren of the deceased woman, and he stops on the name "Eric," asking "Eric? This is a Jewish name?" The playwright of "Angels in America," Tony Kushner, has a real-life younger brother named "Eric"; the Kushners are a Jewish family.
The title of the book that Belize calls his "favorite bestselling paperback novel, 'In Love with the Night Mysterious,'" is a lyric from the song "So in Love" from Cole Porter's stage musical "Kiss Me Kate" (produced on film as Kiss Me Kate (1953)). Porter was gay, and, like the Joe Pitt character, married to a woman (although unlike Joe, Porter informed his wife of his sexual orientation before they married).
The original Broadway production of the play "Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (Part 1: Millennium Approaches)" opened at the Walter Kerr Theatre on May 4, 1993 and was directed by George C. Wolfe. The original Broadway cast was Ron Leibman (Roy Cohn); Joe Mantello (Louis Ironson); Marcia Gay Harden (Harper Pitt/Martin Heller); Kathleen Chalfant (Hannah Pitt/Ethel Rosenberg/others); David Marshall Grant (Joe Pitt/others); Stephen Spinella (Prior Walter/Man in the Park); Jeffrey Wright (Belize/Mr. Lies) and Ellen McLaughlin (The Angel of America/others).
The play's original subtitle ("A Gay Fantasia on National Themes") is based on the rarely used subtitle for George Bernard Shaw's play "Heartbreak House," which is "A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes."
The Off-Broadway Signature Theatre Company announced that it would stage the first New York revival of the play in September 2010. The cast includes Billy Porter as Belize, Christian Borle as Prior, Robin Bartlett as Hannah Pitt, Robin Weigert (who had the much-smaller role of the Mormon mother in this film) as the Angel of America, and Zachary Quinto as Louis.
The prayer that Belize asks Louis to recite (and which Louis completes with Ethel's help) is the Mourner's Kaddish, one of the central prayers of Judaism. It is recited in memory of the recently deceased, at funerals, on the anniversary of a deceased loved one's death, and as a part of the standard Jewish religious service. The word "Kaddish" means "sanctification," and the prayer is entirely made up of praises for God; there is no mention of death anywhere in it. Parts of the prayer are inspired by passages from the books of Ezekiel and Daniel. Though most prayers in Jewish liturgy are in Hebrew, the Kaddish is actually in Aramaic.
The miniseries script is based on two Broadway plays, "Angels in America: Millennium Approaches" and "Angels in America: Perestroika" and both won the Tony Award for the Best Plays of 1993 and 1994 respectively. "Angels in America: Millennium Approaches" opened at the Walter Kerr Theatre on May 4, 1993 and ran for 367 performances. "Angels in America: Perestroika," opened at the Walter Kerr Theatre on November 23, 1993 and ran for 217 performances. Both plays were written by by Tony Kushner who also wrote the scripts for the miniseries. Jeffrey Wright won the 1994 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play for "Angels in America: Perestroika" and recreated his roles in this TV production.
In a 2008 interview, Tony Kushner said that the idea to entwine Mormonism into the plot of "Angels in America" started when he saw some young, ignored Mormon missionaries near his home in Brooklyn: "There were these Mormon missionaries that I used to see at my subway stop, in Carroll Gardens, around 1983. One of them was, I thought, kind of hot. They were always there in the morning, in front of a bunch of people who could have cared less about the Book of Mormon. And I was kind of touched by that."
The opening credit sequence features an "angel's-eye view" of the continental United States; the camera moves though the clouds from the west coast to the east showing prominent landmarks in a number of major U.S. cities. These include: the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California; the Salt Lake (LDS) Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah; the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri; the Sears Tower (now known as the Willis Tower) in Chicago, Illinois; and finally the skyline of New York City, ending at the Angel of the Waters sculpture on top of the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
At the end of the film, when Prior talks about the Bethesda Fountain, he points across the Central Park Lake and mentions some trees that turn yellow in autumn. Those trees are part of a section of the park called "The Ramble," which is the setting for Louis' aborted sexual encounter with a stranger (also played by Justin Kirk) earlier in the film. The Ramble is also where Joe goes to watch other men before he knows Louis, and it is included in the list of popular 1970s and early '80s-era New York City-area locations for public gay sex that Louis recounts to Joe while they are walking on the beach.
When Prior asks Hannah for advice on how to reject his calling to prophecy, she tells him that he should wrestle the angel and tell her, "l will not let thee go except thou bless me." Hannah is referring to Genesis 32:25-33, the story from the Torah in which an angel wrestled Jacob, who likewise refused to release the angel until he got a blessing from him. This is the same bible story to which Joe refers earlier in the film when he tells Harper about the picture of a beautiful man that he often looked at as a child, and about which he still dreams.